Posted by Christine Schaefer
Pewaukee School District Superintendent JoAnn Sternke likened her small organization’s persistence on its journey to excellence to that of the small engine in The Little Engine That Could, as she spoke during the 26th Annual Quest for Excellence Conference®.
The beloved children’s book, she noted, highlights the “tenacity and persistence” of the little engine that helps the train that breaks down: “That’s us … we’re a … small little school district. I hope our story inspires all of the small organizations, in this room and not in this room, because if you think you can, and you employ the principles of Baldrige with that same level of perseverance, you really can achieve great things.”
“We did it with a can-do attitude and a love of our mission,” Sternke said of her district’s journey to reach the level of excellence that enabled it to earn the 2013 Baldrige Award. She recounted how Pewaukee’s journey to excellence began in 2007, a year after she was first handed a Criteria for Performance Excellence booklet from a member of her district’s board of education.
- Pewaukee School District Superintendent JoAnn Sternke, speaking at the Baldrige Award ceremony on April 6, 2014. Photo by Eddie Arrossi.
Sternke said she made a commitment to writing a Baldrige application within a year and to ensuring that the district’s leadership team would be trained as Baldrige examiners. In 2007, the district submitted its first award application to the Wisconsin Center for Performance Excellence (an Alliance for Performance Excellence member and state partner of the national Baldrige Performance Excellence Program). The Wisconsin program provided “wonderful feedback,” said Sternke, and the district used the feedback report to work on improving its processes and results.
“I loved the Criteria right from the start,” said Sternke, citing how “it could be used in any sector.” She added, “I think that education is sometimes too myopic looking inside to fix problems as opposed to looking outside.”
“I also love that the Criteria would work for everyone in our organization,” she said. “Whether you are our director of buildings and grounds or you are our middle school principal, you can talk the same language of improvement at the table using the Criteria.”
She said the Organizational Profile of the Criteria proved valuable in the early stages of Pewaukee’s Baldrige journey because the prefatory self-assessment questions “offered an opportunity to get to know ourselves.”
Sternke named three areas of focus for the district today as it prepares students for the future: (1) student engagement in learning, (2) higher student achievement, and (3) student citizenship (which Sternke described as “making sure that we graduate good people”).
She also shared these five keys to improvement for the district’s leadership system:
1. People: Sternke described the aim as bringing on employees who are mission-driven and then engaging and training them to put the mission into action.
2. Plans: Sternke pointed out how the district has used strategic planning since 1992 but has gotten better at it over the years as it has used Baldrige feedback to improve its strategic planning process.
3. Results: Sternke noted how the district has gotten better at using data to make improvements and using measurement as a process.
4. Processes: The Pewaukee district uses Plan, Do, Study, Act as its improvement methodology. “Ultimately we learned we had to improve our processes to get better,” said Sternke.
5. Innovation: Sternke described the “paradoxical secret” that came as a surprise during Pewaukee’s Baldrige journey: “By using a systems approach which some people would find constraining, it ultimately allowed us to think more freely and come up with innovations in our delivery model, not only for transportation and facilities, but for the very instruction that we provide to students,” she said. “So it wasn’t just the best way to improve results; it actually got us better as a whole organization.” The district is now seen as an innovation center for its use of technology, she said.
She offered these answers to the question, Why Baldrige?
· “Because before we used [the Baldrige Criteria], we were hard-working, but now we’re more effective and efficient.”
· “Because [Baldrige] allowed us to leverage our strength in planning and get better to reach new heights of achievement.”
· “Because [Baldrige] allows us to make sure that we are using results to drive improvement.”
· “Because by using a systematic approach, we became more innovative.”
Pewaukee School District is located in southeastern Wisconsin 20 miles west of Milwaukee. During Sternke’s tenure as superintendent since 2001, she has overseen several program improvements to increase student achievement. These include a nationally recognized initiative that provides laptop computers for every student in grades 5 through 12, a four-year-old kindergarten program, foreign language instruction in elementary grades, advanced course offerings for high school students with Northwestern University, and increased graduation requirements for high school students.
Noteworthy results that the district has improved in recent years include a high school graduation rate of over 97%, one of the highest in the state of Wisconsin; and an increase in the proportion of high school graduates who go on to college, to over 90% today.