Transforming Board Leadership

By Lawrence Hardy

Remember seventh grade and how the reputation you earned -- or were stuck with -- that year tended to stay with you in eighth grade and ninth grade and beyond? The same thing can happen with school districts: They get a reputation, deserved or not, and that reputation sticks with them -- that is, until something big happens to change it.

Several years ago, Stephen Morris ran for school board in Sandoval CUSD 501 in large part to change the reputation of this small, rural district in southern Illinois. Sandoval, says Morris, the current board president, was where “troublemakers” tended to land when they couldn’t make it in other systems. It was where poverty was high and expectations for and among students low; where the idea of a good future after high school was getting a job in the zinc smelter or the coal mines -- even though the smelter shut down years ago and the mines had been closed for decades.

Today, Sandoval is still small (530 students), rural, and high-poverty, with more than 80 percent of its elementary school students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch. What’s changed -- and changed in a big way -- is its commitment to providing all of its students with an education for the 21st century.

None of this could have happened without a dedicated district staff and a determined school board that has coalesced around a single goal.

“There are certainly some diverse opinions around the table, and some diverse backgrounds around the table,” says Angie Peifer, who recently retired as an associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) and has worked extensively with Sandoval. “But one of the things that unites them is [the belief that] ‘we’ve got to do more for these kids.’”

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