Academic Field of Dreams

by Ian Egan

By Dr. Berger

Dr. Daniel Cox is in his 4th year as Superintendent of Iowa’s Charles City Community School District and represents the new approach to school leadership. The old school method of being a peripheral administrator predominantly concerned with keeping the district budget in the black no longer works. The modern superintendent is hands-on and expected to be involved in instruction, curriculum, technology advancement and inter-district partnering.

Iowa’s Charles City Community School District was recently awarded a twenty-five thousand dollar STEM grant from the state and Cox realizes that it represents a starting point to launch more science technology-based programming. It takes more than the initial grant money to fund district improvements and Cox is aware of the importance of creating strong bonds between corporate and other private interests to further funding.

Slow change is sometimes the best approach to convince a district community to accept new ideas. Cox learned from the failed attempts of earlier educators who rushed classroom changes and found the community resenting the decision. Cox has used a slow roll-out of standards-based grading and has seen the community positively embrace the change.

Student empowerment and project-based learning are additional goals set forth by the Charles City Community School District and Dr. Daniel Cox is proud to be chosen to help clear the way.


Dr. Berger: I think it’s really interesting that the role of the superintendent continues to evolve in that some of the skills that might have been required even five or ten years ago seem to be changing in the same ways that we’re looking at our students and our teachers.

How you have seen that evolution? And what is required for your own personal development to serve your community in that same ever-growing fashion?

Dr. Daniel Cox: I’m in my fourth year as superintendent so the changes that have occurred have been in the new mode compared to what they used to be.

It used to be that superintendents ─ as I have watched them as a student and even as a teacher ─ mostly were managing to make sure that the district stayed in the black. They really had no role in instruction and just kept the ship going in the right direction.

Now that’s not the case. Superintendents really are playing a more key role in making sure that instruction is meeting the needs of students and that you’re continuing to evolve, incorporating technology as appropriate, making sure that your district remains viable and competitive in the larger-choice market that now exists. It’s a multi-faceted position. But I really love it.

DB: We’re looking at budgets differently. We’re looking at alternative resources and ways in which to engage the private sector. In your estimation, even in the four years you’ve done it, and even before that, are you seeing a change that we can have productive conversations with corporate America and the private sector to bring in alternative sources of funding to support our schools and our community in ways that didn’t happen when you and I were growing up because we had too much of a division of church and state, if you will, between public and private?

DC: Right.

DB: Are you seeing that? And how do you engage in the local community in progressive discussions?

DC: We were awarded a STEM grant from the State of Iowa a year ago ─ $25,000-dollars which isn’t a lot. But it’s $25,000 dollars more that helped us further implement some STEM programming. That was just the biggest of a series of smaller awards that we’ve gotten.

So we have had to start looking at other ways to bring in finance and resources to the district. The money from the state continues to shrink each year so it is more important than ever now to be seeking out corporate partners and external funding sources.

DB: To that point, I would imagine that your level of discernment in purchasing ─ if we talk about technology ─ has to be that much more informed. These blanket decisions can’t be made anymore because, now, there are technologies that can be personalized to K-8 through the high school level.

How have you ─ as a team ─ looked at that so that you’re on top of what’s available and that you can actually look at it and say, “Okay, this is a good decision” or “Let’s go in a different direction”?

DC: Five years ago, our district was one of the early adopters of the one-to-one initiative in Iowa just at the high school level, and they bought MacBook Pros.

When we looked at renewing last spring, the price between that and a Chromebook was just night and day ─ five Chromebooks to one MacBook. So we had to look at what the best use of our resources is and how we can continue to offer this to our students. But, then, we can’t just have it be at the high school because our middle school students have needs.

We were able to go grades 3-12 with the one-to-one device, and we’re almost one-to-one in grades K-2 with iPads for really the same cost as they had just done five years ago with the high school only. It’s really being smart about money and options and staying on top of what the latest developments are and the costs.

DB: One of the big points of conversation I’m finding is around the ownership of learning on the students’ side ─ that we’re really seeing them go from consumer to creator in so many different ways.

And then, the question is: How do we document that and communicate that out?

Some folks say that even from the grading perspective, the way we report achievement is changing. How does that get communicated to parents so that we build engagement and we can look and see whether our students are learning or can we make adjustments?

How do you look at that feedback loop and how can you better support the teacher, the student, and the family?

DC: Before I came, a teacher jumped in the standards-based grading with little information to parents or to students as to what that meant, and it didn’t go well. And then, it became “That must be a bad thing” even though, at the elementary level, we were already doing it successfully.


Our high school principal started slower with a core group of seven to eight teachers and methodically mapped out how we were going to bring this to our secondary campus. We got teachers to do just a little bit here and there to involve parents and to involve students, showing them ─ “here’s what standards-based grading is; here’s what it isn’t; here’s how it really reflects what students are learning. Not just ‘I got a B in math’ but, rather, ‘here’s what I’m proficient in when it comes to standards.’”

That STEM grant that I referenced at the high school is a partnership with three of our neighboring school districts. It’s to create an opportunity for our high school kids to really own and be empowered in their learning where they learn core content but it’s through passion-based, project-based learning experiences.

It’s an outgrowth of a program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and it has really flipped the conversation when it comes to who owns the learning. And kids totally drive this and they have to decide if they are taking this for an English credit or for a science credit, for example. Then, they know the power standards they have to meet; and through their work, they have to be able to demonstrate that they are proficient in those standards in order to gain the credit.

They know that going in, and because they’re in charge of it, it’s a successful program. That has just lifted off in the first year and we’re looking forward to many more years with that.

DB: I think the opportunity when we look at employment as a professional career in education is continuing to change. I think the stories are helping to do that where we see potentiality in so many different ways.

So when you were a college student, did you ever envision that you would be in this seat now as a superintendent in charge of young people, in setting a path, then providing the leadership along the way?

DC: In the back of my head, I knew, at some point, that I’d like to be a superintendent one day but I never wanted to be a high school principal because I saw the work that they did and that just was not for me.

I probably would just be content to be in the classroom because I don’t want to go through that. And I ended up going through that experience as a middle-school principal as well, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

But as I went back to 1991 when I left college, what did I think my career would look like as to what it has turned out to be?

No. I don’t think any of us could have predicted the explosion of technology and just how much knowledge is doubling in such short periods of time and the opportunities that students and teachers have to be connected with one another not just in a geographic area but, truly, around the world.

DB: Continued success!

DC: Thank you

About Dr. Daniel Cox:

Dr. Daniel Cox is Superintendent of the Charles City School District, a position he’s held for the last four years. Cox was principal at Hoover Middle School and before that assistant principal at Waterloo East High School.

Cox, a native of Westgate, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Northern Iowa and a doctorate degree in education from Iowa State University.

Follow Dr. Daniel Cox on Twitter

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post by Dr. Berger

  1. Charles City Blog – Community Needs Assessment Survey, Improvements
  2. KCHA News – CC Superintendent Attending National Conference on Education
  3. KCHA News – Charles City Schools Update With Superintendent Dan Cox

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