“Little Engine that Could” Win Prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award
The Pewaukee School District in Wisconsin, a small and innovative public school system and self-described “little engine that could” is one of three organizations selected for the 2013 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The prestigious award honors performance excellence in education, healthcare and business performance excellence, as the Baldrige program aims to improve three essential pillars of American society – competitiveness, prosperity and well-being of our population.
The tiny school system has only one high school and middle school and two elementary schools, just 2,791students in all, but winning the nation’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence and visionary leadership was no small feat. The Pewaukee School District, or PSD, was chosen from a pool of applicants for being a leader in “innovative practices, dynamic management, sound financial performance, outstanding employee and customer satisfaction, and a solid commitment to excellence and proven results,” according to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
In other words, they earned it.
Dr. JoAnn Sternke, the superintendent of schools since 2001, said winning the prize was the result of the collective efforts of the district’s 314 staff members, from teachers and administrators to custodians and cafeteria cooks. They made the growth and well-being of students “the primary focus of every department’s and school’s effort to continually improve,” she said.
Superintendent Sternke said the district could not have achieved so many accomplishments without the Baldrige program. The PSD began using the Baldrige quality improvement model in 2007. The Malcolm Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence is comprised of eleven “core values/best practices” and provides a framework for school improvement planning and helps organizations assess how well they are doing.
The Baldrige approach encourages organizations, corporations and government entities to delve into an extensive library of best operational practices and apply them. As each organization improves its macro indicators, becomes more productive, and increases its efficiency, their students, workers and community are impacted. With this scenario repeating itself around the country, Baldrige effectively changes the nation, one organization, one community, one municipality, one state at a time.
“Leveraging the Baldrige criteria helped us look at improving all the processes in our organization and streamlining spending,” she said. “Then we could funnel more money into teaching and learning.”
Because it’s a small school district with a small central office, “We had to be very good and strategic about setting achievement goals,’’ Sternke explained. “We’re a small organization that has become very focused on using the Baldrige criteria to help us improve. We’re the little engine that could.”
The goals were set across every department and designed to produce results-driven performance from every staff member and school. Administrators established more collaboration, designated staff leaders in improvement plans, and instituted data-driven decision making in every area from school transition programs to curriculum revisions. Student needs were considered not only academically, but holistically to support learning and growth.
The results were tangible. PSD now has one of the highest graduation rates in the state, not to mention one of the toughest graduation requirements. The percentage of PSD students attending a two or four-year college increased from 78.8 percent in 2006-2007 to 91.9 percent in 2011-2012. (The county rate is 84 percent and the state rate is 74.1 percent.) PSD students’ 23.4 aggregate score on the ACT college readiness assessment test outperforms both the state (22) and national (20.9) averages. Economically disadvantaged students attending PSD schools performed better on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examinations than similar students in the county, state and nearby high-performing schools
Sternke insists these outcomes are “without a doubt,” the product of the Baldrige criteria.
“Now by all intense and purposes we’re one of the most innovative school districts in personalized learning and leveraging technology to improve student learning,” she said. “That was never our intent but in the process we have become leaders. This was my biggest and most wonderful surprise, we started off doing it to get better and we became different because of it.
“We are surrounded by very high achieving schools, we needed to keep up and now we’re looked at as a leader in how we deliver our service to kids,” she said. “And that to me a wonderful byproduct.”
The Baldrige standards the district followed brought changes big and small. For instance, three years ago an assessment noted that the district was without a succession plan for key administrators. “So we created one,” Sternke said. That plan has been used twice when critical administrators left and the district hired people that had been identified as good replacements to do the job.
Such benchmarks “are more important for us in the non-profit community to utilize because we’re not here to make a profit but to use our community’s and our taxpayers’ dollars wisely, and to make wise and diligent use of these resources,” Sternke said. “The Baldrige criteria have been terrific at giving us the tools to communicate that to the public. It’s not a business model but it’s like a good business model for continuous improvement. And the community in turn has been supportive with our referendum items.”
The public has clearly been paying attention to the improvements – and the award.
“We’ve gotten hundreds of emails from parents and citizens,” Sternke says. “They recognize that this is great validation that this journey is reaping benefits and they trust that were delivering a high quality education.”
Indeed, in 15 years of community surveying in the past very few people graded the district’s performance as an “A” or “B”. The reviews have since “soared”, Sternke said, and more community members than ever are volunteering to help out. This year, residents logged more than 26,000 hours of volunteer time at the district’s schools; last year volunteer hours totaled 12,000. Some 50 to 60 community members participated in the district’s strategic planning.
“They support our mission of opening the doors to each child’s future,” Sternke said.
What’s more open enrollment numbers are up dramatically among parents who don’t live in the district but want to send their children to the district’s schools. Home buying, oftentimes a measure of school quality, is up six percent.
“They believe our schools are delivering a quality education and that makes me incredibly proud of their support,” said Sternke.
Now that the PSD has won the prestigious award, Sternke says the district has no plans to sit back and rest on its laurels. There’s no time for basking in brilliance when there’s still more work to do.
“It won’t change our commitment to improvement and excellence,” Sternke said. “One of the things I love is that we get wonderful feedback reports that identify things were doing well in seven areas and things that need improvement. It’s better than the accreditation tool; it’s more actionable, more detailed. We’re very transparent about where they said we can improve.”
Sternke said although the district has become good at planning and using positive results to set goals, “It’s not enough to dream of a number and goal, but to really improve processes and putting good plans in place for improvement in the long haul and short haul.”
That’s what Baldrige helped accomplish.