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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 1, 2005

Making Iowa a leader in school leadership

by Kevin Brown

As a former school administrator, faculty member Thomas Alsbury knows first hand that school mergers and reform efforts can have positive results but often are the source of anxiety -- in Iowa and across the nation.

Thomas Alsbury

Thomas Alsbury Photo by Grant Steinfeldt.

When he arrived at Iowa State three summers ago, the assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies set about studying school consolidations and mergers. His first study showed that merged districts improved and expanded educational opportunities and experiences for students.

"School consolidation is an issue facing Iowans, and people need to know that those experiences are not all negative," Alsbury said.

The study focused on nine merged school districts in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Maine and Oregon from 1994 to 2003.

The study also showed that the mergers:

  • Increased diversity (both socio-economic and ethnic).
  • Bolstered teaching and equipment budgets.
  • Expanded programs that target special needs children, and talented and gifted students.
  • Expanded student support services, such as counseling programs and teacher aids.

On the down side, the school district mergers sapped vitality out of towns left with no school building.

Alsbury was not surprised at the results of his research. He was a biology, chemistry and physical science teacher at the high school level before entering administration. He served 10 years as a K-12 principal in Naselle, Wash., and three years as a high school principal in Pullman, Wash. As an administrator, he led several districts through school reform efforts that boosted student achievement and provided new opportunities for school-community interaction.

His latest research is a study of all 50 states that will provide the first national database on school district consolidations. Alsbury initially will use the information to study how school consolidations affect student achievement.

Training leaders

Alsbury also has helped the State of Iowa develop a mentoring program that matches experienced school administrators with new professionals to help build efficiency, communication and team-building skills. In May, he received a $111,000 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust to continue the Iowa Mentoring and Induction Program for a second academic year (2005-06).

Prior to becoming involved in the program, Alsbury attended meetings at Area Education Agencies (AEA) and professional organizations in the state to meet Iowa's education leaders and hear what issues top their priority lists.

"The first result of those meetings was my involvement with the mentoring program," Alsbury said. "All the school districts and Iowa's AEAs piloted the first year of that project."

Alsbury's next project is "The Iowa School Leadership System." A first for Iowa, Alsbury said the system will integrate existing efforts to train teachers, coordinate teacher and administrator licensure programs offered through the state's colleges and universities, promote mentoring and individual coaching, and examine student achievement issues.

"We looked at what Iowans need. Before the creation of this system, administrators had to select from a variety of offerings to find necessary training," he said. "That training wasn't coordinated with any other program. This system will align all of those programs to provide opportunities from pre-licensure to retirement for Iowa school leaders.

"This aligning of core training is unprecedented, anywhere," he added. "The system has the potential to increase the quality of Iowa's educational administrators and make the state's educational system more productive."

Alsbury currently is applying for a grant to fund the first round of training for the Iowa School Leadership System in summer 2006.

The plan is for a two-year program with a training series at regional sites, supplemented by one or two central group meetings, he said. So far, the program design team has two committees of administrators from across Iowa helping implement the project.

The intent is to develop a model that can be shared nationally.


"School consolidation is an issue facing Iowans, and people need to know that those experiences are not all negative."

Thomas Alsbury