Muskego — Whether it's running a marathon or straining to pull himself up a rope to the summit of a rocky mount, Joe Schroeder lives for a challenge.
"With proper training you can break out of your comfort zone," he said. "And if you are a leader, you need to challenge things because much more can be accomplished than you think."
Right now, Schroeder is in the middle of meeting a challenge that the people of Muskego and Norway threw out to him when Schroeder was picked for the job of school superintendent three years ago.
Because of his unique approach to meeting that challenge and because of the progress that has already been made, Schroeder's peers in the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators honored him as superintendent of the year.
But the honor is a team award, not a personal one, Schroeder insists.
"It reflects a lot of work by others," he said. "I worked with a host of thoughtful people who were working for the betterment of the schools."
Climbing atop local issues
Through various ways - including a survey, forums and Schroeder's visits to schools - the public's message to him was clear, he said. People wanted the Muskego-Norway School District to be the district of choice in the region.
The approach Schroeder took involved using what is known as the Baldridge principles, developed over decades to help America be internationally competitive.
"They are the only ones I'm aware of that are based on results and not theory," Schroeder said.
The key is to figure out where you want to go, how you are going to get there and careful monitoring of progress, he said.
"It's what the very best do," he said, "And it's a very humbling work…It shows you lots of things that you are not doing that well."
In the school district's case, the key has been keeping the focus on all children learning, he said, "and not let the challenges of the job cloud that original intent."
To monitor progress, the district developed scorecards and other monitoring devices that are so novel that Schroeder and other top district officials have been invited to share them with educators statewide next month at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards convention.
The school improvement plan also won for the district a Wisconsin Forward award this year. Muskego-Norway is only the third K-12 district so honored in the 13-year history of the state program.
Having a strategy is one thing, but results are another.
In naming Schroeder for the award, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators noted that successes have indeed come from the district's commitment to continuous improvement and whole student development.
The association noted that recent trend data shows these commitments have resulted in highest-ever ACT college entrance examination performance alongside highest-ever ACT participation; a graduation rate of nearly 98 percent; Muskego High School's inclusion for the first time as one of America's Best High Schools 2010 by Newsweek magazine; state championships last year in boys' soccer, girls' volleyball, Odyssey of the Mind and a middle school math competition; and both instrumental and vocal programs being selected as premier performers at the state music educators' convention.
In addition, one school showed dramatic improvement in math over two years, the association noted. The percentage of students proficient or advanced in math in statewide testing increased by 11 points to 99 percent. Special education student math achievement rose repeatedly, putting the district into the 80th percentile.
Valid honor for 'great' work
Muskego-Norway School Board President Jim Schaefer said of the award, "It's a very good validation of the good things he has done and we're doing in our district."
Everyone has a stake in the strategic plan and they work that plan every day, he said.
"It's that type of laser-beam focus that has gotten Joe this award," Schaefer said.
But it is also more than that, he acknowledged. Schaefer said Schroeder believes that if a good organization is not working to become a great organization it is already in the process of slipping back.
And, for Schroeder, going from good to great applies to all students.
Knowing how to help
Not leaving any child behind is at his core, Schroeder said, and it stems from an experience in his own life.
When he was an eighth-grader, both his parents died within weeks of each other.
"I would never conceptualize that I was at risk, but I was," Schroeder said. "But I was surrounded by adults who really helped me through by helping me see good in myself and showing me how to work through the challenges of life.
"That helped me focus on every student. If adults are focused on every kid it can make things happen even in the most trying of circumstances," Schroeder said.
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