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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Q&A: West Des Moines Community School District

Information on an Iowa school district that puts an emphasis on community education.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
Credit: Edutopia

How It Works:

What is the West Des Moines School District?

The West Des Moines Community School District, serving over 8,800 students, is the ninth largest district in Iowa. It has fifteen schools that serve a mostly suburban area of about 37 square miles located to the west of the state’s capital. The professional staff is well educated, with over 40 percent having earned a master’s degree or higher.

The district is guided by five principles: continuous improvement, personalized learning, optimum use of human resources, integration, and diversity. The West Des Moines schools have tended to score very well on national tests. For example, school norms (average scores representing schoolwide performance) on the 1997 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (covering reading, math, language arts, and the use of maps, graphs, and reference materials) for grades 3-7 were at or above the 90th percentile in comparison to scores nationally. The district has a longstanding commitment to education and supporting its schools. With its Community Education efforts, this commitment involves opening up education for all of its citizens, not just the young ones.

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What is Community Education?

In West Des Moines, Iowa, Community Education is a citizen-driven process whereby the schools function as resources to be used day and night for a large variety of purposes beyond educating children during the regular school day.

All of the school buildings in West Des Moines are available to the community in the morning before the regular school day starts, after school, and well into the night. They are used for many different purposes, including adult education courses, Internet access, community events, meetings, daycare for children, summer camps, and recreational activities.

A citizens' advisory council and a Community Education staff assess community needs and oversee the process of using the available resources to meet those needs. But Community Education in West Des Moines is not simply the responsibility of one group or department. In the words of Linda Sanda, Director of Community Education: "This is big. It is part of the culture of our district. It is part of the way we think and the way we operate."

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How did Community Education get started in West Des Moines?

Community Education may be a good idea, but that doesn't mean it will grow on its own. The experience of West Des Moines suggests that it takes advocates, opportunity, and ongoing commitment to make Community Education happen.

The opportunity came in the early 1970's when the high school needed major remodeling. The district was trying to raise a bond issue to fund the remodeling when the idea was introduced of doing more than simply improving a physical structure. A group of advocates -- including a central office administrator, a school board member, and other citizens -- pushed for adding Community Education funding to the bond. A citizens' advisory council was established and conducted an extensive survey of the community's interests and needs. In 1974, district voters approved a school bond that included an additional levy to be used for ongoing funding of Community Education. The West Des Moines Community School District formally designated Community Education as a district department.

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How is Community Education organized?

There are two main entities that work together to oversee Community Education in the district: a citizens' group called the Community Education Advisory Council, and an administrative staff (the Community Education office) directed by Linda Sanda.

The council has thirty-five people on it. Every school neighborhood (fifteen total) is represented, typically by someone from the school's PTA. In addition, there is an administrator, a representative from the operations department, and representatives from numerous other groups, including senior citizens, the chamber of commerce, local service groups, students, police, parks and recreation, and the YMCA.

The Council and staff manage the money designated for Community Education and coordinate how the community's needs are met. While some districts contract out for Community Education services, West Des Moines handles much of the work in-house.

"In our particular Community Education model," Linda Sanda explains, "we have a large staff. . . . It takes four people just to schedule the buildings. So, we have nine departments here, and then we have another sixty childcare providers in the field, another thirty building supervisors for when people use the buildings, and then we contract our adult continuing ed teachers and our summer school teachers, and that's about another 300-400 people."

Another function of Community Education is to convene community groups into a Network of Community Services to make sure they communicate, coordinate with each other, and take advantage of the school resources. The network includes a mailing list of about sixty groups. They meet together about six times per year, share resources, and collaborate on projects.

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How is Community Education funded in West Des Moines?

Funding comes primarily from a property tax -- a levy of 13-1/2 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value -- that was passed by citizen vote in 1974, and remains in place unless repealed by another vote. This tax generates about $330,000 per year and pays for Community Education projects as well as basic infrastructure, including salaries and supplies.

Additional funding comes from fees. Anyone using a building after 6 P.M. pays a personnel fee for someone to be there to unlock and lock doors, secure the building, and help people get where they need. Most of the people who use the buildings do not have to pay additional facility fees. Any city agency or children's group, for example, pays no rent to use the school buildings. But private groups of adults must pay a small hourly fee along with the personnel fee. Several colleges, for example, pay to use the school buildings for night classes. The fees are set based on a process that includes input from citizens, the Community Education and district staff, and groups that use the buildings.

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How are the necessary partnerships built?

Partnership-building is one of the major ongoing tasks of making Community Education work in West Des Moines. Classroom teachers need to understand the value of having other people use their rooms at night. Custodians need to have a voice in decision-making. Community groups that compete for clientele and funding sources need to cooperate. According to Linda Sanda, "the real infrastructure of this whole operation is the building of relationships. ... The biggest challenge is creating "WE,' erasing the "them,' building those relationships, building the bridges of understanding, sharing information, and taking care of concerns."

To move toward that "we" requires extensive communication on many levels. Community Education staff members do a lot to keep communication lines open, staying in touch with the groups that use the school buildings, meeting one-on-one with teachers who may have concerns, attending custodian meetings, calling administrators, and so on. "It is very labor intensive -- the communication -- to let everybody know what's going to be used every day of the week," explains Linda Sanda, "so that the custodians can clean, so that we can zone the heating, so that the principals won't have a meeting in a room where there is going to be something else."

But the effort serves a purpose: "There has got to be a commitment to helping people understand why we are doing this and what it all means in the long run -- that schools belong to the community and we not only owe it to the community, it makes sense to allow all of the taxpayers to enjoy their investment in the schools."

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What factors contribute to Community Education’s success in West Des Moines?

Community Education in West Des Moines has stable funding, a committed staff, and the ongoing involvement of citizens.

One of the ways that the effort stays current is by doing a needs assessment periodically. Initially the Advisory Council did an assessment every year; now it is done every 3-5 years. Different approaches have been used for gathering information, including hiring an outside agency (minimal work for the Advisory Council, but costs money), sending out a survey to every community member (lots of work), and running focus groups that represent different demographics. And of course, many agencies are represented directly on the Community Education Advisory Council, the department staff, or through the ongoing communications that these groups have with different members of the community.

Because Community Education has such a long history in West Des Moines, it has become a part of the culture of the district. This culture even affects how buildings are constructed. As Linda Sanda explains, "All the rooms that are likely to be used by the community are on one wing, and the building is keyed in such a way that the rest of the building will be safe -- we are able to close off the more private office spaces and things like that. Especially as we design our newer buildings, we have community representation so that we can make sure that the building is going to be functional."

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What do community members see as the benefits of Community Education?

Having taken several computer classes through the West Des Moines Community Learning Center, senior citizen Betty Winston now uses computers for a range of tasks, from using e-mail to correspond with family members in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, and Connecticut, to tracking financial records and address lists. She credits the Community Learning Center with helping to launch her into the Information Age and with providing critical resources for the entire community. "I could go on and on about all the important services provided," she says. "I can't imagine living where there wasn't a community learning center."

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