MUSCATINE — With more than 1,500 students and over a hundred teachers, Muscatine High School’s sheer size dwarfs the other buildings in the district. And the top of that ladder is in transition.
On the night of Thursday, April 15, Jared Smith posted an article by Tama-Toledo News announcing that he was hired to be superintendent for the South Tama School District. Terry Hogenson, principal of Central Middle School, will replace Smith next year. This transition is one of many happening across the district.
Smith said that last year, when he first joined the high school, the transition took some adjusting to.
“Anytime somebody comes in, there is an adjustment to leadership. I think there was some adjustment last year. We did things this way, and now we are going to do them different. I really feel like this way we got into a groove going into this years,” Smith said. “Part of it was being intentional about some of those conversations.”
Smith was at the helm of the high school for two years. He said leaving felt “bittersweet.” He said he wants the transition for Hogenson to be smooth.
“I feel like everybody is doing a great job helping the next person in line prepare for the transition,” Smith said. “I worked with Terry and (he) is working with Corry (Spies, the next CMS principal).”
For Smith, the way to avoid conflict during the transition is through proactivity.
“You don't want there to be friction for the next person coming in,” Smith said. “You want it to be as smooth as possible by doing some things proactively.”
Hogenson and Smith both said that a series of meetings were coming where Hogenson would have a chance to hear from the high school’s instruction coaches, assistant principals, building leadership team, and the whole teaching staff.
“I want to be open minded. I don't want to come in pre-selected and say, 'This is my thing and I'm going to do it,'” Hogenson said. “I think my leadership style is incorporating voice across all different spectrums so that people have an understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. That will be my foundation.”
Hogenson said that he was not coming in with programs or approaches that he wanted altering, rather his approach at this point will be to learn what he can from people at the school who have been their longer.
“Where specifically are we in a number of areas? I want to feel out the situation and what is sustainable,” Hogenson said. “What is successful? Which things need enhancement? And that will be a reflection of (Superintendent Jerry Riibe's) and my incorporation of that into a kind of delivery model for the High School.”
Hogenson said his was not to wipe the slate blank but to build off the work already there.
“I'm not starting with the philosophy that there are things that are wrong; I'm coming in this with the knowledge that a lot of this is right,” Hogenson said. “I want to do whatever I can to help it excel at that level.”
What works at MHS?
Even with only two years as principal, Smith said that he was happy with the direction he was seeing the school go in. Under his leadership, he said he has focused on building relationships with students and staff leadership as well as leaning in to “meaningful learning experiences.”
He references figures like the 83.3 percent 4-year graduation rate, which is up from 2012 by 1.83 percent, as a sign that the school district is moving in a positive direction.
“A real focus of ours is to have the kids raise their learning level but also be able to graduate in four years,” Smith said. “We are really happy that we are getting students that graduate at these high levels in four years.”
Smith said that as principal he focused on growing relationships with students as opposed to a more severe or punitive relationship. He said the principals he grew up with had a demeanor that “If you are dealing with them, then you must be in trouble.”
“It might work for some students, where they need somebody who really gets them to shape up, but I've found that for most students that doesn't work,” Smith said. “What I've seen from most students that works is a principal that takes time to build relationships, to get to know the students, to get to know the families.”
For Smith, building these relationships with students primes them for any hard conversation they may need to have.
“If you show interest in the students not only do they feel good about themselves, not only do they build confidence, you also have built a relationship where if something does come up, instead of rejecting redirection, they are more likely to accept it,” Smith said. “You can have a more meaningful conversation with them.”
He has also implemented a 45-minute quarterly one-on-one meeting with the school leadership team.
"I've found that is important and the response has been really good,” Smith said. “They have a chance to bend my ear and really let me know what is going on in their world, their department.”
Though he said it may seem like a small part of what his staff does, he said he has placed an emphasis on what he calls “meaningful learning experiences.” These range from Mock trial and Poetry Club to Grad Night and College Decision Day.
“It’s just a chance to really focus on the student and celebrate their successes, what they are doing,” Smith said. “I really feel like one of my goals has been to create what we call, 'meaningful learning experiences for students.' That's one of our mission statements for the building is to create learning experiences for students.
“I have appreciated my time here. I've definitely been blown away by the community support for the schools, the support for the organizations, the teams, the activities,” Smith said. “This town really likes their Muskies. And it's been fun to be a part of it. It absolutely has been.”
The not-so-new guy
Terry Hogenson will bring almost 30 years of teaching experience to Muscatine High. He spent seven years as a teacher in the Mason City Community School District. He was the principal for McKinley Elementary for seven years before coming to his current role. For the last 16 years Hogenson has been Central Middle School’s principal.
This year, Hogenson was named the 2018 Iowa Middle Level Principal of the Year by the School Administrators of Iowa.
"I am an old guy,” Hogenson said with a chuckle. “Being in the community as long as I have, I feel like I am truly a Muscatine person. Knowing that, I kind of know and feel the pulse of the community. Having been at the middle level, I've had exposure to all different aspects of our student body and what they're going through.”
According to Hogenson, this new position is one he hopes will be another long haul.
“I'm a known commodity. I don't have any hidden agenda. Muscatine is where I plan on (and) hope to end my career in this leadership role,” Hogenson said. “What I can offer is an authentic approach. This is not a stepping stone to something else. This isn't a career move in the sense of this being leverage for something else. I'm truly going there to use my skills and abilities to enhance an already positive and great staff. Hopefully that will reach all ends of the spectrum. From the more senior to the new and everybody in between.”