'I enjoy being out in front with others' : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|'I enjoy being out in front with others'|
|New Oswego school superintendent anticipates challenges|
|by Lyle R. Rolfe|
The Oswego School District's new superintendent attended his first school board meeting this past week, but only as a spectator.
Prior to the meeting, Dr. Matthew Wendt, 44, was greeted by several district teachers and staff members along with school district residents during a reception held in his honor in the Oswego East High School commons.
Wendt will officially become superintendent on July 1, the effective date of his employment contract. He will succeed Dr. Dan O'Donnell who notified the school board in February that he would resign when his contract with the district ends June 30.
For the past five years Wendt has worked as superintendent for the Ankeny Community School District located in Polk County, Iowa, six miles from Des Moines, the state capitol. His last day on the job in Iowa will be June 30 and he will begin work in Oswego July 1.
Wendt was one of five boys raised on a farm in Oswatomie, Kansas, about 45 minutes south of Kansas City.
Growing up hard work and church services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings were his top priorities, he recalled.
He said all chores were done before dinner, and he and his brothers helped each other to finish their work.
On Wednesdays after-school events were cut short to leave time for chores and dinner before church, Wendt said.
He has mixed feelings today, he said, about athletics and other activities cutting into family and church time.
His father was a public school teacher and coach for 30 years with the same district. His mother stayed at home to raise the boys. However, she still managed to teach piano and organ from home and still does so today, two days a week at age 74.
"But its mostly piano now and she has only about 40 students," he said.
Wendt and his brothers were among his mom's students as they grew up-along with the grandchildren as they came along.
Wendt also played saxophone in the high school jazz band. He admits to still tickling the ivories on the piano on occasion, but never touches the horn.
"Dad is retired and said he still does chores. But I'm not sure whether he's really doing chores or just having fun with toys that cost lots more money," Wendt said, referring to today's modern farm tractors with cabs, stereos, air conditioning and other labor saving devices.
Wendt said it was a large farm where they raised cattle, crops "and too many hogs."
"I learned values that I did not appreciate at the time, but that I respect and appreciate today," he said. "There was a lot of hard work and labor."
He noted that being a school superintendent "is a difficult job."
"There are some districts with more problems that we have here, but they are all challenging," he said.
Wendt said he no longer has the calluses he "earned" working on the farm.
"I traded them for ulcers in the stomach," he said with a bit of a laugh.
He said he and his family had a good lifestyle on the farm and it was sheltered living.
Wendt said he has always worked in an area that was a short drive to farms like the one on which he was raised.
He graduated from high school in 1986 in a class that had fewer than 100 students. Since the district was small they had an opportunity to cross curriculum and experiment with many things.
Believes students need
variety of opportunities
Wendt said he believes students should be provided with a variety of things-like a buffet of academic and non-academic opportunities.
"I just don't believe we know at age 12, 15 or even 18 what we want to be when we grow up," he said.
His high school sports included basketball, track and cross-country. Wendt earned a college scholarship in track, but a back injury his senior year forced him to give up running at that time.
"I wasn't outstanding, but I was good and we learned about competing, and working together and collaborating as a team. I think those skills have carried forward," he said.
Dawn, his wife of 21 years, grew up on a farm about 20 minutes from his home. The couple met as college students attending Pittsburg University, a smaller school in Southeast Kansas. He was a sophomore and she was a freshman. They dated for four years before getting married, he said.
He graduated with a degree in English and began teaching English in a Kansas high school. His wife graduated with a degree in elementary education, but did substitute teaching for seven to eight years until their second child was in school. She then obtained a master's degree and has since taught high school gifted students.
Dawn also performed in her high school band as a trumpet player and was a long-distance runner on the track team, he said.
She has not yet decided whether she will return to teaching after they settle here.
The Wendts have two children, Rachel, who will be a senior in Oswego, and Ryan who will enter Arkansas University next fall as a freshman.
Unlike many professionals, Wendt has not taken up any hobbies and does not play golf. He said this goes back to the farm days when there was little or no time for entertainment.
But he has encouraged his kids to become more involved, and they did enjoy short family vacations, something his parents could not provide them because of the farm work.
Wendt said he does run an hour or so five days a week, although he admitted oftentimes it's a fast walk. He also enjoys watching high school and college athletics and, of course, the Kansas City Chiefs football team.
Wendt said he has already noticed district residents have a lot of pride in the district's past and in the hopes for the future of the school system. He has not detected any negativity about the area's growth but noted concern about paying for it.
"It's obvious to me that they (district residents) want a strong school system and a vibrant community," he said, adding that is what attracted him to the area.
"The school system is a positive magnet for people to want to live here and part of my job will be to see that this continues," he said.
When asked about keeping costs down, something the three newest board members campaigned to do when elected in April 2011, Wendt said, "School is about the educator and the kids so we have to make certain the dollars are going where we want the results. The important question is not what it costs, but how will it improve academic achievement."
He said too often the public school system is compared to the business community.
"I think we have to balance that with the reality that we are a human being business. And the majority of the human beings do not have the voice that the adults possess," he said.
On planning, he said there should not be a question about future schools because there should be a 10-year plan that lays out where and when future schools will be needed and built. And like most plans these will be revised as situations change, he said.
Facility plans should be for 10 years and then comes curriculum plans, academic plans and, finance plans all of which will become part of a strategic plan, he said.
Wendt is an advocate of community involvement and said he will be calling on parents and residents to volunteer their time for various task forces in helping plan the district's future. The groups could address long-term financial plans, long-term facilities, long-term curriculum and the task forces should include board and staff members, he added.
The best plans he has seen were created by members of all these groups working together, he said.
"Whether you do or don't have children in the schools, you're a member of our school district family and this superintendent wants your voices working together on a task force to improve our system. This fall, one should anticipate having multiple opportunities to serve in multiple ways."
among first year tasks
Wendt said his first year will be spent gathering information while his professional staff runs the district.
His role will not be to micromanage and he does not want anyone micromanaging him.
"If the board has to micromanage me, I'm not the right person for this job," Wendt said.
He said he believes only the elected board members can do their job and only the superintendent can do his job.
Before Wendt was hired the school board members did the final interviews and chose Paul O'Malley as the district's new finance and business administrator. When asked about this, Wendt said it was an emergency situation, which is why only board members did the interviews.
In the future, when interviewing applicants for administrative positions, Wendt said he may have a combination of people assist with interviews which could include one or two board members, other staff members and residents.
Wendt thinks having student ambassadors in the high schools is a good idea because it gives them a sense of ownership in the school. The ambassadors, usually top students, are called on to lead school tours and welcome visitors.
But when asked about having a student as a non-voting member of the school board he questioned whether this might be an intrusion on the board's work. He prefers to protect the time of the school board members to the point of having reports and updates presented outside of the board meetings.
Wendt said he prefers to have a superintendent's advisory committee of high school students meet with him on a monthly basis. This could include one or two board members and one or two assistant superintendents.
"We could meet at lunchtime with pizza and have the students tell us what's on their minds, what's working and not working and how can we improve their school experience," he said.
He has done this in past districts and knows it works.
In fact, he had school board members meet over lunch in Ankeny with the top five percent of students the graduating class for two hours.
"If you really want to know the truth, ask a teenager," he said. "These seniors told the board what they thought was working and not working and how they thought the system could be improved. And one of the best comments we heard that day was these students encouraging the board to meet with students who were not in the top five percent but who were having difficulty in school.
"The board took it seriously and although I am leaving the district, I am confident that is going to happen," he said.
Wendt said an interesting side note was that his son was in the top five percent group telling him how the system could be improved.
"I'm just happy he didn't suggest we replace the superintendent," he said with a laugh.
Wendt knows there are some students whose plans do not include college, so his goal is to have graduates who are college ready and career ready. He wants those who seek a career outside the university to be just as well prepared for their future and its challenges as those seeking a college degree.
For the past five years he has been attending every Ankeny PTA and PTO meeting on a rotation basis throughout the district and found them quite beneficial. He plans to set up "Q&A Meetings With The Superintendent" here with the officer of every PTA, and to include parents if they want to attend.
He plans to work with the other taxing bodies and agencies within the district as he has done in past districts.
One such project was to share costs for a parking lot to serve a new city aquatic center and a new elementary school.
"We saved the district about $1 million. Anytime you can stretch the tax dollar, that's the thing to do," he said.
He is also a supporter of finding private funds for joint school district projects.
"I believe tax dollars should be geared toward the necessities of the district. And where there are wants we should ask how badly we want it, then put a plan together to raise money for it privately," he said. One such project was to raise private funds for artificial turf on a high school football field, (The West Aurora School District did this last year).
In Ankeny a committee composed of the mayor, city administrator, two city council members, himself and a couple school board members meet often to discuss ways of doing things together to save money and benefit both agencies.
Wendt considers himself a leader, not a manager.
"There's a difference. Leaders chart the course and create a vision while inspiring others," he said.
"I enjoy being out in front with others, charting the course so that we can discuss 2013, 2014, and 2015 and talk less about what happened last week and what will happen next week. We have a highly competent staff to insure that what we have planned will be implemented," he added.
He knows he'll have to pay attention to both as of July 1 when he officially starts work because he will have a new associate superintendent for administration, assistant superintendent for business and finance, a new superintendent for teaching and learning and two new principals joining the team who will need to be acclimated to the system and district.
"People should not expect significant change upfront," Wendt said.
"Although I have every intention in staying here for a very long time, I know that at some point my career will end. My father always said, leave things better than you found them. I hope that at the conclusion of that career, I can look back and say that with the help of many other people the Oswego School District is better today than when I found it."