Future schools leader Stiepleman commits to life of helping children

Sunday, March 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Peter Stiepleman, West Boulevard Elementary School principal, greets third-grader Keajaneé Cribbs before school on March 10. Stiepleman stands outside the school and greets students by name as they enter.

COLUMBIA — The way Peter Stiepleman tells it, he was an insurance agent in Oakland, Calif., when one day he attended a "Drop Everything and Read Day" at a local school. The children were supposed to be singing "Take the 'A' Train," but the teacher accompanying them on the piano was going too fast for them to keep up.

It struck him then that children overall need help, and back at his cubicle at the insurance agency, he realized he could offer it.

"This is not where I want to be," he recalled thinking. Stiepleman went into teaching in Oakland and later moved to Columbia after his wife, Elizabeth Chang, got a job at MU. For the past four years, he has been assistant principal and then principal of West Boulevard Elementary School.

Starting July 1, Stiepleman will be the assistant superintendent for elementary education for Columbia Public Schools, providing a link between elementary schools and Superintendent Chris Belcher. He succeeds Jack Jensen, who is retiring after more than 30 years with the district.

In his office at West Boulevard, Stiepleman pointed out a poster of Anne Frank and said it was his favorite thing in the room. He hears the words from her diary in his head: “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."

“This is the first place I’ve ever worked that I feel like I could carry them out,” he said.

Superintendent Chris Belcher said he will miss Jensen terribly but is looking forward to having Stiepleman, by his side.

“He's going to have to have some experiences to mature into the job,” Belcher said. “He’s young, but that’s what I’m excited about.”

When Abbey Upton, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at West Boulevard, heard the news of Stiepleman's promotion, she found herself emotionally torn by shock, anger and excitement. Upton said she hates to see a pivotal figure leave the school; on the other hand, she is excited to see what Stiepleman can do for the district.

“He’s more concerned with what’s best for the whole,” Upton said. “It will be a very fun thing to watch.”

Six years ago, Stiepleman became a volunteer at West Boulevard, which would soon be his “dream school.” He was working on the data collection part of his dissertation and wanted to be involved in the schools but didn't have time to apply for a job. After two years, the school thought he would be a great addition to the "model school."

West Boulevard became a model school largely to improve low standardized test scores and student behavior. The school was provided with literary coaches and specialists who were able to spend more one-on-one time with students. Several teacher groups were also developed to increase collaboration among staff as well as "HomeHour," which allowed teachers to make two home visits per year.

The overall goal of the model school was to improve academic achievement for children from low-income homes and children with challenges such as learning disabilities. When the model school program began, there were 660 office referrals throughout the year. Last year, it was down to 270 referrals.

“It was a whole new vision, a whole new action plan,” Stiepleman said.  “We saw ourselves as enrichment brokers.”

Upton, who came in the second year of the model school, notices a huge change. Parent involvement is up and staff relationships are better, she said. “It think what’s really changed a lot is the calmness in the building,” she said.

This year, the school won MU's 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Award for its success in narrowing the academic achievement gap among students of different ethnicity, background and other circumstances.

Students come to the school from all over the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Myanmar and Mexico. “We’re a mosaic,” Stiepleman said. He has made communication with families a priority: visiting homes, sending information packets to parents to help prepare their children and forming long-term relationships.

Belcher said Stiepleman shows an exceptional understanding of diversity and was chosen largely because of that. In addition to his work experience in Oakland and at West Boulevard, Stiepleman worked at the U.S. Embassy in Spain and speaks Spanish. Being bilingual gave him an extra advantage as well, Belcher said.

At West Boulevard, parental involvement is emphasized. Stiepleman, who has three children, said that when he finds  himself at a table with a struggling student and parent, he takes both of their hands, making a bond of trust. He holds up their grasped hands, saying to both of them, “We can’t break this. We are one.”

Stiepleman looks forward to making a difference in the district as assistant superintendent.  

“The biggest mistake you can make is going in with an assumption of what you’re going to do,” he said. But he does have some ideas.

One idea is to have principal meetings look and feel like a Professional Learning Community, a group of administrators committed to students and learning. "(The current principals) represent a wealth of experiences, and we have a lot to learn from each other," he said.

Upton said Stiepleman is not afraid to make unpopular choices. “He will really challenge the way people have always thought how it should be done,” she said.

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