As Columbia schools superintendent, Stiepleman to continue Belcher's goals

Friday, March 14, 2014 | 8:54 p.m. CDT; updated 12:00 a.m. CDT, Saturday, March 15, 2014
Peter Stiepleman speaks Tuesday at a public forum for the two candidates for Columbia Public Schools superintendent. The board met Wednesday to vote on the finalists. On Friday morning, Stiepleman was announced as the next superintendent.

COLUMBIA — Before Peter Stiepleman was named the new superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, he said, his fifth-grade son, Isaac, gave him some advice on interviewing for the job.

"He said I should make eye contact and not just ramble on," said Stiepleman, whose son participated in a mock interview at his school, Grant Elementary School. "My son said that he was interviewed as part of the session, and they offered him the 'job' on the spot. He said he hoped they did the same for me."

The district made the announcement shortly after 11:30 a.m. Friday that Stiepleman was selected by the Columbia School Board to succeed Chris Belcher, who has been the superintendent since 2009.

Belcher announced on Jan. 8 that he will retire on June 30. He has accepted a job in MU's College of Education.

The Columbia School Board met Thursday evening for about 4 1/2 hours to discuss and vote on finalists Stiepleman and Dred Scott, deputy superintendent of the Independence School District near Kansas City, board President Christine King said.

King voted for Stiepleman because he knows people in the community and the ins-and-outs of the district, she said. At the end of the meeting, the vote was 5-2 in favor of Stiepleman, she said. She declined to say who dissented.

Stiepleman said he looked forward to continuing goals Belcher initiated.

"I'm excited really about being able to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me," Stiepleman said at a 2 p.m. news conference Friday. "I wanted the job because I truly believe I can make a difference. I deeply care about the kids in this community."

Stiepleman, 38, has a master's degree and a doctorate in education from Mills College in Oakland, Calif. He got his start in education as a Spanish bilingual teacher in the Oakland Unified School District, according to the Columbia Public Schools website. He also was an instructional facilitator for English language development and an elementary school assistant principal.

He has held several positions in the Columbia district, including as a third-grade teacher at Derby Ridge Elementary School. He served as assistant principal and principal of West Boulevard Elementary School.

Stiepleman said one of his priorities will be focusing on enrichment, opportunity and achievement gaps within the school district.

"It isn't about just focusing on one group," he said. "But we have to be honest about one of the things we are most struggling with, and that is the academic achievement of our most at-risk kids."

Beyond the academic achievement gap, Stiepleman broke it down further:

  • By enrichment gap, he means that students have access to a lot of activities outside the core, whether that's foreign language, musical instruments or sports.
  • By opportunity gap, he means that students have access to school, that disciplinary practices don't exclude certain students and that the district should figure out ways to restore what he called the "disrupted worlds" of these students.

At a public forum Tuesday, Stiepleman said he would like to continue Belcher's work in addressing academic achievement and opportunity disparity.

"A benefit of being an internal candidate and Dr. Belcher still being here for the next few months is being able to build a transition plan," Stiepleman said Friday. "He has created an incredible model of listening and advisory groups. I would anticipate doing the same kind of work or joining them to be able to hear exactly what people are thinking."

Stiepleman said he wants to continue holding World Cafes, which are forums meant to engage the community on school district issues.

"For example, when we decided to approach the community two years ago for a tax levy, it required our community to come back and tell us what they were comfortable with," he said. "Following those models is what I hope to do."

Belcher said he thinks the transition over the next few months will be a smooth one.

“We’ll sit around this table, and we’ll talk about what we’ve been doing and what Dr. Stiepleman’s vision for his administration looks like,” Belcher said in his office Friday afternoon, which is six steps away from Stiepleman's office in the Aslin Administration Building.

The superintendent’s first advocacy is for district students, Belcher said. The job is comparable to a CEO position, in which the superintendent both makes recommendations to the school board and works to impart the school board’s will into the public schools system, he said.

Stiepleman’s contract is not complete yet, King said. She said she thinks the board will work on compiling the contract at a closed work session on Thursday and will probably vote on the completed contract at the first board meeting in April.

It will be up to Stiepleman as the new superintendent to hire someone to fill his current position of assistant superintendent for elementary education, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said. She said there is no timeline yet for beginning that hiring process.

Community reactions

School board member Jonathan Sessions said after the Friday news conference that he was excited for the next school year under Stiepleman's leadership.

"As Dr. Stiepleman expressed today, he has a deep understanding of the district that he's gained as a teacher, principal and part of the administration team," Sessions said. "He has a vision of how to build upon the district's success and grow to be better."

Bob Watkins, head of the superintendent search committee and a superintendent search consultant from the Missouri School Boards' Association, said his impression is the community thinks well of Stiepleman.

"I think that he was a good match for them," Watkins said.

Ed Schumacher, principal of Russell Boulevard Elementary School, said he thinks Stiepleman will lead the district well.

"He’s focused on student needs and has a wide range of understanding of innovative issues," Schumacher said.

Schumacher said he worked with Stiepleman when Stiepleman was principal of West Boulevard Elementary School. He said he found that Stiepleman is a good collaborator who values teamwork.

Stiepleman serves on the Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and has assisted in several Columbia Housing Authority projects, including a partnership in the Moving Ahead Youth Program, said Phil Steinhaus, chief executive officer of Columbia Housing Authority.

The program offers one-on-one tutoring and other activities after school to children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Stiepleman said that when Belcher brought him onto the administration team in 2010, Belcher said he needed to become more involved in the community than he was as a principal.

"That was one of the things Dr. Belcher endorsed when I was approached to join the Columbia Housing Authority," Stiepleman said. "It's about those partnerships. We work smarter if we are joining funds, resources and our minds to do better for kids."

Steinhaus said he thinks Stiepleman will be successful as superintendent because of his commitment to the community and student success.

"Dr. Stiepleman recognizes that student success means that all the needs of students are being met … their housing needs, their social and emotional needs," Steinhaus said. "He understands the larger picture of what it means for students to succeed in school."

Reaction of teachers groups

Susan McClintic is president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association.

"CMNEA is pleased that the decision has been made," she said. "It allows for the district to begin to plan and move forward and to think about all the great things we can do for kids and to work together with Dr. Stiepleman to carry out the continued vision."

McClintic said she thinks that teachers were able to convey their thoughts on the superintendent search process to the board but that teachers could have had better representation.

"We would have appreciated if an exclusive representative would have been elected to represent teachers who had input," she said.

She said that in her experience as president of the teachers group, Stiepleman has always been willing to listen.

"He’s willing to meet with us at anytime that is possible, and he is always putting students first," McClintic said.

Kari Schuster, president of the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association, said the timeline for selecting the superintendent seemed quicker than it had been previously.

"They (the board) wanted to make sure that there was enough time for a new superintendent to take over and to be trained by Dr. Belcher," she said.

Schuster said Stiepleman’s success as the next superintendent will be shown in his ability to continue Dr. Belcher’s success.

"I think Dr. Belcher is leaving the district in pretty good shape," Schuster said. "I think Dr. Belcher has done an excellent job in being transparent and open to the community in the five years he’s worked here, so I think that will speak volumes with Dr. Stiepleman taking over."

Lessons from Mill Creek

Stiepleman was a key player in discussions last fall about overcrowding at Mill Creek Elementary School. He met with Mill Creek parents to discuss redrawing attendance boundary lines, which will bring the school back down to capacity until a new southwest elementary school opens in 2016.

Parents were concerned that redrawing lines would separate siblings and that the community of Mill Creek would be disrupted. Stiepleman readjusted his original plan to make it possible for students changing schools to move only once in the next two school years.

In January, when the board finalized new Mill Creek boundaries for the upcoming school year, Stiepleman announced he had miscalculated the number of students who needed to change schools. Students living on Bethany and Bellview drives would now be allowed to stay at Mill Creek.

"What I've learned from that — for one thing, when we're looking at numbers — is that we should have multiple levels of evaluating those numbers so we don't have to come back and say that there needs to be a change," Stiepleman said. "That's certainty embarrassing for the administration and embarrassing for the board. That's a lesson learned."

District growth and school construction pace affect the need for boundary changes, Stiepleman said. The policy committee is looking at what the district can do to make sure the community knows boundaries might change, he said.

The Mill Creek Parent Teacher Association Board congratulated Stiepleman in a group statement Friday.

"We hope he continues to advocate for each child and promote new ideas for growth in Columbia Public Schools."

Missourian reporters Caroline Bauman, Laura Cole, Christa Corrigan and Makenzie Koch contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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