Superintendent Fosters a Culture of Risk-Taking in Rural Illinois District
- Expertise: Innovation
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Farmington Central School District, Ill.
Years before the arrival of Superintendent John Asplund, the Farmington school district had consolidated all its buildings, a massive change for a rural district trying to find its footing in difficult times. When Asplund started, though, he brought another change with him: the word “yes.”
Yes to new paint. Yes to new classes. Yes to a smarter budget. Yes to a new parking lot. And yes to a giant solar-panel project. Do you have an idea? Pitch it. At the very least, ask.
“If things are good for kids, we should be doing it,” Asplund says. “You try to say ‘yes’ to as many things as you can, because even though we’re going to screw a lot of things up, we’re going to learn from that mistake and we’re going to make it better the next time. Doing the same thing over and over again isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
Lessons from the Leader
- Make Smart Hires: Hire good people and give them autonomy to do their jobs so that their work is personal and they take greater ownership of problems and finding solutions.
- Dream Big: Spend time dreaming. One of the most essential tasks of education leaders is to have lofty ambitions for their students and their organization. Educators are sometimes the only people who dream for their students.
- Listen More: Spend more time listening than talking. Everybody has something valuable to add to the organization. Leaders need to listen to those who disagree with what they’re doing, because they can’t be right all the time.
Asplund, 45, who’s been at the helm of the Illinois district since 2011, has been preaching—and practicing—the mantra of innovation and encouraging the administrators and teachers who work in the district to take their own risks and try new things, in contrast to the top-down approach that staff members say had previously been the norm.
“For so many years, the people asked, and the answer was ‘no,’ that they stopped asking,” says Donna McCaw, an education professor at Western Illinois University whom Asplund hired to consult on the district’s curriculum. She says it’s taken time for faculty members to adjust to the idea of proposing change.
“If you take a good teacher and put them in a bad system, the system wins every time,” McCaw says. “So you have that teacher who wants to be the difference-maker, and after a lot of years of no, no, no, no, no, of disempowerment, pretty soon a lot of them just give up. So when the district tries to become part of the solution, it’s not easy.”
Farmington, a town of about 2,400, is about 30 minutes west of Peoria, Ill., but the areas’ fortunes are closely linked. Peoria is home to Caterpillar Inc., the giant construction-machinery company and a major employer in the region. Caterpillar has been hit hard by a faltering economy in China, which had been a major buyer, prompting falling stock prices and thousands of layoffs.
On top of those challenges in the region’s private sector, a political stalemate between the state’s Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature has left Illinois without a budget for months longer than usual, constraining district spending.
Through that turbulence, Farmington has been working to draw people in, as well as prevent flight. The school district, under Asplund’s leadership, has been central to those revival efforts, local leaders say.
“Our community is creating all kinds of new business,” says Dakota Horn, the president of the local school board. “Downtown? That used to be empty. The entire downtown had no businesses in it; they’re slowly generating new businesses, new parking, new lighting, new facades. And I believe this [school district] here is the reason for that growth.”
Horn is one of several newer board members—at 25, he’s the youngest—and deeply proud of his hometown. He credits Asplund for guiding the school system to honor but also evolve from its rural heritage and adapt to dramatically shifting economic realities. Farmington’s students, Horn says, are getting exposure to the opportunities and skills they’ll need to find their footing in a economy that’s vastly different from when their parents graduated from high school.
“We’ve got kids down in elementary who are creating QR codes so we can read them,” he says. “You know, that’s not what rural schools do. [Our mascot is] the Farmers, but we have tech grads and ag grads and, you name it, they’re coming out of this district.”
As if to make that point tangible: On April 16 last year, the district began turning on roughly 2,500 brand-new solar panels, in what was the single largest solar array for a public school in the United States. Farmington was one of several candidates that the Farnsworth Group, a green-energy firm, pitched for a solar array. Everyone else said no. But Asplund said yes, and the district secured a $1 million grant to help with construction costs.
Farnsworth consultant Steve Smith says that many districts were deterred by the multimillion-dollar upfront costs. He credits Asplund with helping get Farmington into a position where the district could get on board.
“Is he ahead of the game?” Smith says of Asplund. “Yes, a little bit, but he’s also not afraid of the future.”
The solar panels line the south-facing walls of the district’s building—a labyrinthine structure finished in 2004 that houses all grade levels and administrative offices—and now produce about a third of the building’s power. Within a decade, Asplund hopes the district will be powered entirely by solar energy. The solar panels should pay for themselves within that time, he says. And the panels have also been worked into the science curriculum.
“They’re cutting-edge,” Horn says of the panels, annoyed at the confining stereotypes associated with rural America. “We didn’t have to put the solar panels on, we didn’t have to put up a solar-panel charger—we’re Farmington. That’s an urban-type thing to do, that kind of advanced technology. A lot of schools around here, they’re just lucky to have their doors open.”
Asplund grew up in Oneida, Ill., a town of 750 people 40 miles north of Farmington.
“As a kid, I wasn’t a big fan of school,” Asplund says. He liked his friends, and the idea of learning, but school felt too confining to him.
Then came shop class, and the former Marine, Norbert “Bud” Laubach, who taught it.
“He gave you the skills to do anything, and everybody respected him so much that you wanted to do well for him,” Asplund says. “He didn’t care if you were brand-new to the school or your parents owned 10,000 acres, you were all the same in that class. Everybody was equal.”
After graduating from Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., Asplund tried out being a law clerk, but dissatisfied, he realized: “Oh my gosh, I think I want to be a teacher.”
Asplund eventually started teaching high school English in Knoxville, Ill. He pursued a master’s degree and quickly progressed to becoming a principal and then superintendent, eventually landing in Lake Bluff, an affluent Chicago suburb. Farmington offered Asplund and his wife a return to their rural roots.
The job also presented the challenge of preparing a new generation of students in a region with a shaky economy.
“We’ve got to be able to do something innovative here to be able to get people to think outside the box and create different opportunities for kids,” Asplund says.
To that end, Asplund embraces innovation in the school system, wherever it comes from. When Mindy Matthews and Amy Stevens, Farmington Elementary School teachers, petitioned to create a mixed-age elementary class where 4th and 5th graders could learn together, Asplund was game. He said yes when teachers wanted to paint their rooms, and when history teacher Ryan Lambert proposed his vision for the high school’s new research center.
If all this seems like good and easy change, it hasn’t come without harder adjustments. For some teachers, Asplund was the fourth superintendent in just over a decade. The year after Asplund started, both the elementary and high school principals left. A small wave of teacher attrition followed, mostly retirements.
On top of the turnover, Asplund directed big instructional shifts. The Common Core State Standards came into play. The district adopted its first districtwide, articulated curriculum, and switched math-curriculum providers. Special education was adjusted to a “push-in” model to keep students with special needs in mainstream classrooms.
“There was a lot of change and people trying to figure out how to do things,” says Keeli Lindmark, an elementary teacher.
You try to say ‘yes’ to as many things as you can, because even though we’re going to screw a lot of things up, we’re going to learn from that mistake. …
The pace was also a challenge.
“Mostly, people would just say it all came so fast, and we just didn’t feel like we had time to understand it all,” says Chris Evans, the president of the Farmington Federation of Teachers.
The lack of communication, teachers say, existed mostly between them and their principals, but the entire district leadership, including the board, was aware of the issues. A survey distributed in 2015 highlighted those frustrations, and teachers say that something clicked over this past summer that has improved circumstances a great deal.
Everyone has felt stretched. Asplund has kept the district in the black, but financial mindfulness has kept many vacant positions unfilled, a residual effect of the state budget impasse.
That’s part of the reason Asplund has sought to give his faculty and staff whatever other support they need to increase their capacity. He even razed the professional-development system, creating a new one in which teachers select their own PD.
“I’ve yet to meet a person that I’ve stretched too far,” he says.
Now, the trick is to take the seeds of all this change and help them blossom. To that end, Asplund has formed a legislative-advocacy group to make sure state and local representatives pay attention to Farmington’s needs. And he and the board are working on enticing developers into the region, which suffers from a lack of housing.
“When my daughter graduates from here, [my hope is that] we’ve taken greater steps to become global citizens and people who are not afraid to take risks when they leave here,” he says. “That their future hasn’t been set when they leave. I think that would be the best thing we can do.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the grade levels in the district’s mixed-age classroom. It also incorrectly described the superintendent’s role in bringing the district’s budget into the black.