Milton L. Pippenger

Shot of Reality' Empowers His Career by JAY P. GOLDMAN

He stood before a class bulging with 34 pupils, many of them from a subsidized, low-income housing project nearby. Only six could read at grade level and nine couldn’t read at all.

"I basically lost that class," he says, admitting his cluelessness. "I couldn’t deliver the content. It took me five or six weeks to even understand some of them."

What Pippenger says he learned to appreciate from that painful shot of reality is you must "focus on the whole child in a situation like that."

His stint in Omaha, Neb., blessedly lasted only a year before Pippenger returned to his native Kansas, where he’s spent most of his career since. But the overriding lesson of that trying school year has become an operating principle that undergirds all of his work today as the superintendent in Garden City, Kan.

Since 1993, when he became its fifth superintendent in 10 years, Pippenger has guided the dynamic 7,750-student school system, situated 200 miles west of Wichita in the state’s southwestern corner. Garden City, defying the stereotype of the Plains states, just might be one of the most unlikely places in America with an ethnically mixed student population.

With an enrollment that's 60 percent nonwhite and growing, the district's makeup resembles those of urban centers on the East and West coasts. "When you say 'Kansas,' people think white kids running around," says Pippenger. "One day some foundation representatives walked into one of our buildings and said to me, 'You've got everything here we've got in Philadelphia and New Jersey except your buildings are cleaner.'"

The reason behind Garden City's diverse and highly transient student population are two major meat-packing plants that began operating in the early 1980s. Together, they employ more than 4,500 workers, most of them from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia.

Since his arrival, the superintendent has attempted to elevate the academic expectation levels for all students by raising the graduation standards, devising grade-level benchmarks in core subjects, as well as behavior, and starting a school-to-career program. Intake centers for all non-English speakers in grades 5 to 12 provide academic screening, teach basic English vocabulary and ensure the newcomers fully understand school rules and routines before they transfer into mainstream programs. By next fall, 15 district schools will offer English as a second language, and many high school classrooms of 25 students are staffed with two teachers, one of whom is bilingual or ESL-certified.

And Pippenger insists that any student who fails to reach mastery on at least 80 percent of the benchmarks in a subject by year’s end is required to take summer school classes or participate in after-school tutoring, which runs until 7 p.m. daily at the secondary level.

"He's a man who looks toward the future of education and probably has put us on the cutting edge of what we need to be doing," says Garden City's board of education president, John Scheopner. "We're definitely ahead of the pack."

Perhaps most importantly, Pippenger has cultivated ownership among school staff for those initiatives. "It’s the way he asks the teachers to be the leaders here," says Carol Wethington, an elementary school teacher who serves as union president. "He steps back and says, ‘Teachers will take us in this direction.’"

Scheopner says it’s clear to him that Pippenger isn’t obsessed with details. "He’s good at delegating to those who know more than he does in a particular area. But he’s a great idea man."

The board president, who runs a water distribution business in Garden City, admires that style of management. "So many in charge want their fingers in anything that’s going on. He can stand back and let an idea grow from a distance."

For Pippenger, who once took a five-year break from his education career to work as the administrative pastor of a church, the task at hand is made somewhat simpler by the quality of colleagues. "It’s not hard to look good when you’ve got creative people around you," he says.

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: