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Pushing for Higher and Drier Ground

by PAUL RIEDE

At 1 a.m. on June 11, 2008, as floodwaters surged through the Waverly-Shell Rock school district in northeastern Iowa, Superintendent Jere Vyverberg and his maintenance supervisor took a drive they’ll never forget.

“There’s no electricity; everything is dark,” Vyverberg says, recalling the experience. “You hear water rushing, and every once in a while you reach an island of dry land. It’s terribly disturbing.”

Jere VyverbergJere Vyverberg


It got even more upsetting when they reached Washington Irving Elementary School. The school, built in 1951 along Dry Run Creek, has two lower levels. Both were completely submerged. Above, the school’s main floor was under a foot of water.

The pair went on to Waverly-Shell Rock Junior High. Its lower-level gymnasium had become a swimming pool. “We had wrestling mats and football equipment kind of just floating in eight feet of water,” Vyverberg says.

At some points along the road, they had no choice but to turn back, he says. “We didn’t get to Southeast Elementary until three days later, and that was by boat.”
Waverly-Shell Rock, a middle-class district with nearly 2,000 students, would turn out to be the second most flood-damaged school district in Iowa that summer, behind hard-hit Cedar Rapids, 70 miles to the southeast.

Fortunately, it was summer vacation. But district officials knew immediately there was no way Washington Irving would be ready for students by opening day in August. Thus began a remarkable summer for Vyverberg, his staff and the larger community. While dealing with all the other problems the flooding brought, the superintendent scrambled to find a place to put Washington Irving’s 254 5th- and 6th-graders and 45 staff members. They finally settled on a warehouse in the Willow Lawn Mall, a shopping center-turned-commercial complex.

In an exhausting 59-day dash, Vyverberg and his colleagues created a 42-room school inside the building, complete with library, gym and cafeteria. It is far from perfect, says teachers’ union President Cindy Brockman. Among other things, teachers have to cope with noise leaking over the makeshift walls, which leave a gap at the ceiling to allow heat to circulate.

But Brockman says Vyverberg’s steady leadership and constant communication during the crisis have kept morale from sinking. “He’s so level-headed,” she says. “He doesn’t fly off the handle. He’s just very calm and reassuring.”

School board President Cheryl Reiher says Vyverberg’s ability to communicate frankly was one of the things the board focused on five years ago when it promoted him from honored high school principal — he was Iowa’s secondary principal of the year in 2004 — to the superintendency. “We knew he would give us the real facts and not sugarcoat the information to try to smooth things over,” she says.

Vyverberg, a lifelong Iowan who grew up in the small town of Oelwein, where his father was a teacher and coach, had a lot of bad news to share with his community as the floodwaters receded. Although the junior high was salvageable, the district decided not to try to repair Washington Irving, which was still taking in groundwater weeks after the flood. Instead, it moved up plans to build a new middle school.

This spring, district voters approved a nearly $19 million bond issue, and with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Iowa Homeland Security, the district is building a new school that will combine children from the 86-year-old existing junior high and Washington Irving. The new school is scheduled to open in January 2011.

With any luck, that will give Vyverberg a chance to focus on more traditional pursuits as he approaches his 40th year as an educator — such as his continuing efforts to implement Iowa’s model core curriculum to prepare the students in his district, including his four grandchildren, to compete in a global society.

Paul Riede is editorial page editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com

BIO STATS: JERE VYVERBERG

Currently: superintendent, Waverly-Shell Rock Community School District, Waverly, Iowa

Previously: principal, Waverly-Shell Rock High School

Age: 61

Greatest influence on career: In my 39 years in education, I have had the benefit of being around excellent role models and mentors.

Best professional day: As Iowa Principal of the Year in 2004, I was allowed to visit the press room of the White House to listen to the deputy secretary of education. It reminded me even more how important we are in the lives of kids.

Books at bedside: Caught in the Middle by Richard Longworth; and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

Biggest blooper: They usually happen because I’m trying to multitask too much.
I drove the 150 miles to Des Moines for an important administrator meeting last year only to find out it happened the day before. I’ve called off school for bad weather only to have the sun shine with 35 degrees. I’ve misspelled “public” school by leaving out the “i” in an e-mail to the entire staff.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: Excellent information on current best practices in education and administration. The networking opportunities have truly proven to be an asset.