What a Good Listener Brings to School

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2016

What a Good Listener Brings to School

John Asplund
John Asplund 

Rumors were flying that a student was running around the school brandishing a gun. Although the superintendent alerted the police, who arrested the 16-year-old before he ever got to the building (he had bragged about bringing a gun to school but didn’t have one on him), he neglected to alert the school’s parents. It was a mistake and a pointed learning experience, says John Asplund, superintendent of Farmington Central Schools, a 1,400-student rural Illinois district located 30 miles from Peoria.

To preclude another such breakdown, Asplund immediately created a school district page on Facebook (where the original rumor had surfaced) to better communicate with parents. He extended that learning experience by incorporating other social media into the district’s regular communications. During the past year, Farmington educators received training on how to use social media, and they now are teaching good social media habits to their students.

Asplund, who has been in charge in Farmington since 2011, is unafraid to acknowledge his blunders or to encourage his staff to take chances. “If we keep doing the same thing over and over, we’re not learning,” he says. “We need to allow mistakes and learn from them.”

“If we keep doing the same thing over and over, we’re not learning. We need to allow mistakes and learn from them.”

He has been especially out front in soliciting ideas from those he works with for new ways to support students. Teachers and parents have taken advantage of their leader’s open ears. Their requests have ranged from constructing an addition to the K-12 building (something not approved) to adding a culinary-based curriculum and Rosetta Stone to an expanded foreign language program in junior high and high school.

During his 14 years as a superintendent in four small Illinois districts, Asplund has tailored his efforts to community needs, acknowledging “it’s never a one-size-fits-all” solution. Since arriving in Farmington, he has focused on finance and curriculum. As in many rural districts, Asplund takes on added responsibilities, in this case as business manager.

He keeps a close eye on the horizon for projects that not only save expenses down the line but also attend to environmental preservation, a personal priority. A year ago, he secured a $1 million grant to help pay for installation of 2,500 solar panels, now generating more than a third of the energy for the district’s consolidated facility and expected to save about $150,000 on the district’s cooling and lighting bill in the first two years. At the time, it represented the largest solar energy project at a public school. Asplund hopes a newly constructed greenhouse on school grounds will produce vegetables and fruit for use in school lunches.

Maintaining a balanced, $14 million operating budget these days has been complicated by the Illinois state legislature’s 8 percent reduction in state aid last year and a 25 percent drop in reimbursement for student transportation. Being a rural, high-poverty school district creates its own special challenges. Farmington has to pick up the slack to run busses for students geographically dispersed over 188 square miles.

Asplund has taken charge to overhaul the Farmington curriculum so his students can hold their own when they graduate. Some math teachers resisted at first, saying, “This is not the way we’ve been doing it for the last 30 years.” But he reports they eventually came on board, and student achievement is responding accordingly.

He grew up just an hour north of Farmington, in a town of 750 residents, so he has a solid appreciation for what schooling can mean in such communities.

“My dream,” Asplund says, “is to get to a place where we have more reliable funding so we can improve in the areas of special education, the Internet, counseling and an extended school year. That would serve our rural population well.”

Bio Stats: John Asplund

Currently: superintendent, Farmington, Ill.

Previously: superintendent, Lake Bluff, Ill.

Age: 46

Greatest influence on career: My wife is my moral center, and my children allow me to see the educational world through students’ eyes.

Best professional day: Being named one of Education Week’s “2016 Leaders to Learn From.”

Books at bedside: Dead Wake by Erik Larson; The Thomas Jefferson Bible; and Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles.

Biggest blooper: Many years ago, a group of alumni asked if we could revert our school colors to what they had from the 1930s-’70s. We made the change and the community reacted swiftly and angrily. What’s funny is we just changed from one shade of blue and gold to a different shade.

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA produces high-quality reports and literature/studies to which I have access. I also appreciate the advocacy for children.

AASA produces high-quality reports and literature/studies to which I have access. I also appreciate the advocacy for children.
John Asplund

Superintendent, Farmington, Ill.

John Asplund