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CCE’s new principal finds renewed sense of purpose in Oxford

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
OXFORD— When talking with elementary school principal Matt Leeman, two thoughts come to mind. First, never say “never.” Second, there’s something special about the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) School District that can renew an educator’s spirit.
Leeman, 34, has been in education for 12 years, seven of those as an administrator. He took the helm of Clear Creek Elementary (CCE) in Oxford on March 1, as former CCE principal Dan Dvorak prepared to lead the new Tiffin Elementary. Leeman, now in his second year with the district, started as an assistant principal to Dvorak in Oxford and principal Brenda Parker at North Bend Elementary (NBE), in North Liberty.
It’s been a rocket ride to the top for Leeman, which he ascribes to having lofty goals and putting in the hard work to achieve them. He graduated from the high school in Postville in 1999, the son of two teachers.
“I swore I was never going to be a teacher,” he said, smiling. Initially Leeman went to college for criminology, but switched his major to elementary education, and opted for a minor in social studies.
“I also swore I would never go back to Postville,” Leeman said, noting his first position was teaching kindergarten in Postville for two years. After that, he taught first grade in a setting he described as bi-lingual Spanish immersion. “I spent half the day speaking Spanish and teaching kids to read, write and do math in Spanish. The other half of the day we spoke English,” he said.
Postville gained national attention in 2008 when federal agents raided a meat packing plant and 389 illegal immigrants were arrested. Leeman keeps a framed drawing depicting the events of the day in his office, to remind him of the students and families affected.
While at Postville, he pursued a Masters in Administration degree and was considering leaving the district for another educational opportunity when he was offered a K-12 assistant principal position by the Postville district.
Leeman held that position for a year, which he called, “a great learning opportunity.” He then assumed the role of 6-12 principal but found middle school students were not his forte. After five years in Postville he moved to the Gladbrook-Reinbeck school district, where current CCA superintendent Tim Kuehl served for two of Leeman’s three years there. Leeman started out as the high school principal for two years and spent his last year pulling double duty as both the high school and K-4 principal.
When the opportunity arose to join CCA, Leeman said he jumped at it. He’d already been aware of the district through Kuehl, and former CCA superintendent Dr. Denise Schares, one of Leeman’s professors, had also spoken highly of the district.
Leeman said he researched the CCA district and liked what he saw. “The idea that there’s growth, and the budget was not the issue driving education like I’d been used to. That was a big draw.” During the interview process he said the small town feel came through clearly, another plus in his book.
“Growing up in small town Iowa and going to another small town in my second role (as an educator), I really liked that feeling. I don’t like when kids become numbers and not names,” he said.
When walking into the district’s buildings, Leeman said it was quickly apparent to him CCA is a welcoming place. “I think CCA is a great district and we’ve got a ton of things going on for kids, so it’s an exciting time to be here, too.”
It’s also a fortuitous time for Leeman, as the large wave of elementary students that swamped CCE and forced Dvorak to find additional spaces to put students moved on to the middle school this fall. With Tiffin Elementary opening this year, Leeman estimated the new school took two-thirds3 of the students that had attended CCE.
Instead of a building nearing its structural capacity and exceeding its educational capacity, CCE now has empty spaces.
“We were only K-4 here last year because we didn’t have enough room to hold our fifth graders, which is nuts, but now we have two sections for every grade, we’re all on the main floor…there’s nobody upstairs, the lunchroom is much quieter; you know, there’s not 100 kids in there at one time…”
The hallways are quieter too, he said, crediting the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) for enhancing the conduct of the children, in addition to the population reduction.
Leeman realizes the lull will likely only be temporary, at best.
“We’re all just kind of bracing for the next storm that’s coming. I’m guessing with all of the houses west of the high school, they’ll all be coming here,” he said. CCE teachers have a staff work room again, a luxury they’ve not had in several years. “For now we’re just enjoying the fact that we have two sections (for each grade) and a lot more space.”
Leeman said his biggest challenge now is continuing the things that are going well and building on them.
For example, CCE now has three interventionists, tasked with providing targeted assistance in literacy and math to students who need extra help, and allowing for expanded learning opportunities to those who already demonstrate proficiency.
“It’s different, it’s not something we’ve done before, but it’s also something we’re trying throughout the district.” Leeman said it’s a different way of thinking about the teaching process. “It’s no longer ‘your’ kids but ‘our’ kids. We’re all responsible.”
Like other principals in the CCA district, Leeman is not one to sit in his office all day, but is frequently in the hallways and classrooms. He even served as a substitute teacher in third graders for three days.
“By doing so I’m not pulling a teacher from intervention to cover a classroom. They’re able to help kids get the small group (instruction) that they need.”
Because students see their principals outside the office, it isn’t a shock to encounter them, and their presence is not a sign of impending discipline, he said.
“When I was in school, the principal was like the Wizard of Oz in the office that you saw from time to time– or if you got sent to the office, that’s when you saw him. I think the culture has really shifted to where we’re in the classrooms enough the kids just know they’re going to see us, so it’s not such a big deal,” Leeman said.
The personal rapport CCA’s administrators and teachers develop with the student body sets the district apart, Leeman believes.
“We are getting big, but we’re not losing that. We continue to get open enrollees that want to have their kids be a part of that,” Leeman said.
In general, Leeman said CCE and the district overall offer many positive advantages to students through strong instruction, technology, assessments and educational models.
One month into the new school year, Leeman said things were going great. “I’m just really excited about all the things we have in place for the kids and I’m excited to see where we’re at now compared to the end of the year, with all the extra supports we have available,” he said.
“I’ve had a nice plethora of experiences, from being in Postville with the diversity and the challenges that came with that, to going to Reinbeck where we were facing things like budget cuts and being creative in how we staffed things and supported our kids, to coming to a district like CCA where money is not the issue, but we still have our own challenges,” Leeman said. “Growth is really a challenge. Even though it’s a great thing, managing that without losing the identity of a small town…that’s why everybody likes CCA.”
For Leeman, becoming a Clipper was a good move, both professionally and personally.
“It’s been a blast, it’s been rejuvenating,” he said.