Chad Janzen, Rock Valley superintendent

Chad Janzen of the Rock Valley School District was nominated for the Iowa Superintendent of the Year. He lauds programs that focus on real-world skills as the district’s driver of results.

ROCK VALLEY—Chad Janzen loves a challenging puzzle, and after putting pieces together as the Rock Valley School District superintendent for more than a decade, he has been the perfect fit.

Janzen was a nominee for 2021-22 Iowa Superintendent of the Year and said a network of support throughout the school district is responsible for the success.

“The way that I look is it is a reflection of our school district. I’m the leader of our district, but there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good work around here,” Janzen said. “Without our whole team, a nomination for Superintendent of the Year doesn’t happen. I view it as recognition of the great things going on in our district.”

The top Rocket took the job ahead of the 2011-12 academic year. Since then, the schools he oversees have established and matured a string of programs all with the goal of growing students outside the classroom.

One of those initiatives is Rocket Manufacturing. The student-run venture makes decorative metal signs while functioning as a business and shop class, all while running as a functioning company. Some students get hands-on construction know-how while others build experience running the administrative side with accounting, marketing and customer service.

Janzen said the sign company is one of his district’s most innovative programs — adding it was probably part of why he was one of the nine superintendents nominated for the statewide award — and that the company teaches kids much more than they would get with a regular lesson plan.

“Gone are the days in that program where we sat in shop class, made some widget, then put it in a drawer and some day, our parents told us ‘Get your stuff out of here,’” he said.

Rocket Manufacturing started in 2014, and a newer program, offered to seniors, has a similar mission to get students involved in the real world.

The 12th-grade internship program is in its third year. It pairs soon-to-be graduates with a local employer for a semester in a field they are interested in. Whether it’s a law office, the hospital or an auto shop, students get a firsthand look at the day-to-day work instead of just slogging through another class of book learning.

“They have a wide variety of opportunities to learn potential career paths for themselves,” Janzen said.

The superintendent said a critical piece of his administration puzzle is consistency. While fresh programs and methods may come along, the same core principles stay the same.

“We try not to do the newest, greatest thing — the newest education fad that’s coming through,” he said. “We’ve been working on the same sorts of things for about five years now rather than trying to do something different every single year because that wears out your staff, your teachers, your paras. It wears on everybody if every year is something different.”

The steady hand said the focus at his schools is always on what students can take away from their classes; preparedness is the priority.

That lesson is not just for Rock Valley. Janzen said it is true throughout the education sector, including the School Administrators of Iowa who select the Superintendent of the Year.

“When we’re sitting at a conference in Des Moines in a room full of superintendents and business leaders from across the state, we hear the exact same thing that we hear from our employers here,” Janzen said. “It’s our job here as the molder of young people to develop their academic mind and, really, their social-emotional mind.”

He said his mentality is to help grow the whole person rather than mechanize a knowledge base. That makes the district a better community partner, it empowers teachers to make every day meaningful and it gives students a stronger start for the rest of their lives.

Janzen said the credit goes to everyone who makes Rock Valley schools successful; he just puts everything into place.

“I have always liked puzzles. We grew up on a farm and I didn’t have a lot of friends that lived out on that side of town with me, and so I put puzzles together. That’s my job as a superintendent,” he said. “I’m not always the guy who comes up with the idea, but I’m really good at listening to other people’s ideas and putting that into one. I listen, and we chew on stuff, and we put it together with an end result that is hopefully a good product.”