Iowa Superintendent of the Year Heaps Praise on Alma Mater

Enrollment gains, $11 million in physical improvements, and the power of positive thinking have changed the trajectory and culture at the Cardinal of Eldon Community School District.

Iowa’s Superintendent of the Year took a nontraditional route to earning his bachelor’s degree.

He didn’t step foot on the Buena Vista University campus in Storm Lake. Rather, he studied at BVU’s site in Ottumwa while working in the Wapello County seat, his hometown.

“I worked selling shoes during college,” says Joel Pedersen, who, in October, was named Iowa’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year by the School Administrators of Iowa. Pedersen has been superintendent serving the Cardinal of Eldon Community School District for the past 10 years. “Looking back, it was a very good job for me as it forced me to communicate with people I didn’t know while working to build relationships among repeat customers.”

The accomplishments at Cardinal are eye-popping.

  • A net gain of 338 students open-enroll into the district, resulting in a $2.3-million annual revenue boost.
  • Enrollment has grown from 560 students (Pre-K through 12) in 2001 to more than 1,000 this year.
  • District residents and the school board have approved and realized $11 million in infrastructure improvements in the past decade or so, including a Cardinal Activity Center that allows practices for sports and activities such as marching band to go on despite inclement weather.

All of this takes place in a region that’s home to one of Iowa’s highest unemployment rates.

“You might argue that what’s happening in our district shouldn’t be happening here,” says Pedersen. “I think 400 students open-enroll here because we’re a positive outlier.”

“Every place I’ve been, I have been surrounded by good people who have looked out for me and guided me. And now I’m in the unique position of returning the favor.”

Joel Pedersen

Positive. It’s a one-word mantra in the district comprised of the towns of Agency, Batavia, Bladensburg, Eldon, and Selma. The culture driver, according to the superintendent, involves the power of positive thinking and happiness. Faculty and staff read Shawn Achor’s “Happiness Advantage” and focus on strategies to increase happiness among students, some of whom live in poverty as 58 percent of children in the district qualify for free-and-reduced prices for school lunch.

“We were losing children to open-enrollment when I arrived in 2010 and we really tried to improve the culture,” says Pedersen. “We’ve done it as a team, through shared leadership and by empowering others. We have been able to change the reputation of this school district.”

Pedersen, a 1994 graduate of Ottumwa High School, served on student council and played baseball and basketball for the Bulldogs. He became the first person in his extended family to attend college when he registered for general education classes at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa. Two years later, he transferred to BVU’s Ottumwa site, intent on coaching, not necessarily teaching.

“BVU placed me with Susan Martin, a kindergarten teacher at Davis County in Bloomfield for my first student-teaching assignment,” he remembers. “She was a true teaching professional in every sense. She quickly became my role model for this profession and, almost immediately, I understood that teaching would be my first job and coaching would be my second.”

After teaching fifth grade in Chariton for one year, Pedersen returned to the Davis County School District in Bloomfield to teach first grade while coaching varsity boys’ basketball. He became a principal and served Davis County before landing the superintendent’s post at Cardinal Community a decade ago.

He was nominated for the state award and secured it after a round of interviews before a panel of seven superintendents who convened at the School Administrators of Iowa headquarters in Des Moines.

Pedersen was driving back to Eldon with his wife, Jamie Pedersen, when he received the news he’d won. The couple then shared the announcement at home with their 15-year-old twin sons, Reece and Grant, Cardinal sophomores. Pedersen also shared the announcement with faculty, staff, the board of education and the community.

“It is an honor for our school district and our communities,” he says. “It’s a source of pride for all of us here.”

And for the institutions that knew him when, including BVU.

“Every place I’ve been, I have been surrounded by good people who have looked out for me and guided me,” he says. “And now I’m in the unique position of returning the favor.”