Embray Reflects On 14-year Run As Glenwood Superintendent

Glenwood Community School District Superintendent Dr. Devin Embray at the Glenwood Activities Complex, built in 2019 after school district voters approved the project in a special election.

Dr. Devin Embray admits he couldn’t have predicted 14 years.

Then again, the longtime Glenwood Community School District Superintendent wasn’t counting. He came to the community for a job. He stayed in the job because of the community.

Embray can’t say for sure he ever thought he’d be in his position for 14 years. The average tenure for Iowa school superintendents isn’t typically so long, he said.

“To be honest, I never thought about it,” Embray said of his tenure. “I was just so involved in the position and being a part of the great things that were going on with Glenwood and moving forward with all the different things we were looking at at the time. So, I never really looked at the time. You wake up one day and say, ‘Wow it’s been eight years.’ And it doesn’t seem like that. I’m surprised in a sense, but I didn’t pay attention to the time.”

His stay in Glenwood is the longest of his 33-year education career.

“If someone would have told me I’d still be here in 14 years, I’d have looked at you with a little bit of skeptical optimism,” he said with a laugh.

Embray returned to that phrase – skeptical optimism – often when discussing his leadership style, his tenure and how the Glenwood learning community has grown in a conversation with The Opinion-Tribune last week.

Embray announced in April he would be stepping down from his position June 28. Nicole Kooiker will serve Glenwood as the interim superintendent for the 2024-25 school year.

Embray will not be stepping far away from education – or Glenwood – any time soon, however. He has accepted the interim superintendent position at the Fairbury Community School District in southeast Nebraska. He plans to keep his home in Glenwood and commute weekly to the new position.

He was bittersweet when talking about his final days in Glenwood.

“It’s kind of tough from the standpoint you’re ending one era and starting another,” he said. “I’m trying to reminisce on the things that have happened while I’ve been here and a part of and looking at those things and trying to figure out what moving on and starting over looks like.”

Embray may not have been looking to start over when he applied for the Glenwood position 15 years ago, but he was looking for a fresh start.

A Knoxville-native, Embray spent 10 years a teacher and coach before transitioning into educational administration. He arrived in Glenwood after seven years as the superintendent of the Independence Community School District, 40 miles north of Cedar Rapids.

At Independence, Embray had the occasionally unenviable task of being the “change agent,” he said, righting the district’s troubled financial ship while closing two district buildings and trimming more than $2 million from the budget.

“It’s never a politically friendly environment to cut budgets to set the district up for success in the future so I was looking for another position,” Embray said.

He knew of Glenwood by reputation only – “Their wrestling program was well known to me from the state tournament,” Embray said – but before driving the 300 miles to western Iowa for his interview, he had never set foot in the community.

“I had never been here, but my first impression was extremely positive,” he said. “The people were real. They not only cared but they were real. They were very pragmatic about thoughts and actions and my wife, and I and our family fell in love with Glenwood.”

Embray said the decision to come to Glenwood was an easy one.

But it did mean uprooting his family, including his four children, who ranged in age from 7 to 15. All four of his children wound up graduating from Glenwood and wife Angie coached the Rams’ flag corps and the winter guard team. She also earned her teaching endorsement in

2018 and had taught in the Stanton and Council Bluffs School Districts.

There have been ups and downs in Embray’s tenure. He freely admits that, too. No front facing leader is ever without criticism; some deserved, some not. No organization so at the confluence of the macro and the micro as educating children is without detractors.

But Embray said the goal has always been the same: educate.

“Seeing where we were and where we’re at today, there’s a lot of things we’ve been able to do in Glenwood for our staff and for our kids that have made it a better experience. That’s what you hope for.”

There have been challenges. He counts the devastating Missouri River floods in 2019 flowing right into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as the biggest of those in his more than a decade leading the district.

The district had dealt with flooding before – namely in 2011 – but nothing could have prepared them for 2019 when the western half of Mills County sat underwater for weeks. Hundreds of families were displaced, and the water supply short.

“Trying to provide normalcy for families during that time was difficult. We figured out, with our staff really stepping up, how to stay in school and say ‘Yes, we can make this happen.’ I really champion our staff. They took this on. We went the last 80 days of school with no potable water in most of our buildings. That was extremely challenging.”

Less than a year later, a deadly historic pandemic swept across the world, closing schools and forcing the district to once again pivot to easing fears while providing the same quality education.

“Trying to keep health and safety at the forefront and still try and meet everyone’s needs was hard,” he said. “I think we transitioned through COVID as best we could at the time. I think what we did with children in Glenwood did really minimize our achievement gap compared to other districts in Iowa and states.”

Embray has no doubt the experience with the flood aided that response, as did the Glenwood staff’s quick pivot to on-line learning.

“We were at that time of the flooding already talking about what we would do for remote learning. We were dabbling with Google classroom and some of those platforms prior to the pandemic happening so when it did hit, a lot of our teachers already had the basics. There was still anxiety getting it rolled out and setting up lesson plans, but they tackled it with gusto. I really champion our staff and how they worked through COVID. They made it work for kids. I put the staff on a pedestal for what they accomplished during COVID.”

Embray can’t point to what’s been the hardest part of his job. Finances are always at the forefront for superintendents. And the legislature will throw its curveballs on budgets and staffing. But he’s never seen that as “difficult.” It’s the job, he said.

“You have challenges, sure. The difficult part might be keeping everything moving forward and not having something stagnate or get the attention it needs from all aspects of management or leadership, in regard to where you want to be with your initiatives and building projects.”

Glenwood has been very fortunate, he said, with its one cent the School Infrastructure Local Option sales tax (SILO) funds to aid its infrastructure needs and its Instructional Support Levy (ISL) to prop up its curriculum, instruction, assessment and staff development and training pieces.

“Those are two huge positives in our district that we’ve been able to utilize in a very frugal and effective way and obviously keeps us from making budget cuts in our district.”

Glenwood had navigated a 150-student dip in enrollment in the last 10 years without budget cuts as a result.

In the last decade, the district saw the construction of the high school auxiliary gym and the $7 million athletic complex come to fruition. The district partnered with the city on the aquatic center, saving the city nearly half a million dollars.

Glenwood was also among the first districts to become a “one to one” technology districts as well as an early adopter of the “Google classroom” model ahead of it becoming a popular national platform.

In April, the district announced plans to construct a new building when the Glenwood Resource Center closes its doors. The new building, which be north of the high school, will house the district’s central office, THRIVE alternative high school, the innovation center and, if fundraising efforts succeed, the Kids Place daycare.

All of this in Embray’s tenure.

Legacy is a complicated question for any super-intendent. And Embray is no different. He hasn’t given it much thought even as he prepares to walk away.

“I think the thing that makes me proud is we’ve come over the hump as a professional learning community, training our staff to be the best they can possibly be while sharing data and growing kids and their achievement levels,” he said. “The fruits of that labor are being awarded now with some of the accolades our staff has received.”

Embray pointed to the district’s recent recognition as a Model Professional Learning Community by Learning Tree, one of seven districts in all of Iowa to receive the award, and West Elementary earning its National Blue Ribbon school designation last year as a few of those accomplishments.

“The staff has driven that,” he said. “And that’s just the beginning. So, if I have a legacy, it’s maybe getting that in motion and starting that process. I’m very excited for Glenwood’s future in that regard.”
It’s a future Embray hopes to continue to be a part of, even as a member of the community, on the outside looking in.

“I feel good about the people in charge of those and how they’re moving forward so my anxiety is I’m walking away with work undone and somebody else has to come in and finished it off. It’s a positive thing, but my responsibility is pretty high so I feel like I wish I could finish those, but it’ll work out. If I’m lucky, I hope I’m allowed to get a tour of it when it’s done.”

One might even say he’s skeptically optimistic.

The Opinion-Tribune

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