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Meskwaki Superintendent Jerry Stephens retires

July 29, 2013
By John Speer - Editor ( , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

"Dream fulfilled" sums up the feelings of Meskwaki Tribal members in a poster on the bulletin board at the west entrance of the Settlement School at rural Tama. That dream was to have their own, modern high school.

Meskwaki Settlement School Superintendent Jerry Stephens played a major role in fulfilling that dream. In 2009, the $25 million state-of-the-art high school addition to the Settlement School opened. In conversation with him, you can sense his pride, as well, in the futuristic school and even more importantly, the curriculum it offers and in the student numbers which continue to build.

Now Stephens, the superintendent since 2005, has announced his retirement effective Aug. 2. His successor has not yet been named by the Meskwaki School Board.

Article Photos

Meskwaki Settlement School Superintendent Jerry Stephens
News-Herald/John Speer

Stephens, 66, says he has not fully recovered from back surgery performed in September of last year and says his health dictates he retire so he can take the time needed to devote to improving his health.

With a career spanning 44 years in education and 30 of those as an administrator, Stephens admits to having witnessed many advances, but is quick to say those changes have "been fun."

"This has been one of the best positions I have had," Stephens says.

He retired in 2004 as Marshalltown High School principal, a post he had held for 12 years after serving as associate principal there for three years prior.

With his retirement came a simple message from his wife, Laura, "I don't care what you do. You can sit on the front steps. But you can't be in the house from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m."

With that in mind and noticing an advertisement for the position of principal of the Meskwaki Settlement School, Stephens applied for the post. He says he remembers during his interview one of the school board members noting his resume included Kayenta, Ariz., and asking what his connection was there.

Earlier in his career Stephens had served as a consultant to the Navajo Indian Reservation there demonstrating writing curriculum for individual instruction.

He believes that certainly helped cinch the Meskwaki job.

After a year in the principal's post he was offered the superintendent's job when it became vacant.

With that, he embarked on the job with a new high school building looming as a big challenge.

The Settlement School had been adding high school grade levels beginning in 2003 with 9th grade, and an additional grade level each year.

Prior to this Meskwaki students either attended South Tama or other area high schools.

Ground was broken for the new school in 2007 and Stephens said he had to really step up. "It damn near drove me crazy, it was such a huge responsibility," he said.

He especially credits Jim Buffalo along with staff and School Board members for all being instrumental in the school construction process.

"The Leo Daley Architectural firm wanted to build a beautiful building," Stephens said. "This was fine as long as it was functional."

Stephens said a committee met weekly to go over progress. "We did everything from deciding on light fixtures and carpet to classroom (location)."

he recalls Buffalo "crawling up" up on the structure during winter weather to keep an eye on progress and having to make decisions on whether to temporarily halt work due to inclement conditions.

In the end the goal was achieved and the Meskwaki High School dream indeed became reality.

Stephens said in his new role as a Bureau of Indian Education administrator he had to learn the federal government's way of school operation compared to that of the State of Iowa of which he was accustomed.

The Meskwaki School is a grant school. it is funded by federal money but that money is given to the tribe and they operate the school. A Bureau School is operated directly by federal employees.

Although it is a federal school it operates under State of Iowa standards, Stephens says.

The school provides computer access for all students. Every student can access their own desktop from any computer and kindle Readers are used.

More than 70 teachers and support staff are employed.

Early childhood education from age three through high school is provided.

High school students even are required to take a more rigorous required course schedule than in Iowa public schools. The Meskwaki Settlement School Board requires four years of English, math, science and social studies.

Beginning at age three and throughout their school years they also are required to take language and culture class, a recognition of Meskwaki heritage.

"I will predict the Tribe will need to add elementary classrooms onto the building," Stephen's says. He says currently 70-75 percent of eligible children are attending the school.

Students must be have at least 25 percent Native American blood to attend. They are not required to be Sac and Fox - Meskwaki, but be from a recognized Indian Tribe.

Receiving a B.A. from the university of Northern iowa, Cedar Falls in 1969, Stephens got his start in education as a math and science teacher at Urbandale Junior high School that fall. He taught and coached there through 1983.

He recalls being an assistant Urbandale varsity football coach and coaching on the old South Tama football field in Tama, now the site of Greenview Terrace apartments.

He became associate principal and athletic director at Lenihan Middle / Junior High School in Marshalltown in 1983.

From 1989-92 he was associate Marshalltown High School principal and became principal in 1992.

in 2003, Stephens was named Iowa Secondary Principal of the year by the school Administrators of Iowa.

He holds a Master of science in Curriculum and Instruction from Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan. and a Specialist in Education in Administration from Drake University, Des Moines.

Stephens and his wife of 44 years, Laura, have three children and five grandchildren: Jennifer, Ft. Atkinson, Wisc., two grandchildren; Andy, minneapolis, Minn., eight-month-old grandchild; and Emily, Tempe, Ariz., two grandchildren.



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