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December 20, 2022

Superintendent Dr. Erick Pruitt is one of Des Moines Register’s 2023 People to Watch

Dr. Erick Pruitt

Erick Pruitt, superintendent of the Ankeny Community School District, was leading a committee of officials, staff and community members in planning for the district’s future when the question of their favorite school lunch came up.

A certain Iowa elementary school favorite was mentioned again and again.

Pruitt showed up for the next meeting, in 2021, with chili and cinnamon rolls in hand. For Amber Mortenson, an instructional coach who was on the committee, it showed the new superintendent really was listening.

Pruitt took over as superintendent of the district in July 2021 after years serving public schools in bigger cities. He came to Iowa after having last served as deputy chief of high schools in the Chicago Public Schools.

Erick pruitt

Ankeny superintendent Erick Pruitt goes over a lesson about homophones with second graders Lea Fitzgerald and Remi Gunter during a classroom visit at Southeast Elementary, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

He is the first person of color to lead the Ankeny district. While his experience and qualifications speak for themselves, Pruitt also said he stands on the shoulders of other people of color in Iowa who paved the way for him to be the district’s first superintendent.

The Des Moines suburb is smaller and less diverse than Houston, where he served before, or Chicago, but it faces its own set of challenges and growing pains. The population of Ankeny, which was 27,000 in 2000, has exploded to over 70,000, making it the sixth-largest city in Iowa.

Students from marginalized communities, including students of color and LGBTQ students, have spoken about the difficulties they face in Ankeny schools, and the district has experienced heated debates over mask-wearing during COVID-19, LGBTQ-related books and equity efforts. Meanwhile, leaders say the district needs to offer opportunities and programs to attract Ankeny families who could send their children elsewhere in the Des Moines metro through open enrollment.

Ankeny’s enrollment has grown by thousands of students in the past decade, and is projected to crack 13,000 before this decade is over.

“We can no longer operate like we’re a 5,000-student district,” Pruitt said.

The student population not only is bigger, but is more diverse — in areas of race, ethnicity, language and other backgrounds. The percentage of students who are nonwhite roughly doubled in the past decade to about 20%, according to state data. Students are spread across new schools built to accommodate growth.

Those changes come as the district still needs to provide students with skills to prepare them for college, the workforce and civic life in a changing world.

While the issues in the burgeoning district have become flashpoints for controversy, Pruitt’s work, so far, has not shown him to be at loggerheads with other leaders during school board meetings.

For his role in managing the district’s changes and challenges, Pruitt is one of the Des Moines Register’s 2023 People to Watch.

From the military, to Chicago and Houston and back, and on to Ankeny
Pruitt enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school and was accepted into an officer program. He entered the military in 1991 and was discharged for medical reasons in 1998.

He said the military was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. Aside from learning discipline and teamwork, it gave him the foundation to work with people from different backgrounds who have a common mission while also being flexible and willing to adapt. He said those skills also apply to running a school district.

After he left the military, he became a first-grade teacher in Chicago.

He taught elementary and middle school and then in the mid-2000s entered a residency program for aspiring principals. Pruitt rose through the ranks of the district’s central office and became a supervisor of principals.

He later moved to Houston, where he learned more about providing education for English language learners and became an area superintendent. He returned to Chicago, where he eventually oversaw nearly 100 high schools. (For context, Ankeny has two.)

The position in Ankeny opened in 2020, when Bruce Kimpston retired after eight years in the job. Pruitt was hired after a nationwide search. He said he was intrigued by moving to a district with needs completely different from those at his previous schools, but that still fit his skills and experience.

The message he heard loud and clear from the school board members who hired him was that he should engage every stakeholder. In the year after Pruitt took over, the district unveiled three interlocking planning documents that will guide the staff: a new strategic plan; an outline of what all students should achieve when they leave school; and a framework for diversity, equity and inclusion of all students. (One of Pruitt’s major proposals, a diversity and equity speciality position, did not make it through the school board.)

The planning work to chart out the revised course involved not just district officials, but also parents, students, business people and nonprofit leaders.

During Pruitt’s tenure, the district also has opened English language learner services at every elementary school, so students have that option in their neighborhoods instead of having to travel farther away. A fall 2021 state report shows 318 Ankeny students, or 2.6% of enrollment, were English learners.

Mortenson, an instructional coach at Prairie Trail Elementary who has been with the district for more than 15 years, was involved with the strategic planning work. Mortenson said Pruitt is someone who really listens and is willing to come to the school as much as needed — or bring chili and cinnamon rolls when the moment calls.

She said teachers believe they have a voice in district operations and that decisions are based on reality, not an ideal.

“I think you can cause positive change when you give people a voice,” Mortenson said. She thinks the district is moving in a positive direction that considers the whole child, seeing all of a student’s needs.

With the three guiding documents in place, the district now is pursuing more planning work, this time examining how to best use its buildings and facilities. Major items to be addressed include how to divide grades in each school, what kind of buildings the district will need to prepare students for college and careers, school boundaries and what renovations to pursue.

Any changes to building setups and boundaries could alter where families send their children to school. Officials also are considering what secondary schools should even look like in the future.

The district already is building what will be its 11th elementary school and totally renovating the Neveln Center for administrative offices.

Tim Simpkins, director of construction and operations, said Pruitt is always asking questions about the “old Ankeny” and how the district can move into the “new Ankeny.”

“From day one, he was about community input,” Simpkins said. Pruitt gives his own input, but emphasizes teamwork and communication and gives staff the space to do their jobs, he said.

Above all, Simpkins said, Pruitt focuses on community: the students and their families.

“It’s not just an Ankeny Community School District decision,” he said. “It’s an Ankeny community decision.”

‘This community has allowed me to lead’
Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, who served on the district’s planning committee in 2021, said that was the first time he was involved in such discussions since taking his position in 2003.

DMACC has a campus in Ankeny, and the school district and the college work closely together to consider what kind of preparation students need for life after graduation, including the skills needed to join the workforce.

Denson said that Pruitt has become a central Iowa player — not just the Ankeny superintendent — and appears at the table across the region at various events, gatherings and meetings of local leaders and governing bodies. The two have a standing monthly meeting of their own.

He said Ankeny, like any school district, has to create an educational program that will keep families in the district in a climate of funding struggles and other challenges, such as the prospect of a statewide school voucher program that would give families taxpayer-funded scholarships to pay private school expenses.

“He has really been pushing the envelope as to — what should the next step be for Ankeny?” Denson said.

Pruitt said he’s a big believer in developing leaders, pointing to changes going on behind the scenes to empower educators and administrators to handle challenges and issues instead of moving them up the chain to the central office. Pruitt said people don’t want to be micromanaged and want the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

He said that Ankeny is known for its strengths in athletics and other extracurricular activities, but he wants to highlight all students’ accomplishments, whether that’s students who get scholarships, go into the military or enter a trade, while also showing off students’ academic achievements.

When he first got to Ankeny, Pruitt said, the community was ready for a change against the backdrop of COVID-19 and volatile divisions nationally over school operations. He sensed the community wanted someone with an open door who would listen, but who wouldn’t be afraid to make a decision in the best interest of students, even if it might not make everyone happy.

“This community has allowed me to lead,” he said.

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