Dordt College News

Zonnefeld earns top award

May 14, 2010

Dr. Ryan Zonnefeld opened his e-mail one day last month to this message:

Hi, Ryan -

The educational administration faculty would like to present you with the Jordan Larson Award.  The Larson award goes each year to our outstanding educational administration graduate.  It entails honoring you at an awards luncheon in May, and giving you a plaque and $500.  Congratulations!

Zonnefeld was taken by surprise, partly because he didn’t even know there was such an award, but also because he had defended his dissertation already last March. But he felt very honored.

Zonnefeld’s professors at Iowa State University told him, “You’ll know,” when he asked their advice on how to choose the right topic for his doctoral dissertation. They were right. In a class on superintendent and school board relations, after a respected researcher shared some beginning research on how school board behavior affected the school’s effectiveness. Zonnefeld asked if there was any similar research on Christian schools.

“No,” she said, adding, “You do it, and I’ll help you.”

There it was, he realized, his research topic. Zonnefeld had been a principal and had some experience working with Christian school boards, but he realized he didn’t really know what individual board members thought about the role they played or the effect they had on the school’s educational program. Yet he knew from reading other research and from experience that it was important.

Out of many possible research angles, he decided to try to determine how effective school boards thought they were, reasoning that getting them to think about that issue would help them ask other questions.

“It was not about what I thought they should do, but about what they thought,” he says. Working with Christian schools in Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, he adapted a study that had been used in public schools to gather data on board members’ perceived effectiveness in six areas:

Making decisions
Functioning as a group
Exercising authority
Connecting to the community
Professional development
Acting strategically

He found that participants rated themselves highly in the first two areas, somewhat lower in exercising authority, and low in professional development—getting training that would help them be better board members. Connecting to the community was surprisingly average, although some of the reasons for this, Zonnefeld believes, might be different from those in public school surveys. And acting strategically was rated low: Christian school board members are generally on for a short term and then done, making it more difficult to carry through strategic plans.

Also interesting was that in all areas principals rated the board’s effectiveness in these six areas higher than the board presidents, who rated them higher than individual board members.

Although Zonnefeld’s study does not tell boards what they should do, it does lead them to ask questions and gives some ideas for further thought and action. One pilot school with which he worked says the interaction they had through the study has already made them think about and do more educating of its board members.

Zonnefeld hopes that in the future he and his colleagues can help school boards develop training materials. He’s also interested in expanding the scope of his study to other Christian school boards. But those efforts must get in line behind the immediacy of teaching and student teacher supervision.

Although the work doesn’t have a direct impact on his teaching, Zonnefeld says he probably talks with his students more about their relationship as teachers to boards than if he hadn’t done the study. He tells them, “School boards have an impact on education. Know who they are so you can together do the work of the school.”

About the award

The Jordan Larson Award is in memory of Dr. Jordan Lewis Larson, a long-time school administrator in Iowa, who served as the superintendent in Ames in the early 1940’s.


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