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After 30 Years At WDMCS, Crossroads Park Principal Robert Davis Made School A Good Place To Be BY AARON YOUNG • WDMCS SCHOOL/COMMUNITY RELATIONS • YOUNGA@WDMCS.ORG

A large bookcase, in pristine condition and not a speck of dust in sight, stands along the south wall of Robert Davis’, Ph.D., principal’s office at Crossroads Park Elementary. Items on its shelves — old family photos, educational degrees, even a brick from a school building that’s since been demolished — serve as a glimpse into the special moments of his life.

As a lifelong learner and educator.

A loving husband and grandfather.

A gentle friend and leader.

“There’s just so many good memories, so many good success stories. Forty-four years is here. It went by really fast,” Davis said, pausing to recollect his emotions. “This is a job that I really love. I always wanted to start the school year — everybody is revitalized and ready to go, all the different things we do in a year’s time. Having closure with the sixth grade graduation and having that blessing to them, then starting over.”

After 30 years serving as an elementary school principal for the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS), and 44 overall in education, Davis will retire and “start over” himself. Yet throughout much of his life, Davis was hard-pressed by others’ doubt and uncertainty. He wasn’t supposed to be in this profession or to have the achievements he’s garnered.

No, Davis has far exceeded those limited expectations, establishing an illustrious, decades-long career of servant leadership for thousands of WDMCS students, staff, and families.

The Desire To Make School A Good Place For Kids

When asked where his story should begin, Davis said it starts with his father.

“My dad’s a dropout. He never really had a family after he was 13 years old. He was basically living on the streets of a small town in Colorado, got married early, divorced at 22 and had three kids,” Davis explained. “He went into the service, kind of got his life turned around and then met my mom on a tourist bus in Arizona. I grew up in a blended family.”

Davis is originally from Cedar Falls. Throughout his younger years as a student, Davis remembers the comments teachers made about him and how he wouldn’t amount to anything.

“I had a lot of people who doubted me in my life,” he explained. “I really got into education more so because of the negative examples that were around me when I was in school and how kids were treated. I wanted to change that. I wanted schools to be a good place for kids.”

Following high school, Davis attended the University of Northern Iowa. He lived at home and paid his way through college. The first in his family to graduate from college, Davis got his first teaching job in Grundy Center. He taught there for three years before moving to Iowa City to complete his master’s and doctorate’s degrees at the University of Iowa. During that coursework, which Davis said lasted about five years, he was an elementary school teacher.

He got his first foot in the door as a school administrator as a junior high principal for three years and later as an elementary principal for another three years. Then, Davis met former Valley High School principal Robert Brooks.

“They used to do something called North Central Evaluations, and Dr. Brooks was the principal of Valley. He was the president of that association,” Davis said. “We used to have teams that went around and evaluated schools. I was the chair of a team that came in and evaluated Crestview (formerly Elementary, now School of Inquiry).”

Davis spent four days at Crestview and was completely blown away.

“The school was really, really, really, really good. I mean, it was just missing a leader,” he explained. “When the principal quit in May, I applied and got the job.”

Davis joined WDMCS in 1991. He was Crestview’s principal until 2001. During that 10-year span, Davis started the district's first English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program as well as work that involved partnerships with local businesses and the City of Clive to build playgrounds and structures for school enhancement. He also touted the awards Crestview received within that time frame, highlighting notable reading awards from the International Literacy Association and the Department of Education.

Davis loved “watching that school grow and change” and the impact it seemed to have across WDMCS.

“It’s really a high-functioning school with lots and lots of family involvement and tremendous staff,” he said.

District leadership at the time approached Davis in 2001 and asked if he wanted to be part of a project. The project? Valley’s football stadium was originally located on the corner of Eighth Street and Hillside Avenue in West Des Moines. A new stadium would be built in its current home along Mills Civic Parkway, and a new elementary school would replace the old site.

For Davis, that meant leading Rex Mathes and Clegg Park elementaries from 2001-04 while Hillside Elementary was constructed. He took on the opportunity, but acknowledged how rocky this transition was.

“That was by far the biggest challenge I’ve ever had, to keep schools functioning at a high level and then constructing a 21st-century school in terms of the architecture and how the school is going to function as a learning community,” Davis said.

But being Hillside Elementary’s first principal was meant to be.

3913 Hillside Drive, A Strong Coincidence

Davis was part of the design and construction phases when Hillside was built. As part of that process, he remembers interviewing roughly 300 students about where their favorite places to learn were.

“I wanted schools to be a place for children where their voices were heard. Not one kid mentioned the word ‘school’ — 300 kids,” Davis said. “They mentioned places like their living room or their kitchen table, places that had a home connection. There’s some imagery related to home and school at Hillside that was part of our thinking. The technology that’s there — the data projectors, surround sound, and amplified voices — all of that started at Hillside and eventually went through the district.”

What we call Hillside Elementary today was first known as Valley Junction High School, which opened its doors for the first time in 1917. In 1923, Hillside Junior High was built east of the high school, and sixteen years later, the original football stadium was built to the north. Over time, as population increased in West Des Moines, the need for expansion caused WDMCS to move Valley to its current spot at Woodland Avenue.

In August 2004, about 75 staff members and 650 students from Rex Mathes and Clegg Park came together as Hillside opened its doors with Davis at the helm.

“When I was a kid, my address was 3913 Hillside Drive,” he said with a chuckle. “I know the school was named after the original Hillside, but it’s just such a strong coincidence.”

Davis was Hillside’s principal until 2015. He said the concept of all-day kindergarten, which Davis first tried to get off the ground under his tutelage at Crestview around 1993, began at Hillside and was implemented throughout the district. At Hillside, Davis said he continued to do a lot of things revolving around reading and reading intervention, and introduced Encore times. He also led efforts at the time for Hillside to become Iowa’s first (and only) Artful Learning school.

“School improvement has kind of been how I function. As a building principal, you have the impact to make change,” he explained. “You’re at a level in the system where if you’re strong with instructional leadership and you understand how to improve schools, you can really make things better for children, families, and teachers. That’s true of every school that I’ve worked in.”

Savoring These Final School Days, Forever

Students presented farewell gifts and cards to Crossroads Park Elementary Principal Robert Davis, PhD., during surprise grade-level concerts on Thursday, May 27, 2021, in the school's gymnasium.

Davis arrived at Crossroads Park, his current post as principal, in 2015. It’s his “neighborhood school,” and Crossroads Park has always been known as “a school of excellence” during his 30 years with WDMCS.

Any administrator who’s set to lead a school new to them must make sure certain things are in place — like a good student management system, a strong leadership team, a school improvement plan with achievable goals, and knowing what the curriculum and good lessons and assessment practices look like.

“That’s the bedrock of the learning cycle. The one thing you won’t see from me in my career is a bandwagon. I looked at things through just what do effective schools need?” Davis explained, noting that one Crossroads Park goal is 100% of its student body will make growth in reading following this COVID-19 pandemic year. “We really approach that from a standpoint that we’re not going to intervene our way out of this. We’re going to assess where the kids are.”

Amid these last two school years combating the coronavirus, Davis commends his students and their families as well as his teachers and staff for how they’ve supported each other despite life’s newest obstacles.

“I have been very impressed and proud of how well everyone has worked toward some common goals in terms of helping the children learn,” he explained. “The children have been really resilient and have worked very hard. The teaching staff has just been amazing. They come to work every day and make every day special for the children. And our parents have just been super. They’ve teamed well with us and they’ve been very patient. Even though it’s been really different from past years, I think we’ve made the most out of it that we could.”

During one recent school day, Davis was reading to a third grade class when he was told his assistance was needed elsewhere. Instead, students and staff surprised him in the gymnasium for impromptu choir concerts, organized by Crossroads Park music instructor Kathy Hardy. Davis was joined in the audience by his wife, daughter, grandchildren, and close family friends.

Class by class, from kindergarten up to sixth grade, students sang and performed songs they chose themselves to honor their beloved principal. At the end of each grade-level concert, classes presented Davis with farewell gifts, ranging from student-authored books titled “Countless Reasons Why Dr. Davis is the Best Principal” and “Our Advice On How To Make Retirement Amazing” to personalized golf tees so he remembers students while he’s out on the links.

"We here at Crossroads are privileged to have this man as our principal for the last six years,” one student said at the start of the concerts. “Of all the students he has worked with, we are blessed to be the students to give him his final concert to thank him for all his years of hard work. “Dr. Davis, thank you for your service from the bottom of our hearts."

Davis’ last day as Crossroads Park’s principal is June 30. After being asked what he will miss the most, his response was instant.

“Children. Teaching the staff. The day-to-day interactions,” Davis said. “Impacting kids and watching kids learn.”

Students and staff certainly appreciate Davis. He’s been walking around a lot more inside and outside of the school’s grounds, talking to those he sees and savoring the opportunities of busy hallways, full classrooms, and noisy playgrounds.

“June it gets pretty quiet,” Davis said. “It’s going to be tough.”

A lifetime dedicated to education. That’s what he worries the most about as he prepares for retirement: losing the sense of identity he’s known for so long.

Does he have any regrets?

“I have a reputation of having really high expectations. Some people call me a taskmaster. Some people say I’m demanding,” Davis said. “I remember when I started at Crestview, people told me to slow down. I wanted to get things done. So I think my regrets would be maybe I wish I had more patience at times, had softer expectations. But that’s one reason I have always been able to achieve results because people do know the bar is set high where I work. Most people want to work with me and accomplish those expectations.”

‘You Know, I Gave It My Best’

In retirement, Davis plans to keep up with the landscaping at his home and golf. Lots of golf, actually. During the earlier points of his career, Davis was a “big workaholic.” He told himself then that he needed to find a healthier balance between his personal and professional life.

“Golf has expanded my social arena with friendships and people I’ve met,” he explained, adding that he’s been a member of Des Moines Golf and Country Club since 1997.

Davis is an avid Boston Red Sox fan. He and his wife would like to take trips out to various ballparks across the country. Former WDMCS administrators whom Davis is friends with now live in Arizona, so he hopes to enjoy their company in desert heat when Iowa’s harsh winters get rolling.

“I have three grandchildren that live a block from me — the oldest is seven and the youngest is two,” Davis said. “Grandma helps out a lot, so hopefully we can get in a place where I can get her down there for four weeks or so to start out with. But that’s part of retirement: everybody tells me you have to have a plan, so my plan’s slowly evolving.”

What would he share as parting words for his Crossroads Park staff and fellow WDMCS colleagues?

“Always remember why we’re here: we’re here for the students,” he said. “We’ve got to love them every day — unconditionally. We can’t underestimate the impact that we’re having on these kids. I think they’re some of the best children I’ve ever worked with. Take advantage of the opportunity to really make a difference.”

When focus groups for the school’s next principal were conducted with Crossroads Park staff, they were asked what they’d want in their newest leader. All of the responses, Davis said, were that teachers and staff wanted someone like him.

“It was like a catharsis of… I didn’t realize…”

Davis stopped. He sat in his chair, thinking about what that sentiment truly meant to him. He fought back tears as he looked toward his bookcase, admiring the mementos that played key roles in his storied journey as an educator and person.

“You know,” he continued, “I gave it my best.”

Minutes later, once the conversation ended, Davis rose from his seat and left the room. Classes were about an hour already in session. He stepped out of the main office and strolled through the halls, ready for another day.

To smile and laugh with his students.

To lead and support his staff.

To make school a good place to be… always.

Crossroads Park Elementary Principal Robert Davis, Ph.D., poses for a photo following surprise grade-level concerts performed by his students on Thursday, May 27, 2021, in the school's gymnasium. Davis is retiring after 44 years overall in education, with 30 years at the West Des Moines Community Schools.
Created By
Aaron Young
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All photos by Aaron Young/WDMCS School/Community Relations