The future looks bright for the Belvidere School District, thanks in part to its new 35-year-old superintendent. Meet a young and inspiring personality who’s driving change in local education.
To look at Dr. Dan Woestman, you might confuse him for a student at Belvidere or Belvidere North High School.
Instead, the fresh-faced Woestman, 35, is the new superintendent of the Belvidere School District.
“I grab it by the horns,” Woestman says about any attention made about his age. “I guess I’m closer to the students, perhaps, than most superintendents, because of my age. But the work we do happens in the classroom. It doesn’t happen in my office. This job is about competency and not about years.”
Woestman was hired by the school district last April and came on board in July. He has a three-year contract.
“Dan’s age was our main issue,” says Rob Torbert, board president. “We wanted a superintendent with experience, and he didn’t have any. So we did our homework to make sure he could handle it. Sometimes, when you have someone who is of the talent of Dan, you have to take a risk. We did and so far it’s worked out really well.”
Board member Heather Sell-Wick agrees. “Dan has a calm demeanor, he cares about people and he’s transparent,” she says. “He’s willing to talk to anyone about anything. That’s exactly what we needed.”
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Woestman, the eldest of six children, developed a love for education at an early age. He attended public schools until seventh grade and then was homeschooled for a year, before attending St. Zavier, a private, all-boys high school.
“I loved high school,” he says. “I think school helps shape a young person. It gives you an opportunity to learn and feed your curiosity. I loved the energy, the school spirit, and the sporting events. It was so much fun.”
And he was busy. Woestman was a drum major and played trombone in the school’s marching band. He was also a hurdler and pole vaulter on the track team. Until two years ago, Woestman held the school record in pole vaulting. “I loved it,” he says. “Pole vaulting is the only sport where you can fly.”
Woestman was encouraged to study economics in college, but he had other plans. He wanted to be an English teacher.
After his freshman year at Brigham Young University (BYU), Woestman went on a two-year Mormon mission trip to East Germany, where he performed community service and taught English. “I enjoyed the social work and the interaction with the people,” he says. “I also realized that I wanted to be a teacher.”
He returned to BYU, where he finished his degree in Education. It was also in college where he met his future wife, Sarah. The couple has been married 12 years and has three children: Jackson, 9, Parker, 7, and Elly, 5.
In addition to his professional work, Woestman is a High Priest in the Northern Illinois leadership for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, assisting youth pastors and youth leaders. He’s also served in various roles for the Boy Scouts of America and served on the operating board of Transform Rockford.
“My faith is very important to me,” says Woestman. “In many ways, I think that being in a leadership position for a congregation has helped me to lead people professionally. It’s not just telling people what to do, but connecting their hopes and dreams. People get into education because they feel a greater call to improve society. They want to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves, whether they’re a teacher or a custodian. The best employees are the people who are excited and proud of what they do.”
The Woestmans moved to the Rockford area about a decade ago, to accept job offers. Sarah worked as a reporter/anchor at 13WREX; her husband took a job as a freshman/sophomore teacher at Hononegah High School. Woestman later became assistant principal, under the leadership of Principal Ehren Jarrett, who was then also at the Hononegah district. Woestman spent five years at Hononegah, before leaving for a job with the Rockford Public Schools (RPS), rejoining Jarrett, who became RPS superintendent.
“I could see from the beginning that Dan had the humility and strong desire to do great things for students,” says Jarrett. “I never had a doubt that he would be a great educator and superintendent. He’s hardworking and smart. He’s not a traditional leader in the sense that he needs to draw attention to himself. He’s very grounded, which makes him so special.”
Woestman came to RPS as director of accountability, where he oversaw testing; he later became the chief quality officer. “I was looking for a challenge,” he says. “I wanted something that would push me and get me out of my comfort zone. I learned a lot in my time in Rockford.”
His five years in Rockford prepared him well for his opportunity in Belvidere. For starters, he got the opportunity to work with the board, which he does in Belvidere. He also built strong relationships with teacher labor unions.
Alan McCormick, vice president of the Belvidere Education Association, served on the selection committee to hire Woestman. “He completely blew us out of the water in the meeting,” McCormick says. “We were ready for a new leader like him. There’s still a buzz in the district.”
Woestman wasted little time getting to work. In April, he began getting to know the personnel and schools, while interim superintendent Cheryl Gieseke finished up last school year. Woestman spent a day in each school; rode the bus with the students; met with parents and toured each school. He was a substitute teacher in various classes, dined with students and teachers, and held town hall meetings with community members. “It helped him hit the ground running,” says Torbert, “which has carried over into this year.”
Less than six months into the job, Woestman has set his priorities for the district. He wants to improve communications and customer service, to work on updating the strategic plan, and to involve principals in the budget process.
Mostly, Woestman wants to make learning fun for students.
“We need to bring back the importance of cultivating curiosity, with our youth,” he says. “Accountability has to mean more than just test scores. We have to make sure the students are excited about school. Schools, as entities, are one of the only primary services in the country that remain the same 100 years later – a classroom with 30 students and a teacher. We need to change that. We need to come up with different ways to teach and learn.
“It’s called personalized learning,” he adds. “We want students to have a say about what they learn, and projects they are involved in. Students can become co-creators of their educational experience and teachers can become more like coaches. We want students to have experiences, and they want that, too.”
It’s that type of thinking, Jarrett says, that makes Woestman the right man for the job in Belvidere.
“The only thing Dan will need is experience going through the process,” he says. “He will learn from those experiences and get better and better. No matter what position he’s been in, Dan has always worked incredibly hard to learn everything he possibly could. The Belvidere community is in for a successful run with Dan as superintendent.”