Eagle Pride: The Story of a School

Eagle Pride: The Story of a School

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist


The First Chapter

If you need a reminder of what Milford Public Schools are all about, just look at a wall. Almost any wall in the elementary school or the JR/SR high school will do.

"Everyone has a story. Make yours worth telling."

That’s their motto, and it’s not just teacher-speak or a clever slogan that exists strictly to forge a phony façade. Everyone, from the administration to the teachers to the students, understands the eight pillars of “Eagle Pride”.

Authors of their own life stories, they strive to pen something worth reading.

The story behind the school’s story started in 2010, when Secondary Principal TJ Meyer walked into a room of administrators frustrated by a lack of cohesion within the district and placed a copy of Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” on the table.

His eyes gleamed with excitement.

“You have to read this,” Meyer told Superintendent Kevin Wingard.

And just like that, a new culture was born.

Flash forward to 2017. It’s the week before the start of the school year, and Milford Elementary sits still with some of its final moments of silence. The calm before the storm.

Five Milford administrators sit around a table, eager to talk about their district and the upcoming school year, but still healing from the loss of one of their own. Meyer passed away June 14 following a battle with brain cancer, a heartbreaking loss for the entire community.

A 1985 graduate of Milford High School, Meyer spent the last four years as the principal of the elementary school after 11 years at the JR/SR High School. He sparked the shift in culture in a district that he loved, and his fellow administrators were on board from the from the very first page of Donald Miller’s novel.

“TJ read it, found it very impactful and had Kevin and I read it, and we thought ‘What better message to share with our kids than trying to write a better story for ourselves?’,” said Brandon Mowinkel, Secondary Principal at Milford with 16 years of experience in the district. “TJ was the driver behind that.”

Uniting the District

When Wingard came to Milford 13 years ago, there was little cohesion between the JR/SR High School and the Elementary building, despite their close proximity and despite the small size of the town, which has just over 2,000 residents.

“It’s amazing, only being a block apart, how different things really were,” he said.

“Two different schools with two different cultures doing two different things,” added Cory Hartman, who is set to embark on her first school year as Elementary Principal this fall.

That changed when Meyer walked in the room with a book and a vision.

“It became obvious that this was our new theme,” Wingard said. “Everything we do building-wise and district-wise should center around that. Anything that the two schools do from here on out has to relate back to creating a better story or helping a student create a better story.”

Eagle Pride consists of Courage, Citizenship, Respect, Trustworthiness, Effort, Responsibility, Honesty and Kindness, and it’s a way of life in Milford. It helped unite the district’s teachers. It brought about a transparency, a common direction, that was missing before, and, more importantly, a clean slate.

“One of the things that really helped with that was TJ going from Secondary Principal to being the Elementary Principal, which led to more connection between the two buildings, just because we had lived it for a couple of years already,” Mowinkel said. “If you walked around the high school, you would see the motto everywhere. On posters, on the wall right when you walk in, everywhere. We’ve kind of branded ourselves with that. It’s who we are and it’s what we try to live by. It started with TJ and his vision for wanting to write better stories for one another.”

Now, when Milford students make the move from the elementary to junior high, the transition is seamless. Implementation, Wingard said, was a smooth process. The new motto just made sense to everybody. It’s as simple as that.

“I think the premise of a story is easy to understand,” Mowinkel said. “You have chapters, and, as a teacher, every year is a chapter. You go through these things which are easy to relate to a story. You’re going to have conflict in a story, but you’re also going to have joys and sadness, and that’s all a part of the big picture.”

The motto tends to lead to conversations and the formation of support systems for children, said Assistant Secondary Principal Cameron Soester, who upon being hired at Milford was handed “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” and “One Word that Will Change Your Life” by Dan Britton (who visited Milford and worked through activities with teachers), Jimmy Page and Jon Gordon.

His eye-opening moment came on a visit to a Nebraska Coaches Association sportsmanship summit, where students were asked to define the word “respect”. Soester’s Milford kids unanimously answered with “honoring what others do and believe”, as the word is defined on the pillars of “Eagle Pride”.

“For me, there was a sense of pride that they had looked at it close enough to understand,” he said. “It was a good feeling for me to know the kids had really grasped that meaning.”

Teachers welcomed the unified direction. Conversations with students became easier to have. With the newfound solidarity in rhetoric, office referrals and detentions were becoming more and more sparse.

“This just gave us teachers the direction we needed in order to have those conversations with our kids,” Hartman, who taught third-grade for 13 years and second-grade for the last two. “I knew when I was talking to one of my third-graders, our fourth-grade teachers were having those same discussions.”

Posters with the motto plastered on them started popping up all the place. Director of Learning Mitch Kubicek stressed to teachers the importance of conversation, of sticking to the guidelines of the school’s commitment to a new culture.

“It was equipping people to have conversations that are hard to have sometimes,” Kubicek said “They’d say ‘Okay, so I know I’m going to talk about responsibility with you. Here’s what our code says and we need to figure out how to get there’.”

Walking the Walk

The five Milford administrators are, by virtue and thanks largely to their well-known motto, windows into their respective buildings. They understand the importance of curation. They understand the importance of promoting their students’ successes.

That doesn’t make the commitment easy, by any means, but to talk the talk you must first walk the walk.

“It’s a double-edged sword, and it goes both ways,” Mowinkel, who has over 4,000 followers on Twitter, said. “It’s amazing when I go talk to people, at NCSA’s Administrators’ Days or something, and the story motto gets brought up. We’ve kind of branded ourselves as that and now we have to live by it. It makes us hold ourselves accountable for what we are trying to do.”

Mowinkel, who was written a guest blog for Nebraska Loves Public Schools and last year worked with StrivTV in teaming up for a short video aimed at telling Milford’s story, has been in the district for 16 years in three different roles. He started as a shop teacher, and knows full-well an administrator’s power when it comes to directing a school’s narrative. It’s an additional burden, one not all administrators happily embrace, but it’s an important one.

“As an administrator, you’ve got to be willing to be that voice sometimes,” Mowinkel said. “You have to embrace that role, and you have to be ready for the other side of it, too, because you’re going to catch some heat at times, but you have to embrace it as ‘This is our story and we are going to tell it how we feel it should be told’.”

The motto is catchy and looks good on paper, Kubicek said, but that doesn’t matter if every member of the administration team isn’t actively doing something every day to further promote the culture it’s intended to foster.

“It requires a commitment from everybody not to only establish that culture, but to maintain it,” Kubicek said. “Stories and relationships tend to fit together really well. They kind of lean on one another. It’s not a policy, it’s something we live by every day.”

A Community On Board

There’s been tangible evidence of school-wide dedication in the form of community feedback, Wingard said. The schools have always been a cornerstone of the Milford community, but the bond started to strengthen seven years ago.

Through donations from the community, Milford gave out 48 foundation scholarships last year, averaging $1700 per scholarship. Money came in from around the country from alumni wanting to see current Milford students write the best story possible for themselves, Kubicek said.

“That goes to show how the community wraps their arms around our kids,” Soester added. “It makes me proud to work here knowing that kind of love is our there for our kids.”

Wingard requires all administrators to be a part of the Kiwanis Club of Milford, which allows them to branch out and connect to many other groups. If there is extra time at the end of a meeting, administrators will just talk about what’s happening in the schools, Wingard, who serves as Kiwanis President, said, an opportunity to build important bridges of communication between the school and community.

“Everyone sitting in this room is actively involved in our professional organizations, and that’s just another way to share our stories,” Mowinkel said. “You may be sharing it with a peer, but you never know, if they tell a story back, how that may benefit you.”

Mowinkel has had three separate roles in Milford’s schools, dating back to his days as a shop teacher, and has a building full of mostly-veteran teachers. Some have been teaching in Milford for 35 years, a testament to culture. He’s familiar himself.

“There’s just something about the culture, it’s a great place to be,” he said, noting that the administrative team can usually tell early on in the interview process whether a prospective teacher would make a good fit in their schools. “You’re not only looking for somebody that may fit that culture, but somebody that may add to it. You don’t want everybody to be the same. You want people to push you.”

The Future

Milford Public Schools are in the business of crafting stories, tales that all started when a Principal, a native son of the community, read a book and shared it with his peers, his friends, and his fellow school leaders.

Everyone has a story. Make yours worth telling.

Meyer’s impact on the Milford school district lives on in the motto.

“If it weren’t for TJ, we wouldn’t be where we’re at,” Mowinkel said. And if weren’t for TJ, they wouldn’t be going where they are going.

At Milford, students, teachers and administrators are the authors of their own stories.

School is just about ready to start, and it's time to write another chapter.