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The Official Baldrige Blog

2013 Award Winner: The “Little Engine That Could” Is Now a National Role Model

head shot of JoAnn Sternke

JoAnn Sternke


In education, as in other sectors, being a small organization is not an impediment to winning a Baldrige Award.

With fewer than 3,000 students and 300 staff members, Pewaukee (Wisconsin) School District provides the latest example of this fact. As the district’s superintendent JoAnn Sternke recently stated, “We’re a small organization that has become very focused on using the Baldrige [Education] Criteria to help us improve. We’re the little engine that could.”

No organization is too small to benefit from use of the Baldrige Criteria. Having used the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence since 2007, Pewaukee School District was demonstrating excellence in wide-ranging processes and results by 2010, when it won the Wisconsin Forward Award of its state-level, Baldrige-based quality program. Pewaukee’s strong demonstration of excellence enabled it to win the national Baldrige Award in 2013, becoming the seventh school district in the history of the program to win the national award.

The district boasts one of the highest graduation rates in its state, despite also having a relatively tough graduation requirement (28 credits), as well as very low truancy and dropout rates. What’s more, the rate of college attendance among the district’s graduates has increased from 78.8 percent in the 2006-2007 school year to 91.9 percent in the 2011-2012 school year, compared to a state rate of 74.1 percent.

While having added Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings in recent years, the district achieved an AP exam passing rate (76 percent, as of 2011-2012) that is eight percentage points higher than the statewide rate. And on ACT college-readiness tests, district students have outperformed both state and national comparisons with their aggregate score of 23.4.

Sternke has noted that “leveraging the Baldrige Criteria helped us look at improving all the processes in our organization and streamline spending. We had to be very good and strategic about setting achievement goals.”

With strategic planning processes in place that reflect the Baldrige Criteria and best practices, her district develops action plans to ensure the accomplishment of its strategic objectives and reviews them every 90 days. The district boasted a completion rate of 98 percent for action plans during the most recent school year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pewaukee schools also have engendered high levels of satisfaction among parents and staff members. In fact, parent satisfaction rates (between 91 and 95 percent) at all district schools last year outperformed the national average rate of 74 percent. To learn more about this district’s inspirational results and journey to excellence, check out the profile of the organization on the Baldrige Program's website.

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

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