Walking across a stage with generosity

It’s the intention of the Pleasant Valley School District that students leave with two important takeaways following graduation. “Our deeply-held values in this district are the importance of students continuing on to purse post-secondary education opportunities and teaching them the value of citizenship to our communities,” noted Superintendent Jim Spelhaug.

It was almost three decades ago that the district’s foundation first partnered with the Quad Cities Community Foundation to build scholarships for students. They felt it was important to “walk the talk,” Spelhaug said, so scholarship dollars were raised to support students as they pursue their next chapter.

It would also demonstrate the importance of giving back. And with the support of the district, community and local businesses, the scholarships, which are held at the Community Foundation, have grown tremendously since its inception. “Our first year, we gave away two $500 scholarships,” Spelhaug said. “This spring we will give out more than 100 scholarships of $1,000 each. A lot of people have worked hard for this milestone.”

In total, over $240,000 has been awarded.

The scholarships can be used for any type of post-secondary education, including four-year universities, trade schools, certification programs or apprenticeships. “It’s long been the belief of our district that a high school diploma is a stepping stone, not a milestone,” he said.

It’s long been the belief of our district that a high school diploma is a stepping stone, not a milestone.
— Jim Spelhaug

When his own father went to school, just 20 percent of graduates went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Spelhaug’s daughter will graduate this year, and nearly 80 percent of Pleasant Valley graduates this spring will go on to pursue degrees. “It’s been flipped on its head,” he said.

The district is one of few public schools to require students to complete community service hours—70 hours in total for each student—as a graduation requirement. “We want students to be prepared to go on to post-secondary education and do well for themselves, and we also want them to have a world view that wherever they land, they make it better,” Spelhaug said. “We want them to use their talents to help their community, their state, and the country. They have a responsibility beyond themselves.”

The first step is a great education. “I believe deeply in the ability of an education to impact the trajectory of an individual’s life, whatever their circumstances,” he said. 

The district’s foundation has set an ambitious goal to someday provide a scholarship to every graduating senior. Spelhaug said some might argue that it would be more beneficial to provide larger scholarships to fewer students, but it would miss the mark on what they are trying to accomplish. “We are seeking to provide scholarships to all students and not all students are going to attend a private four-year university,” he said.

Even if the price tag for post-secondary education is expensive, $1,000 does makes a difference, he added. Providing scholarships to as many students as possible sends a message that they want every student to continue to pursue more education when they graduate.

The endowed scholarships gifted to the Quad Cities Community Foundation for awarding by the district are only possible with the support of the community. The district provides several opportunities throughout the year to raise support for the scholarship funds, including an annual golf outing and a run that honors the life of a student who died in a pedestrian accident several years ago. 

“For some people who choose to give, it’s a chance to honor the life of a loved one,” he said. “It’s really humbling that someone would honor a loved one by helping invest in someone else’s education. It’s a legacy of being able to help others and it underscores the value of that person’s life. It’s powerful.”

Spelhaug will retire at the end of the school year and hopes he has helped create a sense of gratitude among students when they prepare to walk across the stage to receive their diploma. “The scholarships are that last reminder for them that we are celebrating their hard work, but not to ever forget the parents and teachers who stood by them and helped get them where they are today. As they make their way in this world, remember to do the same.”