From left: James Ostlie (all-state choir), Linnea Kephart (all-state choir), Michael Peter (all-state choir) and Drew Schwartz (all-state orchestra) have all won a state title, and some of them have won two – all in the past six months. (Submitted photo)
It has been referred to as "the Decorah way" -- placing a high value on creativity and a strong work ethic, as evinced in organizations like ArtHaus and the New Minowa Players, the city's park-rec programs, its downtown vitality and its new bike trail.
"(Decorah) doesn't just say 'That's good enough,'" says Jason Rausch, vocal director at Decorah High School. "We push ourselves from good to great -- and that is what our student body is doing at DHS."
Indeed; and if five state athletic championships in one calendar year is a mark of that greatness, the achievements of four DHS students, in particular, suggest a bar being pushed even higher.
Michael Peter, Drew Schwartz and James Ostlie are all state champs in football, and Linnea Kephart was a member of the state champion DHS girls cross country team.
All four of them also are all-state musicians.
Inspiring students ...
"I feel busy, but I don't feel overwhelmed," Ostlie says of a schedule that has to bring "busy" to a whole new level.
"We've all been involved in a lot of things for such a long time, it's just second nature to us now," he says. "It keeps me busy, but it also keeps me kind of sane."
And, at times (one would assume), a little tired. But, Schwartz says, "as long as I enjoy what I'm doing, I'm fine with being tired."
The students say time management is key to making their schedules doable.
"You need to plan ahead for the nights when you're going to be up late, and do assignments ahead of time," Kephart says.
And, says Peter, "the teachers understand that a lot of kids are in a lot of activities. They give us time to work on homework in class."
The extent to which the students have succeeded in meeting their commitments has not gone unnoticed by teachers and administrators.
"This fall they were juggling school work, athletic practices, practices for all-state, variety show practices, drum-line practices, etc.," DHS Principal Kim Sheppard says. "They have proven to be very efficient with their management of time, which allowed them to accomplish so many things."
Orchestra Director Nicole Cody came to DHS four years ago - right alongside these four students, including Schwartz, who plays cello in the orchestra.
"They don't get much better than these kids," she says. "They just do it because they do it. It's the standard they've just set for themselves."
DHS Associate Principal and Activities Director Adam Riley concurs.
"The hard work it takes to be an all-state musician in addition to a state champion athlete is almost mind-boggling," he says.
Nevertheless, he notes the school had over 200 of their 600 students involved in a sport and the fine arts last year.
A high school that encourages students to participate in multiple activities -- and produces all-state performers whose commitments often overlap -- is going to face some challenges.
"Our administration is super-supportive of fine arts and of athletics," DHS Vocal Director Jason Rausch says, noting in particular arrangements that made it possible for Schwartz, Peter and Ostlie to get to both the state championship football game and the all-state music festival without missing a beat.
"Mr. Riley helped steer us through that challenge with transportation so we could have students in Cedar Falls Thursday night for the game and then in Ames Friday morning by 8 a.m. for all-state music festival rehearsals."
"Part of my role that I take very seriously is to promote an environment in which students can both be involved with athletics and the fine arts," Riley says. "This is done with a lot of effort to minimize conflicts between activities so kids can be in both athletics and a music activity."
Rausch says the music department does whatever it can, to make this possible.
"For the fall variety show or musical we work around the fall athletic schedules so our athletes can have theater experience -- which means we have rehearsals beginning at 7 p.m instead of having them at 3:30 p.m., after school," he says. "For all-state chorus practices we go in the evenings or at 7 a.m. to avoid athletic conflicts."
Teachers' and administrators' efforts to encourage crossovers between the arts and athletics have paid off.
Ostlie, for example - recently named to first team all-state football by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Newspaper Association, first team all-district and academic all-district, played the lead male character of Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" last fall.
Additionally, the football players have performed as a vocal trio the last three years for state solo/ensemble music festival and have received a superior "I" rating each time; and last spring they received the "outstanding performance" award.
... and who inspires them
All four students consider their parents prime inspirations.
"I've looked up to him all my life," Peter says of his dad. "I try live my life as positively as he does."
Kephart, too, credits her parents with being inspirations. "They're always there for me. They believe in me even when I don't believe in myself," she says.
But Ostlie says DHS students have a lot of people to thank for encouraging them.
"Great administration, great teachers, a great community," he says. "Our parents support us 100 percent; and even people who don't have kids in the school system have been really supportive."
Peter says he also has found inspiration in the larger community.
"Decorah Park and Rec and Andy Nimrod really got it all started," he says. "Flag football and punt and kick. Kids were encouraged to get out and have fun; and that's the reason kids get involved in sports in the first place."
Coaches, too, have earned the students' gratitude.
"I admire (Assistant) Coach (Adam) Riley," Ostlie says. "Through all my four years here, he's always looked out for me. He sets a great example for how to live your life - how to make right decisions even when nobody's watching. I just admire the heck out of him."
Schwartz says he admires Coach (Bill) Post -- "because of all the time he puts in and all the work, all the passion he has for the game."
And the respect goes both ways.
"The neatest thing to me about these three young men is that they are such physical, good football players one day and the next they are so talented and sophisticated in their area of fine arts," Post says. "They truly love to do both, which makes it even sweeter. I admire how these guys want to do all these different activities and never complain or try to weasel out of anything."
Of course, DHS isn't alone in its ability to foster excellence.
"Decorah Middle School does a great job," Ostlie says. "They encourage involvement - you can't help but have a good time at good old DMS."
"(DMS vocal instructor) Dean Beckman has a goal of having at least 40 percent boys in his middle school choirs so he recruits until he reaches his goal," Rausch says. "Most of the time he meets this goal. This has greatly impacted the diversity of boys we have in the vocal music program at the high school and helps us musically have balance in the choirs."
A community effort
"It's been said, 'It takes a whole village to raise a child' -- and I believe that has proven to be true in Decorah," Sheppard says.
The support and assistance provided by many different individuals and groups - including the solid foundation provided by elementary and middle school teachers, coaches and sponsors - "has made such a positive difference in helping our students achieve so many things," she says.
Riley, too, stresses the importance of students' relationship to the community-at-large.
"When kids are involved in multiple activities they interact with so many different groups in the community," he says. "Through their interaction, they have a great pulse on what is going outside the walls of the high school."
And few communities embrace their students as wholeheartedly as Decorah does.
"I am amazed at the community members (even if they don't have kids in school) who stop and ask how the kids are doing," Sheppard says. "They almost always add that they are following them, pulling for them, through the papers, radio, etc."
"Coaches and directors do an excellent job of reminding our kids in all of our activities that they represent more than just themselves," Riley adds. "When they perform or compete they represent Decorah in a larger sense and they know the people of our community take great pride in their successes and have very high expectations for their conduct."
Having met, and even exceeded, those expectations, the students are well prepared to take on a future that is theirs for the shaping.
"I think having these four individuals who are state champions in football and cross-country and all-state musicians shows a depth of commitment and diversity in our student body," Rausch says. "We are giving them opportunities to develop skills such as collaboration, creativity, a work-ethic and citizenship -- all 21st century skills."