The University of Northern Iowa’s outreach to Iowa educational leaders has received a major boost thanks to a grant from the Kern Family Foundation.

The new five-year $2.57 million grant to the College of Education will allow UNI’s Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) to expand “Leading and Learning with Character,” a program  begun in 2018 and funded through a previous Kern Family Foundation award. The program provides professional development around character and ethical frameworks to Iowa school leaders, with a focus on rural Iowa districts.Through modeling, interaction and reflection, school leaders will enhance their understanding of the importance of and support strategies for developing a culture of character in their schools and districts. 

Denise Schares, IEL director and associate professor of educational psychology, foundations and leadership studies, said she is excited for the opportunity to continue serving Iowa school leaders with on-site professional development.

“This work is focused on rich dialogue around ethical, character-driven leadership that positively impacts schools and communities,” Schares said. “A key element is engaging rural leaders in educational networks of practice with the grant funding significantly increasing the capacity for the IEL to build those leadership alliances across Iowa.”

The timing for the Kern Family Foundation’s investment couldn’t be better, Schares said, as the state of Iowa this month enacted new standards for school leadership — one of which is an ethics standard. Schares said educators participating in “Leading and Learning with Character” value deep conversations on what the standards mean for their day-to-day work lives and for the staff they lead. 

“We are creating a model of support for educational leadership and character development that is being shared regionally, nationally and internationally,” Schares added.

“The Kern Family Foundation is pleased to double down on its initial investment in UNI’s Institute for Educational Leadership,” said James Rahn, president of the Kern Family Foundation. “We believe this investment will allow the IEL to broaden and deepen its impact on Iowa’s schools, particularly as the Institute inspires and trains school leaders and teachers to develop the moral ecologies and communities of character in which children are well formed. In addition to transmitting knowledge and developing skills, a well-rounded education should prepare young people to live flourishing lives and to contribute to a flourishing society.”

Phase 1 of the program has reached more than 700 school leaders to date and was targeted to Iowa’s rural school districts that may have limited access to professional development opportunities.

The new grant will continue to focus on rural districts and serving school superintendents, principals and school board members, but enable the IEL to reach new audiences such as non-public school leaders, leaders supporting special education teachers and classroom teachers. Grant funding will support IEL leadership and staffing to implement the project.

Schares estimates the combined impact of both phases of the work will reach 75% of Iowa school districts and more than 3,000 educators with direct programming.

The Kern Family Foundation’s mission is to empower the rising generation of Americans to build flourishing lives anchored in strong character, inspired by quality education, driven by an entrepreneurial mindset and guided by the desire to create value for others. The Waukesha, WI-based foundation was established in 1998 by Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern, founders of Generac Power Systems.

The Kern Family Foundation’s gift was made to the University of Northern Iowa through the UNI Foundation. For more information about the UNI Foundation, visit 



Sarah Parsons