Photo: Dr. E. Robert Stephens (seated) was surrounded by the AEA chief administrators at a meeting last fall where he was given a "Friend of the AEA" award. There are now both national and state awards in Dr. Stephen's name to honor exemplary work by those associated with educational service agencies and AEAs.

Founder of AEAs passes away: E. Robert Stephens honored for his contributions
Written by Liz Determan, communications coordinator, and Dr. Tim Grieves, chief administrator

Fifty years ago, an ambitious graduate student at The University of Iowa was asked by the Iowa Department of Public Instruction and rural superintendents in the state to direct a study to find a prototype to distribute instructional services equitably and efficiently across Iowa. His vision eventually found its way to the Iowa Legislature in 1974, when Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs) were passed into law. That graduate student, affectionately called the “father” of the AEA organization, Dr. E. Robert “Bob” Stephens, passed away this month at the age of 87, still offering guidance on the system he envisioned five decades ago.

Dr. Stephens saw a need for an instructional services arrangement while he was the superintendent at a small school district in Center Point, Iowa. He would call his mentor, Arnie Salsbury, who was the superintendent at the much larger Cedar Rapids Community School District, to help his small staff. 

“It did not make any difference what it was, science, math…” said Stephens in a 2012 interview with Dr. Tim Grieves at Northwest AEA, “In some cases, he would send them up to Center Point at no cost, spend a day with our people, not only instructional assistance, but he provided some of the non-instructional, school bus drivers, school lunch…”

Dr. Stephens continued, “Well, it occurred to me, why couldn’t every school system have access to that kind of service?”


History of Iowa’s AEA System

The Legislative Guide, updated in 2014 by the Legislative Services Agency, states that the origin of the AEA system in Iowa can be traced back to 1858. Legislation was enacted to create an intermediate level between individual school districts and the state in the form of a county superintendent. County offices were authorized to provide, as requested, educational programs and services to school districts located within the county. While these changes represented a clear progression toward the regional furnishing of programs and services, distribution of those services continued to occur on a county-by-county basis. 

In 1965, a network of 15 community colleges and vocational-technical schools was established to provide regional post-secondary education services. With the advent of the joint system, special education, staff development, and media services were available to school districts within a region that might not have been able to afford such services on their own. Access to these services, however, varied considerably from district to district, depending on the extent to which the county or joint system provided the services. 

The need for equal access to services, coupled with federal legislation focusing on enhancing programming for children with special needs, and a movement toward establishing intermediate service units in other states, led to the establishment of AEAs in Iowa in 1974 with Iowa Code Chapter 273.


Setting the National Stage

After receiving his graduate and doctorate degrees at The University of Iowa, Stephens became part of their faculty in the Educational Administration department. In 1971, he was asked to take a leave of absence to conduct a study of the Vietnam GI Bill of Rights. That assignment took him to Washington, D.C., for one year. 

By networking in the D.C.-area, Stephens was offered a chairmanship position at the University of Maryland, where he would eventually spend his entire career. According to Stephens, this location facilitated his work at the national level for educational service agencies (ESAs).

“The proximity of the University of Maryland in College Park facilitated access to federal agencies, which then one of the things that came out of that was I was given a grant to try to see if there was any support for some kind of a national organization of service agencies,” said Dr. Stephens. “So I held three meetings across the country and what came out of that was the beginnings of the Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA).”

His prior work, along with a national effort to disseminate educational knowledge on a grassroots level, timed very well with his residency in Maryland.

“[At] that time there was the old NIE (National Institute of Education),” Dr. Stephens recalled. “They had a major initiative in diffusion of educational knowledge and they saw the potential of service agencies as a way to assist NIE’s priority to disseminate research. They used service agencies as a conduit.”

The Iowa Legislative Services Agency found that 46 states have developed some form of intermediate educational service agency. These agencies are referred to by a variety of names. Examples include: educational service districts, educational service units, regional education service agencies, intermediate school districts, education service centers, and county offices of education, in addition to Iowa’s AEA designation. In general, however, they share the common characteristics of creation by statute, representative governance, and a commitment to the furnishing of high-quality, cost-effective educational support programs and services to local school districts within a given geographic area. These support programs and services are often ones which the school districts cannot develop or obtain as efficiently on their own.

Stephens retired from the University of Maryland in 1996, and returned to his home state in Iowa. He became a tremendous resource to the chief administrators of the Iowa AEAs and was invited to attend all of their leadership meetings until his death on February 9 this year. He provided the chiefs with coaching and served as a critical friend.

“Bob was very instrumental in the state of Iowa and across the country in creating and maintaining and studying the educational service agencies and the Area Education Agencies,” stated Dr. Grieves. “We welcomed his wealth of experience and wisdom at our meetings.”


AEAs Impacting Lives

Many changes have taken place in Iowa’s AEAs since their inception in 1974. Mergers of AEAs have decreased the original 15 organizations to nine today. Most AEAs serve approximately 10-15 counties and the school districts within those counties. They are still the conduit between the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa’s school districts. 

AEAs continue to provide direct service to children with special needs and their families from birth to age 21. They also provide instructional resources for educators in both public and non-public schools, and media resources for students and teachers. 

“While the AEA employee base has decreased because of legislative funding over the years, the individual AEAs are more unified than ever. The number of statewide initiatives is at its highest,” said Dr. Grieves. “Collaboration among the AEAs and school districts is the key to educational success for students.”

In his 2012 interview, Stephens noted that, in order to be successful in the future, AEAs will have to be adaptable and responsive. He believed these two attributes, paired with the original intent of the AEAs, would make education in Iowa very resilient. 

“The AEAs are the only thing to save the state of Iowa,” declared Dr. Stephens, “I believe that with every bone in my body.” 

This came from the man who laid the groundwork for intermediate service agencies across the country…and who saw education from many different perspectives, in every corner of the country, over a lifetime in the field. 

As always, be sure to check out our blogs, which we hope will inform, inspire and guide your daily work:

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Educationally yours,

Dr. Tim Grieves
Chief Administrator