BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – He saw a Madagascar “Hissing” cockroach, a fish-sharing experiment, was served a pickled zucchini slaw with a chicken breast and some linguini, and left impressed with his visit to Fort Madison’s public school system.
Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education, was hosted by FMCSD superintendent Erin Slater on Thursday as he toured the Fort Madison High School, Lincoln Elementary School, and the Fort Madison Middle School. His day in Fort Madison ended with a program dinner at the Elliott Test Kitchen where education entrepreneur and on-the-side chef, Kumar Wickramasingha, shared the programming of the test kitchen in Fort Madison, as well as the newly expanded programming in Burlington.
Wise left for Burlington after the dinner to meet with officials in that district and to meet with Southeastern Community College officials and Mediapolis school officials on Friday.
Wise’s day in Fort Madison started with a visit to the high school where Principal Greg Smith showed him a video on the 21st Century Room that has been built over the past two years. Smith told Wise local and state funds totaling $100,000 have been used to create the room and the school’s new Maker Space Room.
“I always look at the vision of the project,” Wise told Smith. It’s always easiest when you have a vision and what do you want the space to be rather than getting all the cool things and then figure out what we want to do with them.”
Wise asked the students if they had a vision for the room and Maker Place.
“We hope to have it open for projects. We have classes already using it but we hope to have things organized for classes with sign in and sign out sheets. We’ve had a few issues of things missing,” said Sierra Howardson, an FMHS student who attended the lunch with a group of students. “We also have projects in line. Last month was our green room and this month is book art.”
Wise said that other skills than just knowledge were at work on the projects.
“One of the things I talk about is college and career readiness. The content knowledge is just one component. Do you know what you need to know,” he said. “But the others are transition skills… are you ready to go from high school to college to the workplace. Then you have learning skills…working collaboratively and team research. And then leaderships skills. Those last three… you can clearly see all of those come out in this video. You’ve actually built this from a student vision, so congratulations. This is a great example of learning.”
Board member Gayla Young asked Wise if he thought more projects like this would be seen if the 1-cent sales tax extension is passed. There has been conversation at the state level of extending the sunset on the 1-cent sales tax funding option. Wise said he could see that being part of that overall picture.
After the meeting, Wise said funding is going to be an ongoing conversation at the state level.
“I think it’s going to be an annual conversation between the legislature and the governor,” he said. “From the department perspective, we certainly can’t ignore the funding issues because it’s a reality in whatever school I go into. At the same time, as director I’m focused on the programming and implementation of these big, ambitious state policies and how we can support districts in their local implementation.”
After the lunch, Wise was then shown the Makers Space and discussed with senior Jack Marek the work currently going on in the room. He was then shown the 21st century room and the Internet connected study tables and the open space configuration that encourages collaborative learning.
The tour moved to Lincoln Elementary where Wise visited an early beginnings room where students were engaged with a “Hissing” cockroach. He then moved through the hallways and spoke with Principal Tracy King, who discussed programming and the condition of the building.
“You know what I always look for in buildings is what is happening with the kids. And are the teachers able to reach the kids and create a good learning environment. We only had a chance to go to one class, but clearly engaged students with a thoughtful enthusiastic teacher. There are physical plant needs, but some good learning going on.”
One area that hurts the district is open enrollment and Wise said that issue is good for some and bad for others.
“It depends on perspective,” he said. “Largely it can be seen as a good thing to the parents to have that element of choice in education opportunities within the public system. Certainly some districts benefit and some lose students. But then I think that’s where local importance of education comes in and determining at the local level what needs to be done.”
Slater told Wise the Fort Madison district has one of the largest footprints in the state so there are families within the district that live closer to other districts so families move students to those closer districts.
But overall Wise said he was very impressed with the students at the high school and their engagement.
“I’m always impressed with students and the student group here was no exception,” he said. “Being able to visit with the handful that came into speak with us about the Makers Space at the high school was a highlight, but I always love it when board members come to the visit and it doesn’t always happen. Today they had great, thoughtful questions and were really easy to engage. Seeing that board support was really exciting. Seeing all that…the student voice and the administrator and the board support all together and engaged was really good. Now it’s just a question of how we can help.”