BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Personal growth, defining district graduates, and internal alignment were the main focuses of the Fort Madison School District in 2017.
Fort Madison Superintendent and school board president Tim Wondra agreed that the past year has been filled with many moving targets, but the process of dealing with those has been one of collaboration and standard alignment.
With state and federal assessments for teaching standards in transition, not to mention the uncertainty of funding in the district, school officials have stayed focused on keeping teachers aligned at all grade levels to one objective.
“There’s been a huge shift over the past 18 months. This is now about understanding what we need kids to know and be able to do. And then how are are we going to know when they’ve got it,” Slater said.
Almost immediately out of the gate, when Slater was hired in early 2016, there’s been a push to specifically identify what a Fort Madison High School graduate will look like when they leave the district.
And the programming through bi-weekly Wednesday early outs, advisory committees, the school board professional development, and other programming is helping to define that graduate spec.
And successes are starting to be seen at all four district buildings.
Lincoln and Richardson
Slater said STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and now STEAM, adding the arts, has been a main focus of teaching efforts.
“At the elementary levels. we’re moving into more STEM-related activities. They’ve incorporated art now so it’s called STEAM,” she said. “The elementary has been trying to take advantage of STEM and STEAM projects and make the kids more real-world thinkers.”
She said the elementary programming with the two efforts also cultivates soft skills like teamwork and problem solving. PTOs donated pumpkins for STEAM projects and donations were made to purchase STEM materials for several classrooms. Slater said the projects focus on higher level applications, not just the math involved, but real world applications.
Some of the accomplishments at the elementary level this year included a Walk-A-Thon which helped create funds for the schools and engaged the community. Slater said she’s also been carefully monitoring safety at the schools including drop off and pick up issues.
“Safety and security obviously are a very big deal for us,” she said. “I’ve been monitoring drop off and pick up that is very challenging on these small arterials with bikers, pedestrians, and vehicle traffic. Richardson has done some things to help address those issues, but Avenue E has been very challenging and we’ve implemented some new procedures that parents have been positive to.”
Wondra said this culture of gadgetry is clearly leading to more distracted driving.
“It is one of the issues we’ve been hitting with the idea of the new building as that would make that a lot better,” Slater said.
Slater pointed to the district Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) program and said that system has been implemented through both elementaries.
“We start that at the kindergarten level at both buildings,” she said. “It’s a process of identifying and showing the students the right way to behave in an uninstructed area. The positive is rewarding students with showing the right behavior and incentivizing that so that eventually the incentive doesn’t need to be there. That’s doing a nice job of setting those students up for the Middle school and the PACK program. It’s a nice longevity that we’re seeing.”
She said the Bridges out of Poverty program currently being assembled in Lee County in conjunction with Building Bridges – A Southeast Iowa Initiative will provide additional vision on programming to kids dealing with issues at home and then transitioning to school each day.
“There are more students than we know that are living in poverty. They are coming to school with all sorts of issues that they are dealing with in their home life, or lack thereof, and we expect them to be learning,” Slater said. “So we need to understand where our students are coming from and help them in those transitions. I”m excited that we are involved with that as we see what that means for Lee County.
The PACK Program is one of the top achievements at the Fort Madison Middle School in 2017.
“The kids are learning the STEM stuff without it being ‘this is science class’,” Wondra said. “They are learning without knowing they are are learning. It’s fun.”
He said five to seven years ago, outside play time was just a free-for-all on the playground, which kids needed as a release, but now the school has capitalized on that and turned it into the two-hour cycle each day that integrates learning and teamwork.
“Here they’re getting play time but it is structured so they are learning something, not just running out and playing. You get all that brain work and you need a break and it does give the kids a chance to exhale, but they’re still absorbing.”
Slater said there is still a STEM focus outside of the PACK program.
“Fourth grade has done a couple things where they build airplanes of paper and straw. But if you said to a fourth grader what do you think of physics, they wouldn’t know how to answer. But this is a higher level thinking. Now they’re studying creating homes that could withstand natural disasters, fires, floods and having contests to see immediate results of an attempt to do something.”
She said eighth grade projects including working on manufacturing concepts in IT classes and a 7th and 8th grade robotics team went to Iowa City recently.
“The advanced pursuit team traveled to Iowa City in October as part of a LEGO project in water cycles. These are opportunities for students that aren’t available to the younger students to see what’s going on in the real world.”
Slater said there is a strong push to provide leadership opportunities and community involvement at the high school.
“We really want to provide students with leadership opportunities beyond the classroom and trying to make sure our students are becoming better leaders. When the board did professional development, we developed goals where the leading question was ‘what do you want an FMHS graduate to look like’,” Slater said.
The board approved several student trips in 2017 including DECA, the business-based student club, and FFA leadership conferences.
A volunteer hour requirement has continued to grow with the requirement increasing for this year’s freshman to 20 hours over 10 hours the past several years.
“When we first implemented 10 hours of mandatory volunteer hours the students had trouble getting them in,” Wondra said. “This year it has changed to every time I go to an event there are high school students being a part of that and doing well with that. It’s nice to see that change. I think the school has done a nice job making it easier for outside organizations to say we need help.”
“It will be interesting to see this year’s numbers,” Slater said. “We had a lot of seniors who thought, ‘you know they aren’t going to make us do it’, but (high school principal) Greg Smith and I stuck to our guns and said, “you WILL get these hours in’ and everyone got them in. So this year will be interesting.”
She said the service hours are supposed to be outside the school walls and outside the particular activity.
“Key Club singing Christmas Carols – that’s part of the club activity. This is beyond even that, it’s unstructured work that you have to go out and get.”
One of the neatest things Wondra said is happening at the high school is Bloodhound TV. What just four months ago was an idea has now become an elective class at the high school, where students put together a news broadcast that is uploaded via YouTube for anyone to watch. Students in the journalism class are now putting together a weekly news page that runs in the Fort Madison Daily Democrat on a five-week cycle with other districts and Southeastern Community College.
Other students in the trades program and in the culinary classes have brought home first place finishes at statewide competitions. The trade classes are also building the current Habitat for Humanity Home. Art students brought home many top awards at the Fort Madison Area Artists Association’s Time to Shine exhibit. Fort Madison vocal and instrumental students have won many awards this year including first place at Quincy Octoberfest, the Ottumwa Parade and Drum line competition, and Davis County Field competition among others awards.
The high school also reinvigorated a drama club that put on a theatrical presentation in the fall in the school’s theater.
Along curriculum lines, the high school has added AP classes in Geography, English, History, and entrepreneurship with dual credit courses with the University of Iowa. But Slater was quick to point out that the district’s priority was the goal of higher level thinking and not necessarily to help offset some of the ever-increasing costs of college.
“The goal is for kids to get higher level thinking,” she said. “It’s a bonus if they get the four or whatever credits and can save some money, but our job is to get them to that point when they cross the stage where they have that higher level deeper thinking.”
District officials are still waiting on state and federal education officials to settle on an assessment that reflects current teaching standards and initiatives.
Slater said it’s difficult now to gauge success with data alone because the country and state are in flux as to what assessment tool best reflects current teaching. So she said the district is focusing on internal alignments that have teachers coming together on Early Out Wednesdays in teaching groups to analyze and evaluate what is working best in the schools.
“There are so many standards from the state and federal government that it’s difficult to prioritize,” she said. “With Early Out Wednesdays teachers can get into content or grade level groups to make sure we are teaching similar things regardless of the teacher you have. Then we come together to look at assessments,” she said.
“This didn’t start this year, this has been going on for 18 months or so. If we’re not aligned and we’re teaching the same class, it’s just education lottery. Who gets you, who gets me, We need to be teaching to the same standards and assessing them the same way so when we come together and look at those and one teacher has five students who got the learning and another class where most of the class didn’t get the learning, we can look at we what we need to better. We can teach different ways but we have to reach that same standard.”
“Before you’d have three different teachers grading the same essay, you get three different results, but now they’re working all together so we get a closer assessment or grading and that will be more helpful to the students as well,” Wondra said.
The district’s new P3 Campus software, which allows students anonymity and privacy in reporting threatening or disrupting activities, has proven successful in 2017. Although it is unknown how many reports have been received, the district’s threat assessment team did direct a school lockdown prior to the winter break as a result of several reports on the same issue.