Back to school with new programs and new faces

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Summer staff help unload brand new Wenger instrument storage lockers for the high school band in preparation for the new school year. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

While students have been enjoying summer vacation, staff at Clayton Ridge have been preparing for the coming school year. Custodial staff, the business manager and superintendent, and principals have been working vigorously throughout the summer months. “Summer really is all about gearing up for the upcoming year, and so we’re making sure all the requisitions are approved and ordered to have the necessary curriculum and materials that the teachers need to start on day one; we’re doing data collection on the year past, and state reporting is due,” said superintendent Shane Wahls.

Teachers will return to school on Aug. 17, with classes resuming on Aug. 23. A school-wide open house will be held from 4-6 p.m. on Aug. 22, at both Guttenberg and Garnavillo campuses for students and parents to find classrooms, meet teachers and drop off supplies. A 30-minute presentation from Superintendent Wahls, Principal Peterson, a school board member, and Mindy Reimer will inform on the state of the district, welcome students back to school, and provide valuable wisdom for digital citizenship – giving parents strategies for monitoring their children with technology and using it to be more aware of how their students are performing in school. 

This will be the first opportunity for the public to hear the results of the most recent facility study completed by administration, school board, and maintenance staff. “We’re going to be to the point very soon where we’ll want to get the public involved again as we start to gather info on what the community thinks the school should do. Something needs to be done and we’re trying to gather as much data as we can based on declining enrollment, resources in the number of staff we have, and construction costs, as well as life cycle costs of up to 30 years maintenance and support for facilities in the two communities. We’re close to being able to share some of the work that has been done,” said Wahls.

Enrollment has declined significantly since Wahls joined the district. “We’re graduating between seven and 10 less students per year than we did seven years ago,” said Wahls. “We would estimate in the next 10 years that we would decline another 70-100 students.” This year’s kindergarten class numbers in the upper 30s, which Wahls says is larger than the recent average. 

Though the outlook sounds grim, opportunities are not dwindling for Clayton Ridge students. Wahls and Central of Elkader superintendent Nick Trenkamp have spent much of the summer working with the Clayton County Development Group, touring county companies like Mobile Track Solutions (where 19 of 60+ employees are Clayton Ridge graduates), Caterpillar, and Guttenberg Industries. “We’re taking a look at what skills our students need in order to be successful if they decide not to go on to a four year college, but want to remain in the area,” Wahls explained. “What we’ve learned from that is that there is a great need for students coming out of high school needing a one to two year associates degree of some sort.” 

With an associate’s degree, graduates can make a successful living and have room to move up the ranks in area companies. “Some of the skills needed are soft skills like positive attitude, reporting to work daily, and financial literacy,” Wahls said, noting that the experience opened his eyes to areas outside academics where students can be trained to meet the needs and take advantage of the opportunities available in their own back yards. 

Next, Wahls will share the information he’s gathered with teaching staff and will continue conversations with NICC to address the vocational needs. “One of the things both Nick and I would like to see in our two districts as we work together is not only what they need from us as educators, but whether there are opportunities to partner with these industries now. Are there small projects, or pieces of the puzzle that we can do in our shops that support what they do so that students can have the experience of assisting with something?” 

A big change will come this year when eighth grade students attend class in the high school building while fourth graders are moved to the middle school building in Garnavillo. Declining enrollment has freed up instructors: for example, rather than teaching three sections of high school science, a teacher can now lead two sections for the high school and one for eighth graders – whose classes and athletics will not be mixed with high school students. A shuttle already travels from Garnavillo to Guttenberg at the end of each day, and that will be utilized to bring eighth graders north for middle school athletics. Eighth grade students will join the high school band, increasing its numbers. 

Many high school instructors are certified to teach eighth grade content, and middle school teachers are able to teach fourth grade, making the shift a sensible one. “Having high school staff pick up eighth grade opened up one grade level, with room and capacity to serve in Garnavillo and staff with certification to do it,” said Wahls. “One of the key factors for doing these two changes is based on early literacy for grades pK-3. There’s a state law that most likely could be put into place that says third graders not proficient in reading will be retained – so there is heavy emphasis on providing literacy instruction.” Fewer students in the building allows the school to better utilize staff to provide more intensive instruction for remaining students. 

New staff this year are Annette Willenborg, who will teach first grade, and Lynette Pritchard, a school social worker hired with special funding. Pritchard will work closely with counselors, administration, and families with students at risk to provide resources and make connections in the community to support those students at school and at home. Carole Mackey will teach eighth grade language arts and high school English. Jim Pfaffly returns to teach high school physics and chemistry. “Candidates for physics and chemistry teaching are very limited. Most are going into some form of engineering, which pays significantly more than becoming a teacher. We’re very fortunate that we have Jim Pfaffly here, who’s retired and wants to be part of the system,” said Wahls. 

Also returning is Sarah Zahradnik, who was hired as an instructional leader through a new program called the teacher leadership grant. The grant provided funds to hire three instructional leaders, 10 PLC strategists, and two mentor teachers. “The positions are all meant to collaborate together and provide leadership, coaching opportunities, resources, help with instructional strategies in the classroom and classroom management; to provide data, and overall help student achievement based on meeting the needs of the staff,” Wahls explained. 

Wahls told The Press, “I’m excited about a new school year and I’ll have a theme for all the staff and students when I start the year: Moving from impossible to possible.” To learn more, attend the school open house and listen in on Wahls’ state of the district presentation. 

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