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Back to School

Posted July 27, 2012 in Clear Lake

Clear Lake Middle School Principal Dan Long has a lot to look forward to following the completion of a year-long renovation project.

It’s bigger than a ball dropping in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. And it likely brings with it even great possibilities for resolutions to last well in to the “New Year” and beyond.

The first day of school — now only a few short weeks away — is indeed a great time of new beginnings for students, parents and teachers. In the first few days and weeks of this brand new school year, a tone will be set for the year; a tone that school officials hope will be filled with optimism, an eagerness to devour new information, foster new ideas, and to set in place the tools that students may use to create the future they dream of for themselves.

It’s a lot to ask of 180 days, interspersed with weekends and holidays and training sessions, but the staff of Clear Lake Community Schools, from the teachers and the administrators, to the lunch ladies and the bus drivers, are eager to play their part in making it a safe, successful, and even a bit of a thrilling new year for the young generation in their charge.

Clear Lake Middle School Principal Dan Long has a lot to look forward to this year. After a yearlong renovation that essentially created an entirely brand new middle school, Long will finally have all his students under one roof again.

“It was a good year last year, it really was. But it was obviously a very different year than what we’re used to,” Long says.

For the renovation, eighth graders were squeezed into a separate wing of the high school, while seventh graders stayed in a portion of the middle school, and sixth graders had a building all their own at the former Sunset School.

When the new year opens for middle schoolers on Monday, Aug. 20, they will be welcomed into a space engineered for learning and planned with the needs of their generation in mind.

“When you walk in, you’ll see spaces that are really designed to meet the needs of kids, from a variety of standpoints,” Long says. “This includes looking at what we’re doing with technology to enhanced learning opportunities.”

Originally budged at about $4 million, the bond-funded project has successfully come in under that mark, Long noted.

The principal is eager to talk about not just the new spaces but the new ideas and practices that will be going on inside those new spaces this year.

“One of the most exciting things for this year, beyond having a new space, is that we’re looking to roll out a One to One initiative with iPads,” he notes.

The One to One program is being rolled out cautiously and with time for teachers to plan how best to use the technology to enhance learning for all students. Middle school teachers each received a new iPad in April. Training and planning will continue this fall with all middle school students expected to receive a brand new iPad by about January.

“We’re waiting for an upgraded management system that’s going to come out in the fall,” Long says. “We want to make sure that we plan it the right way, but what an exciting thing to think that every kid is going to have an iPad in their hands this year!”

The iPad program is funded through the district PPEL fund (Physical Plant and Equipment levy), which Long says has been a very important funding source for the district as a whole.

For today’s students, Long sees the iPad as a way to make learning more interactive and individualized.
“Kids are creators. They want (their schooling) to be hands-on, and what we see more and more is that they want it to be meaningful for them,” Long says. “This allows them to be engaged right from the git-go and to see that meaning and relevance.”

On an iPad, even writing down their homework assignments may be a little more fun for students who might otherwise be a little forgetful. Long explains that students can build their own calendar and set their own reminders, just as adults do in the business world. (And for parents who haven’t yet learned to set up the reminders, the kids will be glad to show them how!) Not only does it provide real world preparation, but it may foster a greater sense of responsibility on the part of students to meet the expectations set forward by parents and teachers.

To Long, implementation of the One to One iPad initiative is yet another example of the Clear Lake Community School District’s commitment to preparing students for today’s rapidly changing technology.
“That’s one of the great things here,” Long says. “We’ve been very progressive as a district in terms of growing and expanding the use of technology.”

At the same time, there’s still no replacement for real student-teacher interaction, and as Long shows visitors around the newly-renovated school, he points out how the facility is not only computer-friendly but also human-friendly. It looks neither like the classrooms of old, nor a sterile environment where students stare at a screen all day. There is variety here, natural light, and seating and design options that teachers can change up to fit different needs on different days.

“We had a teacher ask, ‘Can I have tables in my room?’ There were tables that we already had, so that was no additional cost,” Long explains.

While they are reused from the original building, the tables in this reading and language arts classroom still look new. Seated four around a table, rather than at individualized desks, the flow of this classroom will allow for teamwork and collaboration among the students.

“Throughout the day, students will be in some rooms that are more traditional, and some that are more collaborative with different types of learning spaces,” Long notes.

In a math classroom, students will have their own desks, but a whiteboard table in one corner of the room will invite them to work on those tough equations or problems together — and they’ll even be able to write on the table to do so, wiping it off in time for the next class to try it again.

The library is another excellent example of how new design ideas create learning spaces with greater flexibility. Bookshelves are on casters, making them easy to move even fully loaded. Tables are on wheels, so they can be moved around as needed.

“By being able to move things so easily, we can create different spaces and have presentations for any clientele,” Long says. “It allows the space to evolve and change to accommodate different groups. We can have entire classroom instruction in here or community events, because the school is really a part of the community.”

There are even bistro tables where students can quietly share what they are working on together, while comfortable upholstered seats invite students to sit and read at their leisure.

Long is equally excited about a new collaborative classroom attached to the library. Again, there’s a variety of seating options, but not a single computer, which Long says was by design. In here, he wanted to give teachers something that they didn’t already have in their own rooms.

As with all interior rooms, this collaborative room receives natural light through a series of light tubes bringing sun right in from the rooftop. Even on the rare cloudy days this summer, light has spilled into these interior rooms, making artificial lighting almost unnecessary. This “sunlight in a tube” will also bring a small dose of mood-boosting, body-building vitamin D along with it in the heart of a long North Iowa winter.

There’s a brand new year starting, and there’s no need to wait for a ball to drop in some far-off park to get this year started right. We asked Long to recall his own school years, and the things that made a difference for him.

“Every night we had dinner together as a family — every night,” he recalls.

For today’s families, a “new year’s resolution” of dining together more often may be tough to accomplish, but for the lasting memories it creates could be well worth the trade-offs necessary.

“That’s where the conversations occur, that’s where you find out what happened during the day. That’s how you get share in all the stories, and the ups and downs that come along with the school year,” Long says.

“I recognize it’s not easy,” he adds, but that should not deter parents from looking for other opportunities to build in family time whenever they can.

We also asked Long to recall one teacher who made a difference in his life.

“Mrs. Nan Bucknam, my high school psychology teacher in Webster City,” he answers quickly.

“She was just somebody that, every one of her students was important to her, and that was clear from the second you walked into the room. She greeted you when you walked into the classroom, or was right there at the doorway. I know that’s such a simple thing, and its something that I carried on when I started teaching: I made sure I was at the door and greeted every one of my students,” Long says. “She was someone that, without question, not only cared, but was there to challenge you, and respected your views. She had a special talent and gift to be able to connect with kids and get people engaged and excited about learning.”

Long is also pleased that, here in Clear Lake, there is much to be excited about as a new school year approaches, and many ways — both new and old — to get engaged in the learning process for students, teachers and parents alike.

The start of a “new year” can be a great time to start a new family tradition: pizza and a movie at home on Friday nights or board games on Sunday nights.

Or create a new space in your own home where children can work on homework with the help of parents.
It’s a brand new year, and new possibilities always await for those willing to see the opportunities and work to achieve them.

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