It’s hard to believe that sunscreen and swimsuits will soon be replaced by mittens and sweaters, but fall is on its way, and with it, a return to the classroom for Johnston students.
They’ll have to make the transition back to hitting the books when school begins on Aug. 15. The year promises a lot of new excitement with new faces and upcoming new spaces, as well as some new curriculum and activities.
Perhaps the biggest news in the Johnston School District this year is that the bond referendum for a new high school and other renovations to existing facilities passed in June.
More than 5,800 voters turned out for the special election to issue general obligation bonds in the amount of $41 million. The bond referendum passed with a 66.65 percent voter approval. Sixty percent approval was needed.
Johnston Community School District will move forward with plans to construct a new 10-12, 1,800-student capacity high school, located north of 62nd Avenue and west of 100th Street in Johnston. Construction is planned to begin in spring 2014 and will be completed in time for students to start classes in the fall of 2016.
Following completion of the high school project, the current high school, located at 6501 N.W. 62nd Ave., will undergo minor renovations to house grades eight and nine.
The current middle school will then undergo extensive renovations to house Wallace Elementary and an all-district preschool. Wallace Elementary will then be renovated to become a district administration building. The complete facility plan has a total cost of $112 million and is estimated to be completed in 2018.
“Obviously we’re excited about the opportunity for our students and for our staff and community in terms of facility improvements that will take place,” says Superintendent Clay Guthmiller. “It will help manage our increasing enrollments. It will also help us utilize the good facilities we have and repurpose the buildings that we’ve put money into already.”
In the next few months, the district will establish a timeline that will detail how all the projects will be completed.
“The first priority is certainly the new high school,” Guthmiller says. “Previous to this we had six days of visioning with a community group, and now the reality is to come back and have meetings called user group meetings with staff at the high school. We have the schematic design, and we want to make sure everything that is needed is included.”
There will also be an opportunity for the public and community to communicate and keep abreast of what’s going on, and they’ll be able to contribute as well, Guthmiller says.
Guthmiller says the plan is not substantially different than the original one that was presented to voters, though it does not include the stadium portion. A stadium will be phased in at a later date. This plan also allows for the possibility of a second high school, should the district ever need to consider it.
This year all five of Johnston’s elementaries are ready for a great year, but perhaps the biggest changes last year were seen at Lawson Elementary, the oldest of Johnston’s school buildings originally constructed in 1958. Construction is now finished, and Principal Trisha Lenarz-Garmoe says they are gearing up for a great year.
“Although our construction is done, we’re excited for our friends across the district who are affected by the bond passing and for Lawson students who will be going to those buildings in the future,” she says.
Johnston School District will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Garmoe says they will roll out the 100th year celebration this year, and it will carry over into two school years.
The elementary schools will also implement early dismissals once a week. That will allow for extra collaboration and professional development time for teachers.
“We’re also in our second year of new math curriculum, and our kids just thought about math in a whole new way and it was so fun to see,” Garmoe says. “This year we’re also rolling heavily into the Iowa Common Core, so we will have some changes in English/language arts. Also this year every elementary school will implement PBIS, a positive behavioral program.
At Wallace, Principal Suzy Pearson says they are excited about a new program called Little Free Library. The school has established two libraries, which are like mini-book exchanges. Students can bring a used book and take a book with them. The concept is gaining in popularity, and there are libraries worldwide. Pearson says eventually all the books will be registered and searchable online.
This year will also see a review of elementary attendance boundaries. Redistricting will alleviate crowding at a few of the elementary schools.
“The redistricting committee will be put together, and in the next few months we’ll develop a plan to restructure,” Guthmiller says, “We are overcrowded at Beaver Creek and Horizon, and will help move some students to Wallace, Timber Ridge and Lawson where we’ve added some room.”
Johnston Middle School will have a new principal this year, Laura Kacer, who comes to the district from Hoyt Middle School in Des Moines.
“I came from Des Moines Public Schools and was with them for 18 years,” she says. “I’m very excited to be a part of this community. I’ve been taking this summer as an opportunity to get to know the staff as they come in and then also get a chance to meet families as they drop in over the summer.”
Kacer says this year they are also excited for staff to continue work on increasing student engagement in terms of learning every day. They will establish IPI, Instructional Practices Inventory, and it will allow teachers to go in and observe how students are responding to instruction.
“We want to make sure we’re delivering instruction where kids are engaged at a high level instead of passive learners,” she says. “We also have a partnership with Drake athletes. They will come in and work with eighth grade students on developing character traits.”
Another “new face” that will be added this year is the new Johnston Community School District Logos. The Johnston J and the Dragon have both been given face-lifts. The new designs were approved by the Board of Education at its June 24 meeting.
A new mascot has been years in the making. The original dragon was designed in 1950 and has graced apparel, artwork and spirit gear until now. In recent years, teams and groups have used the dragon less due to complications in replicating the intricate design. Many are familiar with the “Fire J” used for the last 10 years. However, a lack of consistency in the artwork led to confusion and misuse of the mark.
“As the Johnston school system grows and is recognized on local, regional and national levels, having a well-recognized mascot is a part of how we are identified,” said Laura Dillavou, communications and marketing coordinator for the district. “In our case, when we looked at all the confusion of what kind of mark to use for what activity, it was decided to start with a fresh approach that would serve the district for many years.”
Students, staff, parents and citizens can pick up new dragon apparel in local stores starting this fall. The original dragon will be “retired,” along with any other marks previously used. Complete transfer to the new marks will take time, as things like sports gear uniforms, and activity equipment are cycled through.
A parent’s perspective
As Johnston teachers are getting ready to welcome back students, parents are getting ready to send them off for another first day of school as summer winds down. Megan Reeg has two children in Johnston schools at Lawson Elementary, fifth-grader Brady and second-grader Isabelle.
“We moved here when my son was 2,” Reeg says. “The school district was a big consideration in choosing where we were going to live. We liked the small-town feel in a bigger city. We both grew up and graduated from small schools in eastern Iowa, and we wanted that small town familiarity, even in a larger district.”
Reeg has been very impressed with how caring and competent all of the Johnston teachers and administrators have been. If there’s ever an issue, no matter how small, it’s dealt with quickly and effectively. She has been impressed with the community feel at the school.
“They have buddy activity every month and partner upper grades with lower grades, so a kindergarten student is partnered with a third-grader, and they have that same partner all year,” she says. “Every month they work on something different, like reading, manners, math, computers or other different learning activities. It’s like a mentoring thing.”
Reeg says her son Brady loved hanging out and learning with the older kids when he was younger, and now he really looks forward to being a mentor himself. She likes how all the kids are mixed within the building, so they all know each other.
“We love that community feel,” she says. “I think that the communication from teachers and the administration is wonderful. I’ve loved my kids’ teachers. We’ve just been very happy with things overall.”