A new central office, new teachers, a new reading curriculum, more early outs and an upgrade to Class 4-A for some athletic teams mean the start to a new school year in Norwalk.
Students return to school on Aug. 21. One of the things that will be most noticeable to students is a change in the school schedule. They’ll be dismissed from school early most Wednesdays in order for teachers to receive professional development.
Superintendent Denny Wulf says the increase in early-out days is a result of training Norwalk’s teachers must undergo as part of a new statewide set of requirements for what students must learn in order to graduate, called the Iowa Core.
“This is an effort statewide to align our curriculum better to some national standards,” he says. “It really changes some of the content pieces they need to teach, and it requires them to teach differently than they have in the past. That’s a key as to why school districts need time to retain their teachers.”
Students will begin being tested on what they have learned through a new series of state tests beginning in 2014 and 2015. Those tests are designed to be more difficult and rigorous than past state exams in that students will be asked more problem-solving type questions, Wulf says.
The teachers’ professional development will be conducted by a wide array of individuals from the Area Education Agency to the Iowa Department of Education to the district’s own curriculum directors.
Also new this school year, the district’s teachers will test out two new reading texts as they and district officials determine which one to purchase at the end of the school year.
“It’s a pretty exhaustive process,” Wulf says. “They go through the year and teach some aspects of both of the texts and see which area the most effective.”
The purchase is significant in that the new reading curriculum is the one teachers will use for the next six years, per district policy in cycling out materials.
“That assures us that the materials are fresh, especially the technology,” Wulf says.
He says reading curriculum is the most important purchase district officials will make because reading skills affect all other subject areas.
The district also has two new curriculum directors, Dawn Schiro and Amy Gage.
“I’m excited about having more help during this critical time in reading,” Wulf says.
Wulf says he hopes the changes in reading will result in even more success for Norwalk students.
“The thing I’m always most excited about and happy about is that our student achievement is up and has been for 10 years,” he says.
Teachers to infuse new technology into classrooms
This year Norwalk teachers at Eastview and the high school will begin using Google Chromebooks. It’s the first step toward district officials implementing a one-to-one initiative in which each student at those levels has a Chromebook to use in the 2014-15 school year.
The Chromebook is basically a laptop that is nothing more than an Internet browser. All of its applications are Internet based.
Tim Geyer, the district’s technology director, says it has many benefits in that there’s almost zero boot time; the battery charge lasts 6.5 hours, which is almost the entire school day; it only needs a Wi-Fi signal to operate, which all of the district’s buildings have; and it constantly updates itself from the Internet every time it is used so teachers or the district’s technology staff won’t have to install updates.
“It’s kind of a fool-proof machine,” he says.
Each staff member from grades eight through 12 will receive a Chromebook, plus there will be three or four carts of 30 that teachers can check out for use in their classrooms while they’re learning to use them. It cost about $200,000 to purchase the machines for the upcoming school year. District officials plan to spend another $300,000 during the 2014-15 school year.
Geyer says he heard complaints from other districts that started one-to-one initiatives immediately with their students that the teachers thought it was too overwhelming because they did not have enough time to prepare. Norwalk school officials hope the first year of practicing with the machines without giving them to students will make teachers more comfortable.
The Chromebooks will allow students to have a more access to technology readily at their fingertips, Geyer says. Prior to this, when a research paper would be assigned, a teacher would take his or her students to the library or occupy a computer lab for three or four days to allow the students to do research. This created scheduling conflicts. Now, students would be able to conduct research in their classroom using their Chromebook.
“The computer lab comes to them basically,” Geyer says.
Wulf says such teaching methods and access to technology allow for students to do more project-based learning because they have constant access to their machine throughout the school day. Officials also are considering whether students would be allowed to take the devices home.
“I would learn toward them having them at home, but we’re going to get input from teachers, parents and kids about whether you had this at home would you actually use it and do something productive,” Wulf says.
During the 2013-14 school year, teachers will have the Chromebooks in their classrooms and will take the year to learn how to use them and incorporate them into their lessons.
“Not only are the teachers learning new content and new ways to teach from the Iowa Core, but they’re learning how to infuse new technology,” Wulf says.
District officials move into new central administration building
The Norwalk administration moved into a new Central Office building located at 380 Wright Road. The building cost just a little more than $1 million to purchase and renovate.
Wulf says the former building, constructed in the early 1900s, was outdated, had some sewer issues, was inefficient and needed a new boiler. The new building gave officials a chance to move into an upgraded facility.
The following departments and personnel relocated to the new building: the superintendent, business manager, buildings director, grounds director, registrar, general ledger clerk, payroll clerk, accounts payable clerk, human resources secretary, curriculum secretary, and buildings and grounds secretary.
District officials plan to sell the former administrative offices building located at 906 School Ave.
The district will welcome several new teachers and other employees this year. They are:
• Sheila Taylor, Oviatt Elementary principal
• Cathy Kain, secondary English teacher
• Chris Larson, Lakewood Elementary dean (not new to the district)
• Dawn Schiro, elementary curriculum director
• Amy Gage, secondary curriculum director
• Lee Nelson, secondary business teacher
• Kayla George, fifth-grade teacher at Lakewood
• Matthew Ritchhart, middle school exploratory teacher
• Brook Byars, middle school home technology teacher
• Andrew Eggert, high school science teacher
• Dee Anna Serres, nutrition director
• Jill Martin, fourth-grade teacher at Lakewood
In addition, school board members Tom Phillips and Deb Hobbs will not run for re-election. Wulf says both have been outstanding members of the school board.
Enrollment stays steady; athletics move to Class 4-A
While numbers are still preliminary, district officials expect enrollment to stay steady.
Thus far, there looks to be an increase of about 17 students for the upcoming school year, which would put Norwalk’s total enrollment at 2,451.
Wulf says enrollment usually increases 1 percent up to 3 percent, which is about 40 new kids. He says the slow growth has allowed district officials to manage things more easily such as the advancements in technology and the move to Class 4-A athletics.
“That’s been a good challenge for us,” Wulf says of the move to 4-A. “That’s a positive step for us. We believe our kids can perform with the best and the most competitive kids in the state, and we’ve proven that on multiple occasions.”
During the 2013-14 school year, the following sports will be affected: boys’ golf, boys’ and girls’ cross country, boys’ basketball, boys’ and girls’ track and baseball. It also affects jazz band and show choir, which will now compete in 4-A competitions because Norwalk’s ninth- through 12th-grade enrollment is more than 600 students.
Girls’ basketball, golf, softball and volleyball are not affected, as they fall under the five class system used by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union in which Norwalk is a 4A school.
Norwalk will remain in the Little Hawkeye Conference.
“The opportunity is that you’re going to face a greater degree of competition when it comes to post-season tournaments,” says Al Lammers, the district’s athletics and activities director. “We’re going to look at it as the last thing we’re going to do is make up excuses.”