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School Smarts

Posted July 27, 2012 in Johnston

It’s hard to believe that soon sunscreen and swimsuits will 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. 16. The year promises a lot of new excitement with new faces and new spaces, as well as some new technological tools for parents and students.

Lori Wenger moved with her kids Zach, Kara and Emily from Pennsylvania in 2010. They’ve been really happy with their experience in the Johnston School District.

District news
Perhaps the biggest news in the Johnston School District this year is the proposal for a new high school and other renovations to existing facilities.

“We’ve been studying facilities for the last 18 months, and we had three different community groups that were involved in looking at things,” says superintendent Clay Guthmiller. “We went through different phases of planning, and where we landed was the fact that there’s a proposal and bond referendum set for Sept. 11 for a proposed new high school for grades 10-12 for 1,850 students.”

The Johnston Schools Board of Education will hold the special election to issue general obligation bonds not to exceed $51 million. The facility plan has a total cost of $122.3 million, which would be funded through the $51 million in general obligation bonds for the high school with additional funding from sales tax and PPEL funds.

The plan includes a new high school built on land currently owned by the district (north of 62nd Avenue and west of 100th Street), renovation to existing high school to house eighth and ninth grade students, renovation of the existing middle school on 62nd Avenue to house elementary students by moving Wallace Elementary to that building, along with district preschool, outdoor athletic and fiber optics improvements, and renovation of the existing Wallace Elementary to meet district needs.

“With the repurposing of buildings, what we will do is make the old 8-9 building an elementary school,” Guthmiller says. “Of course there will be a lot of renovation in there. In that building, also, we will create a district-wide preschool. The old Wallace building will be repurposed for district offices, and we will probably sell this building.”

Residents can watch the district website for more information concerning the bond referendum, facility plans and public information meeting dates and times.

Elementary excitement
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. Over the summer, phase two of the construction has continued.

“The kids and parents and our staff were just thrilled with the updates from last summer,” says principal Trisha Lenarz-Garmoe. “Every room in the building last year, except this new phase two project, was touched, so we have new lighting, new carpet, and the hallways had new tiles and carpet. It looked like a brand new school.”

Right now the northwest corner of the building is under construction, including a new lunchroom and a new serving area. Finishing touches are also being made to the library, including all new shelving and furniture. The playground area has also been regraded.

This fall Lawson will also see a return of preschoolers to its school. More than 150 3- and 4-year-olds will be attending district preschool there.

“It will be a great big change, and we’re glad to have those youngest little learners back with us,” Garmoe says.

Lawson is also one of four schools that will have an instructional coach, a teacher designated to work solely with teachers on instructional methods and concepts. Garmoe says it will be a great opportunity for teachers to find the right materials and methods for teaching to help reach every student and improve student achievement.

At Beaver Creek, a focus this year will be on behavior. The school will be one of the elementaries that will be implementing PBIS — Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Principal Eric Toot says the program reinforces consistency in terms of addressing behaviors.

“Kids need consistency and common expectations,” Toot says. “Instead of this teacher expecting this and another teacher expecting something else, throughout their day and throughout their years here, it’s consistent. We have more and more kids who are special needs or on the autism spectrum, and we can throw them for a loop inadvertently by having different reactions to behaviors in different settings.”
Wallace Elementary has implemented the program already with positive gains, and this year Horizon Elementary, Beaver Creek Elementary and others will join in.

Middle school news
Summit Middle School will also see some changes this year as construction wraps up and six new classrooms become available. This will allow for additional teaching space but also open up extra room for teachers to use for small group instruction.

Summit will also have a new principal, Joy Wiebers, who comes to the district from Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines, after the retirement of Linda Hansen. Wiebers’ husband teaches at the high school, and she says her whole family is excited to really settle into the community.

“I’d heard amazing things about Johnston, so when this position came open, it was something I was really interested in,” she says. “I’m thrilled and looking forward to becoming part of this community.”
At Johnston Middle School, there will be a special emphasis this year on creating a culture of kindness. To that end, the school will have a special screening of the film “Finding Kind” for female students. The film focuses on the experiences of girls growing up and how their actions can affect their friends and classmates. The two women who made the film will be on hand for an assembly to address some of those issues after the screening.

“We want to make our school a more caring place,” says principal Brian Carico. “We’re going to have guest speakers throughout the year who will be trained in different aspects of creating a culture of kindness, and these women will come in and speak to our girls about being kind to one another. We want them to know it’s been an issue in the past, not just here but society as a whole.”

The film screening will take place on Sept. 14, and Carico hopes to fill the 1,000-seat auditorium not only with students but also with other guests so everyone can have a chance to experience the topics the film raises.

“We’re excited that we’re bringing this to our kids, and we think it will make a difference in how our kids interact,” he says.

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.

Chelsey Tanke has four children in Johnston school, three at Horizon Elementary and one at the high school. Sophomore Cora, fourth-grader Leighton, third-grader Kade and first-grader Aili have all had great experiences in Johnston schools.

“We came to Johnston from Northfield, Minn., when Cora was in sixth grade,” Tanke says. “We looked at smaller schools, but we chose Johnston because it was a bit bigger and they had offerings that the smaller schools wouldn’t have. We have all really liked it. Our admin is awesome.”

Tanke 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. They’ve also seen each child as an individual.

“One of the things I talk about with other parents is that I have three kids in elementary school, and they really look at each one and see what makes them unique,” she says. “It’s a big deal with my boys because they’re so close in age, and they’ve had the same teachers the last two years. But one is really easy going and laid back, and the other isn’t so much, and they see that and change their approach.”
Tanke got involved with the schools and now serves as Horizon’s PTO president. For her, being involved is a great way to get to know other parents and stay abreast of what’s going on with regards to her kids’ education.

She says PTO offers some opportunities to get involved for all parents, not just those who stay home. But she stresses that you don’t have to do PTO, but you should do something.

“It’s good for kids to know their parents are involved, even if it’s only once a year that you decide to take a day off work and go help at field day,” she says. “It’s very rewarding as a parent.”

Lori Wenger is quick to praise Johnston schools as well. In fact, her family moved to Iowa from Pennsylvania three years ago because they were in a poor school system and were interested in the quality of Iowa public schools.

“It’s really the main reason we moved,” she says. “Home for us is Colorado, and this was close enough to drive to see family. My husband sent me to pick out a house by myself, and after I looked at 21 houses in three days, I knew Johnston was the place for us.”

The Wengers moved when daughter Emily was in eighth grade, and the school administrators and teachers made it a point to make her feel welcome, even hosting lunches and other events for new students. It made a big impression on Lori.

“I think the staff and the teachers and administrators are very friendly,” she says. “And, of course, there’s the quality of education. Johnston is such a great place to live, and overall it has such a different vibe than what we had before, for the better. The kids have made friends easily, and I can’t say enough good things about the schools and the people.”

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