Nisqually Valley News Columns
Community Working Hard to Meet Family Needs
Each week I am asked to comment on our recovery from multiple years of pandemic impacts on students. Overall, I continue to see growth and recovery across most populations of students. In some ways we are growing past our performance prior to the impact of Covid-19. However, that recovery is far from universal and significant needs remain in our school district and across the Yelm community. There is high demand for supports of food, clothing, hygiene products, and assistance during the holidays. When students and families lack these basic resources, we see school related issues such as absenteeism, behavioral problems, academic decline and even mental health needs.
Fortunately, we live in a community that loves to support each other in times of need. So many people and organizations have graciously volunteered resources and time to help families. Here are some of the many amazing stories of giving:
For Thanksgiving our district and community partners provided 300 Thanksgiving meals to local families, 200 were families of YCS students. Molina Health Care was our primary sponsor with great help from O Bee Credit Union who provided a donation and an army of volunteers to package the meals for delivery to schools.
For Christmas we will provide another 200 meals thanks to the gracious support from many Graduate Yelm! partners including Northwest Chevrolet, Puget Sound Energy, O Bee Credit Union and the Lacey Army National Guard Recruiting Office. We have to also recognize that none of our meal programs would happen without the support of Grocery Outlet who allows us to store food for packaging and distribution.
Also for Christmas our school teams of outreach specialists, counselors and social workers have worked to identify students in need of holiday support. Multiple community partners have combined to provide giving trees for families and gift programs for kids. These partners include Nisqually Valley Moose Lodge (Santa’s Little Helpers Program), Anytime Fitness, Grocery Outlet, Crossroads Church, Ingenius Artisan Gallery, Moms Club of Yelm and State Farm (Eric Zabala). The goal is to make sure we support families to make a special Christmas for students.
We know that even with these wonderful programs and partners, there is more need. In addition to our support services at schools, there are wonderful organizations that can also help. If the need arises during our winter break, we encourage families to connect with Yelm Community Services and Love Abounds Here. Local churches such as First Baptist, Emanuel Lutheran and Yelm Prairie Christian Center all provide dinners and/or food pantries each week.
Service programs like ours and those provided around the community are integral supports for families. We know that when we work together to fill needs, students will connect better with their school and find higher levels of success. It takes a village. Or, in our case, a very giving community.
Local Veterans Welcomed Back on Campuses
Students and staff have been so excited this fall with the ability to run all-school assemblies again. There is nothing quite like a packed gymnasium full of enthusiastic students and staff. Next week all of our schools will engage in some form of celebration in honor of Veterans Day. At our schools there will be many different types of activities designed to show our respect for our veterans.
In addition to traditional assemblies featuring music associated with each branch of service, our students will engage with veterans as guest speakers in classes, lunch companions and mentors. At Yelm High School, our students will also get to tour military vehicles on campus, possibly including a Black Hawk helicopter.
Our local veterans are also outstanding volunteers in our schools. We are seeing the return of a volunteer program called “Watch D.O.G.S.” (dads of great students) at our schools. This program has a high percentage of military-connected family members participating. The main purpose of Watch D.O.G.S. is to support schools with supervision and to support the various programs in place. Our Watch D.O.G.S. program has also resulted in increases in participation in clubs and afterschool opportunities for students. Approximately one in five students is military-connected in our district.
Local offices of the Marines, Air Force, and the National Guard are members of our Graduate Yelm! Partner Network and volunteer for significant school activities such as Freshmen Interviews and Financial Reality Fair. Many of our Graduate Yelm! Partners also include veteran-owned businesses here in town. Our local VFW is an incredible partner that helps deliver our Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts to schools.
The presence of military-connected families in our district has also led to amazing funding opportunities in schools. Yelm Community Schools has received numerous DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity) grants since 2015. These large grants have funded STEM education in our district, STEMkamp, math instruction and supportive technology, AVID, and also has helped the district provide a chromebook for every student.
We are incredibly thankful for the military and veteran presence in Yelm. Not only are our veterans being recognized for serving our country, but they provide significant service to our schools.
September Excitement Propels the New School Year
The first month of the school year soared by at a sprinter’s pace, and we continue to see signs of increased health in our district data. We have deliberately avoided the term, “back to normal” in our discourse. Rather, our district philosophy has always been focused on strong growth and improvement. There are several data points that show we are on that strong growth path.
Our enrollment is strong this fall. We are proudly serving more than 5,700 students from preschoolers to seniors. These numbers show strong resemblance to our 2018-19 enrollment. With rapidly increasing home construction in the area, our hope is that enrollment will hold strong throughout the school year.
Student attendance was spectacular across the district in September. The daily attendance rate for the month was 96%. That is incredible and will benefit learning immensely. For comparison, a year ago the rate was 10% lower. With all students present, relationships are built faster, and the development of strong learning practices are embedded early. These are all positive indicators that our learners will do well in school.
Participation in school events and activities is also a powerful indicator of school health. Recently more than half of our high school students attended the Homecoming Dance. That is more than 800 students! Middle school athletics participation is also growing, as is participation in most after school activities. What is most exciting is that students are again leading activities which provide strength to the school culture. Our booster clubs, parent organizations and partnerships are showing energy and enthusiasm toward achievement, participation and positive engagement.
We are also in the final month of construction at the Yelm Middle School athletic fields. Completing this project will allow our students to compete at their own school, and our community will have more outstanding facilities to use after school hours. It has been an incredibly fast two and a half years constructing YMS and Southworth. We have remained on schedule and well within our budget.
Please attend a school event and feel the excitement our students bring. Take in an athletic event, a concert or the fall play. Our school and district websites are there for you to see the calendar of activities. Our students and staff are doing really amazing things. It has been a great start. Help us keep it going!
A Positive Start Focused on Success
The 2022-2023 school year is off to a great start. In the district, we are focusing less on “back to normal” notions, and more on rising up to new and greater opportunities. In the days leading up to the first day of school we saw many powerful signs that give us energy for the upcoming year.
First, we saw massive turnouts at all back to school events. We have missed these opportunities for several years now and it was so good to see students, parents and staff greeting each other, smiling and setting a positive course for the days ahead. The trend of strong parent participation began showing last spring and has continued into the new school year.
Next, we are seeing record turnouts by students for athletics and activities. From middle to high school students are seeking to be a part of teams and organizations in numbers far exceeding those of just three years ago. This, too, is a trend from last spring. We know that students who are connected to clubs and sports tend to perform at higher levels in the classroom. At our last school board meeting we were proud to announce that our high school FFA chapter is the largest in the United States! Amazing.
We have also noticed a strong increase in donations of food, school supplies, clothing and hygiene products for families in need. Our family resource pantries are well stocked due to the generosity of our community. Last school year demonstrated a significant increase in need with record numbers of students experiencing homelessness and an increase in the number of families eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school. Our community outreach team will be working extremely hard to connect resources with families.
Lastly, our board has set forth a simple and positive set of goals for the school year. We will be tightly focused on student achievement - both high proficiency and high growth. We know our students will have to work hard, but will fill in any learning gaps from our pandemic experiences. We are also placing high emphasis on building a strong sense of belonging for our students, staff and families. High achievement and growth can only happen when students know they are connected, supported and respected at schools.
I hope that everyone in our community will connect with our schools in some way. Please access our district and school websites for information about school events, athletic contests or our many programs that provide community service. We will definitely welcome our students back to school, but we welcome the community as well.
Summer Brings Strong Work and New Leaders
In many ways school districts can be busier in the summer months than when school is in session. This summer is no exception. We have lots of students doing amazing things. STEMKamp is a wonderful opportunity for students in grades 3 through 8 to experience science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an indoor/outdoor and hands-on setting. The week-long experience is available to students through a Department of Defense grant.
Students at Yelm High School and Extension School have been working exceptionally hard at our summer credit retrieval opportunity. These programs are critical for students to ensure they are meeting all requirements to graduate on time. Our district also offers multiple summer opportunities for students with an Individual Education Plans (IEP) and need more instructional time to meet those goals. Transportation and food service coordination for these programs is integral to success. Though not a Yelm Community Schools program, Mill Pond is the host facility this summer to a camp opportunity run by the Boys and Girls Club.
At the start of August, our administrative team met to kick off our work year and prepare for a great year of learning with our students. I am really excited and proud of this team and the additions we made this spring and summer.
Tami Beach is our new principal at Prairie Elementary. Tami is a district resident and brings a strong leadership background from her experiences in the Seattle Public Schools. She is an incredible advocate for all students and has a strong instructional presence.
Jodi Jarmin is our new principal at McKenna Elementary. Jodi has strong experiences in our district, but has also been an administrator in Franklin Pierce and Bethel districts. Most recently, Mrs. Jarmin has served as the Dean of Students at McKenna.
Starla Watson is our new principal at Lackamas Elementary. Formerly a teacher at Lackamas, Mrs. Watson has also served as a district administrator and instructional coach. Starla performed exceptionally well stepping in last spring.
Chris Clark is our new assistant principal at Yelm High School. Mr. Clark has great secondary experience while working with the Kelso School District, but most recently served as the Superintendent/Principal of the Boisfort School District.
Holly Ackerman and Tracie Schultz will assume new roles as Assistant Principals supporting our elementary schools. Both Holly and Tracie have been longtime district employees, recently completing their administrative programs. Tracie will be stationed at Southworth, our district’s largest elementary. Holly will be at Ft. Stevens and Lackamas. Another assistant principal to serve McKenna, Mill Pond and Prairie will be hired shortly.
These new administrators bring increased energy and expertise. We are very fortunate to have them on board. Our 2022-23 team is the strongest administrative team we have put together.
We are excited to welcome all our students back on September 6. Please go to your school’s website for information about activities leading up to the first day.
Applying for School Lunch Program Has Benefits Beyond Meals
Free and reduced-price meals have long been available to students who qualify based on family income levels. During the COVID outbreak and through the end of the 2021-22 school year, school meals were free to any student. That practice will change at the start of the 2022-23 school year in September. Some students will be charged to eat breakfast and lunch at school next year.
However, the programs that provide meals to students have changed significantly. We will not return to our pre-COVID “normal.” Instead, schools across the state will be enacting what is known as Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which will allow more students to receive free meals in our district. Any school or group of schools within a district are required to participate in CEP if the threshold of qualifying students reaches 40 percent. In those qualifying schools, all students will then receive free meals.
When school starts in September, five of our schools, Fort Stevens, McKenna, Mill Pond, Prairie and Yelm Extension School will qualify for CEP. In the remaining schools, the students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals will receive them; but the rest of the school population will have to pay for breakfast and lunch.
The main reason that some schools in the district do not qualify for CEP is that not all families who could qualify have filled out the application for free meals. It is our goal to inform parents of this opportunity and work to assist families in the application process. We believe that if all families who would be eligible filled out the application, our entire district could qualify for CEP. It would be truly exciting to have all our families eat school meals for free.
There are also significant benefits for families if they complete the paperwork for free meals. Beyond school meals, students who qualify also become eligible for the College Bound Scholarship Program. Additionally, qualifying students can also earn College in the High School tuition support, and also become eligible for state tuition assistance programs.
All application materials are available at schools, in registration packets, and on the district and school websites. We encourage all families to view these materials and apply if they feel they might qualify.
Students Showing High Growth and Achievement Heading Into Summer
It is very hard to believe that the school year started nine months ago, but at the same time it seems that we blinked and June was here. Back in September our focus was on understanding where our students were as learners coming out of a year of remote and hybrid learning. The great thing about educators is that the focus is always on engaging each student where they are at in that moment. Wherever that learning level is, our goals are both high growth and proficiency.
At the start of the year there was great variance in the learning levels shown by our students. Throughout the year we have worked extremely hard to fill learning gaps, to make high growth toward grade level standards or course completion. Right now our students are finishing up state testing and spring assessments, and the results are very promising compared to the fall. A quick summary of positive results includes:
- Our students who started the year behind have made really strong growth. In many instances these students have made more than a year’s worth of progress in one school year.
- Our students who were behind on graduation credit have made incredible gains this year. We have significantly reduced the number of students who are behind pace for on time graduation.
- Our students at all levels have demonstrated strong growth in literacy and math during the year.
Of course we have a ways to go, and we are always seeking higher levels of growth and achievement. Even with improvement this year, we have to get better at daily attendance, academic stamina and engagement in positive school culture. Growth in these areas is strong, but we are definitely seeking higher levels of achievement.
As we head into summer there are things that all students and families can do to maintain learning progress, and to prepare for the best possible start to school next fall.
- Set aside daily time to read. We have a great Graduate Yelm! partner in the local library, and they have great summer programs for students.
- Make a portion of summer outings educational. When taking a day trip or a full vacation, look for the historical or scientific learning aspects involved. The goal is to have fun learning new things.
- Take up a hobby or craft. This engages the brain in new learning, and it is also fun!
- Volunteer. Any civic activity helps learners practice skills of collaboration and leadership.
We remain incredibly grateful to live in a community that seeks to support students. We want to thank everyone who has contributed to learning and growth in our students this year. Have a great summer.
As the last month of the school year approaches, students and families may be turning their attention to much-needed summer activities, trips or the other fun things we get to do. For the school district, the end of the school year will signal a highly visible and important transition in the implementation of the final stages of our construction plan.
First, right after the last day of school, curriculum materials for Southworth will move from their temporary home over to the new building. Upon completion of that move, demolition of the old building begins. That space on the Yelm Middle Campus will be replaced with the new football/soccer field, track, baseball and fastpitch facilities.
Concurrently over the summer, the new Southworth Elementary will be completed. Just like the new middle school, this education space will be great for students and staff. Here are some of the key features of this school:
- Autism Center - the new school will have a classroom space and an outdoor area designed specifically to meet the needs of students with autism. The outdoor area also allows students to move, exercise and complete physical therapy.
- Canoe Journey - in collaboration with the Nisqually Tribe, a canoe journey theme permeates through the school. Education “destinations” are located throughout the building for students and visitors to learn about Tribal culture, the Salish Sea and the importance of water, salmon and the land to our indigenous people.
- The Southworth Reading Nook - a portion of the beautiful library is dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Southworth. Mrs. Southworth was widely known to be a champion of literacy with students throughout Yelm.
- Fitness areas - the play areas at the school are significantly improved. The hard surfaces will be painted with games and activities to help students with sensory challenges. There is also a walking trail for students, staff and community users that will feature info-graphics. The school plans to support daily fitness walks, but it also provides families an area to move about during sporting events after school.
- Flexible cafeteria, gym and stage space. This area can be one, two or three areas to fit the needs of any activity. There is definitely space for large performances, sporting events, or smaller music activities.
- Separation of bus and parent drop off traffic. Parent drop off will occur in an area completely separate from the bus loop. This is much safer. Also, there is a specialized bus drop off for students who need specialized accommodations.
These features, along with vibrant colors and positive themes, truly make the new building a special place for kids to learn. Construction of this wonderful school is both on time and under budget. It will be ready for staff to move in during the late summer and will be ready to open when school resumes in September. We will be having a community open house and ribbon cutting ceremony on September 8.
Until then, have a great end of the school year and a wonderful summer.
Full Speed into Spring
There is definitely a little different feel in the air. We are moving closer to spring, warmer weather, outdoor activities and many school activities to look forward to in the coming weeks. It is a great time to get involved with schools.
Later this month schools will host conferences. Schools will be reaching out to parents to schedule a time to share growth and to create goals for learning. For high school seniors this is a critical opportunity to demonstrate their post-graduation plan and to set the short term goals necessary to prepare for graduation on June 16. All middle and high school students build their High School and Beyond Plans each year. It is a great opportunity to engage in the questions of, “What am I good at? What would I like to do as a career? What education steps do I need to take to get there?”
Any conversation about the month of March has to include Dollars for Scholars. This amazing committee of volunteers has been working incredibly hard to support the graduating class of 2022. The virtual silent auction begins March 5 and runs through March 11. The live auction event will move to the Yelm Community Center on March 12. Tickets to the auction (including meal and beverage) can still be purchased on the Dollars for Scholars website. The Yelm Community Education Foundation has also been extremely active raising money for scholarships to be awarded this spring.
Spring will also see more in person events returning to our schools. On May 4, we will host a district-wide kindergarten registration event at the new Yelm Middle School. We want to welcome our future class of 2035 to school. The community-wide FFA Plant Sale will be held April 28-30. This is an incredibly powerful, student learning experience that our community loves. We are really excited for the spring musical, “Working - A Musical,” on May 6-7 and 13-14 in the YHS performing arts center.
The Spring months will also feature concerts, sporting events and traditional end of year ceremonies. Please take an opportunity to join us. These events celebrate student achievement. We love to share the great things our students do with the community. Take a look at our district or school websites to see all the different events that are happening.
Enjoy the spring sunshine, and I hope to see everyone at a school event!
Last week students at all our elementary schools participated in the Great Kindness Week Challenge. It is an international celebration of performing acts of kindness throughout communities. Our students wrote thank you notes, completed school and community service projects, participated in a food drive, all in an effort to promote kindness on an everyday basis. The Yelm Rotary sponsored the event and the City of Yelm along with many local businesses and churches also participated.
Our student population is still adjusting to the return from remote learning, so it is great so see kids engaging in activities designed to brighten the day of another person. These kinds of activities are part of the joy of school and learning, but teach incredible skills applicable to all parts of life.
At our middle schools, we are seeing incredibly high participation in athletics and after school clubs. It is great to see students joining in on school activities to build that sense of connection through sports or common interests. We are also enjoying the return of traditional initiatives designed to promote kindness and respect at school. Providing opportunities for students to join in propels students to connect more with their classroom studies.
I was further heartened this week to learn of some great student leadership activities initiated at Yelm High School. Again, these activities aren’t necessarily new, but bringing back into our operation gives us more belief in a return to pre-covid campus life. We have student leadership activities emphasizing keeping the campus clean and welcoming all students to school. Student leaders are presenting to younger peers on what it means to be a “Tornado.” Staff and students are planning a student voice summit to learn what students want to work on to improve their school. These things were not uncommon prior to March of 2020, so it is great to see them return.
In person learning, for us, means so much more than just the lessons in class every day. “Doing school” includes how well we interact with peers and finding those things that bring passion and positivity to the campus. I vividly remember my student interactions in Yelm back in 2020. I saw students opening doors for campus visitors and welcoming them to the school. It is really good to see these actions returning to schools. We can never take them for granted. Actions of being kind, courteous and helpful also built grit and resilience. Doing the right things goes hand in hand with doing great things in the classroom.
The New Year Bring Challenge and Optimism
Welcome to the new year! I want to first thank our families for their patience and resilience with the crazy weather we experienced right after the winter break. Snow, ice and rain really wreaked havoc on our transportation operation. We will make up the snow day from January 4 on February 18.
We genuinely have high hopes for the coming year. Yes, we will continue to battle COVID-19 cases this winter. The Omicron variant is putting pressure on staffing level; and we are seeing cases in students, but we are enduring. I will say we are very encouraged that our mitigation efforts show that COVID spread in schools is significantly lower than other areas of society.
We are very proud of the work our students produced in the fall. The kids worked to rebuild academic stamina, relationships with peers, and with their teachers. We are seeing growth in math and literacy from fall to winter. Learning recovery won’t completely happen overnight. For some students the trajectory to recovery will bridge into next year, but we are impressed with the efforts and data after four months of in-person instruction.
We are also very optimistic about our social emotional growth in students. There is strong student engagement in service projects and leadership projects, peer interactions, and the return of popular student activities and school-wide programs like Kindness Week. In the new year, we will continue to build solid attendance and behavioral supports, and we will strengthen our Community Outreach team efforts to support families with food, clothing and hygiene supplies, and assistance to medical and dental resources. I am incredibly proud of this team and their abilities to connect with families. Providing strong outreach services helps make coming to school less stressful for students.
The new year will also feature our launch of our Portrait of a Graduate program in conjunction with our Graduate Yelm! initiative. Please access our district website to watch an incredible video featuring many of our students. The Portrait of a Graduate highlights four traits we strive to develop in our students while they are in school. The traits we seek to build are being Learners, Leaders, Collaborators and Critical Thinkers. Each trait has corresponding characteristics that aid in defining success. We really want to thank our past and current student school board representatives for their voice in developing the portrait. They were instrumental in connecting with students, gathering ideas, and helping us build this aspirational model for students. With our 211 Graduate Yelm! Network Partners, we will be reaching out to our community to assist us in building these traits within our students.
Not only do we have high hopes for 2022, we have strong goals as well. Our grit and determination, along with the work of talented educators, will lead us to strong achievement and growth.
We are really proud of our community and school district partnerships that distributed more than 200 Thanksgiving meals to families. That same level of giving will be repeated in December for Christmas. We owe a huge thank you to our partners in these endeavors - Molina Health Care, Grocery Outlet, Bounty for Families, The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Obee Credit Union. Credit also goes out to our Community Relations and Student Support offices for coordinating the plan.
I also want to acknowledge our new and growing team in the district who are committed to connecting families with goods and services all year round. This year we have expanded our Community Outreach program to include personnel at Yelm High School, Yelm Middle and Ridgeline. On the surface level, our Community Outreach staff maintain resource pantries of food, clothing and hygiene products that students and families can access on campus. Our local civic groups and individuals in the community have done incredible work stocking the pantries through drives or financial donations. We also know that families have incredible needs that the school district can’t directly provide such as housing assistance, connectivity to health care resources or access to community programs that support families. In order to provide these supports to families, we have partnered with Bounty for Families who have developed a funding program titled “Learners without Limits.” Collaboratively, we will seek grant opportunities and donations to help families in need. Learners without Limits can distribute funds for services beyond what the schools can provide.
The purpose of our Community Outreach efforts is to support the needs of families year round. Community Outreach staff work directly with school counselors, district support staff and community agencies. They are connecting with students daily as we know this work results in stronger academic achievement, improved attendance, reduction in stress and an increased likelihood of graduation. We know these supports are truly needed. During the pandemic our district percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced price meals has risen from 42% to 49%. The requests for student clothing and hygiene supplies have skyrocketed. We are committed to meeting the needs of our students. We are also really proud of our new Community Outreach program.
Have a wonderful holiday season.