Nisqually Valley News Columns
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.
Training the Next Generation of Great Teachers
As a district we are extremely proud that we have hired so many of our graduates into teaching positions over the past 5 years. During that span we have been able to hire more than 50 YHS graduates into classroom jobs all throughout our system. These amazing educators bring community enthusiasm and spirit and we are truly proud of them. Each has a story of an outstanding educator who inspired them to pursue teaching as a career.
Last year, we started a program at Yelm High School called Careers in Education. The Career and Technical Education course provides students with an introduction to teaching as a career. The first semester of the course introduces students to educational philosophy, current trends in education and prepares them to transition to a collegiate education program. The second semester of the course allows for observation and practicum hours in classrooms throughout our district.
If our students in this program choose, we also have a partnership with Central Washington University’s education program and because this is a College in the High School course, it saves the student time and tuition on their way to earning their degree in education. Our partnership also allows our students to return to Yelm to complete their student teaching experience prior to earning their teaching credential. This too can save the student money and also provides us with the ability to support their development as a teacher.
Working to grow our own graduates into potential positions in education is also productive in that students can set goals to return to Yelm for their career. It is always an incredible honor for us to select candidates who are highly committed to this community. Last week, the Careers in Education class invited me in to present. I found the students to be so inquisitive about the profession, and also had clear passions to work with students in the future. Their interests ranged from wanting to be an elementary teacher all the way up to returning to YHS as a member of the staff. The students also had a great deal of insight about how hard it has been to be a student during the pandemic. I was amazed at their positive attitude and resilience, and also with their empathy for their peers. These traits will help them tremendously as the future generation of teachers.
The New Year Brings Additional Opportunities
Returning to in-person learning means a lot more than students in class five days per week. It also means we continue to build expansive and supportive district programs that serve the diverse interests of our learners and families. The start of the 2021-22 school year has also allowed us to launch an opportunity that we have been working on for several years. The incoming class of freshmen, class of 2025, will have the opportunity to earn both their high school diploma and an Associate of Arts degree completely on the Yelm High School campus.
Our district, for the past five years, has been a state leader in both College in the High School and Career and Technical Education Dual Credit programs. More than 75 percent of our graduates have engaged in some form of college level work. One of our strongest district goals is that every graduate leaves our schools with a diploma and a college transcript they can apply to their post-high school plan. It saves families money, helps students earn a higher wage entering the workforce, and it helps students navigate their path to continuing education and work. Now, Yelm High School is aligned to the point where a student can, starting in ninth grade, be on a path to earning their Associate of Arts degree through South Puget Sound Community College while also earning their high school diploma.
This opportunity has required significant work from our administrators and instructors at Yelm High School. Courses have to be aligned and articulated in conjunction with college faculty. Counselors have to be expertly trained in advising students on a multitude of pathways. It also requires a significant relationship between the school staff and families. However, if a student chooses this path, they can save thousands of dollars in tuition and materials costs and enjoy all the benefits of life on a high school campus. For many students this will allow them to stay in the sport or club that binds them to the high school and their peers. It also allows students to stay on campus and participate in leadership opportunities.
Our new Associate of Arts degree program is for all students. Yes, this degree transfers to all public colleges and universities in Washington, but also can prepare students well for matriculation to trade schools, apprenticeships and even into the workforce. It is a great opportunity for students to be even more focused on their own plan for graduation and beyond.
We are also very proud of the fact that we can offer tuition assistance for this program for students who qualify for free or reduced price meals. Our district has received multiple grants that will allow us to offer the Associate of Arts degree at no cost for income qualifying students.
We love having our students back on campus full time. We are also happy the return to in-person learning allows us to offer the full breadth of programs.
Last week I attended multiple school opening events at our schools. What I encountered was incredibly positive, but not surprising. Laughter, excitement and eager anticipation for the new school year permeated strongly throughout the campuses. It was great to see students and staff coming together with great anticipation for the new school year.
September 8 is not just the first day of school, it is also the launching point for an incredibly important learning journey for our students. Full in-person instruction will feel really new as some of our students have not been on campus since March of 2020. Our work with teachers this summer has focused on three critical concepts as we start the new year with students. First, we will focus intently on the core content and instruction. We are committed to getting each learner off to a great start, building those strong foundational skills and habits that support high achievement. Parents will hear a lot from the classrooms about priority standards. We will focus strongly on the critical content that our students must master. This focus makes having students in class so exciting. Second, we will also maintain a strong focus on learning recovery. Some students may have gaps in their basic skills or credits coming off of last year. We have added approximately 30 positions across the schools to support learning recovery where and when needed. We know that strong core instruction and detailed attention to interventions will result in gaps being filled quickly. Lastly, we will focus on the social-emotional learning of our students. In-person learning will allow us to build and rebuild relationships that are so critical to learning. Our schools also have great plans for building positive school culture that supports each student. I am sure parents will see quickly how excited our staff is to work with students in class.
One quick note for families is that breakfast and lunch will continue to be free for all students. However, we are required to document which students receive meals this year. We are also asking families to complete the Free and Reduced Price Meals application form. The benefits of completing this form go far beyond meals. Families that qualify can also receive benefits of tuition through the College Bound and Washington Scholarship Grant programs.
I am very proud of the preparatory work accomplished this summer so that we can welcome back our students to a full schedule. We have a strong education program for them while we still work to mitigate the impact COVID-19 has in the community. We welcome the role of servant to families and to the achievement of our students.
Change, Growth and Optimism for New School Year
It seems like just yesterday that we handed out diplomas to the graduating class of 2021, and now we are on the verge of launching our 2021-22 school year. So much has happened in our district since last June, but all the change and growth gives me great optimism for the coming school year.
The most obvious change is that the new Yelm Middle School is ready to open! Administrative staff and custodians moved in last week, and the rest of the staff will move in August 16. Correspondingly, the Southworth team has moved into the old middle school building for the upcoming year while the new elementary building is constructed. As you drive by the Southworth campus, the old building has been removed except for the gym which will serve as storage temporarily. The new building will go vertical at the end of August and be ready to open for the 2022-23 school year. In early October, we will begin to offer open house opportunities for the community to visit the new middle school.
In addition to the new construction, HVAC replacements at Mill Pond, Prairie and Fort Stevens are nearly complete. Safety upgrades at Lackamas and McKenna are coming along well and will be completed later in the fall. Completion of the safety upgrades will not impact the opening of school in those two buildings. We completed an extensive repair to the gymnasium roof at the high school and upgraded the sound system in the performing arts center as well.
The community will soon be able to enjoy using our upgraded facilities at RMS and YHS. The new field and track at RMS will open August 16, and the baseball and fastpitch fields will be completed by the end of October. We know our students will enjoy competing in athletics on these facilities, but they also give us the opportunity to rent out the fields to our community year round. As a district we are proud of the facilities where our students learn, but equally proud to partner with the community who made the facilities possible.
Lastly, we have great optimism for the start of the new school year. Our summer programs for learning support and recovery were very successful and will continue right up to the start of the new year. Yes, some COVID protective measures will be in place, but we will be open five full days per week on our regular schedules. In mid-August, our communications will begin for students and parents in preparation for a great year of learning.
Learning Continues Amid Construction Projects
June 16 may have been the last day of school for some students and staff, but in actuality the summer break kicked off an incredibly active 12 weeks for the school district. We have had to get very creative to serve hundreds of students with construction projects happening at Southworth, YHS, YMS, Prairie, Ft. Stevens, Mill Pond, McKenna and Lackamas. Our ambitious summer has also strengthened many outstanding partnerships across the county to provide students with learning opportunities, transportation, food and family resources.
Our largest learning endeavor is at Yelm High School where more than 200 students are working on finishing courses they need for graduation. This is by far the largest summer school cohort in more than a decade. We are really proud of the students who are engaging in summer school and thankful for the staff who are supporting them. There are additional high school opportunities for our students. Our partnership with New Market Vocational Skills Center remains strong and many students are taking advantage of course offerings there. For the first time, we have students participating in work-based learning programs where credit can be earned through work experiences. We are very excited to partner with employers in support of students.
Yelm Community Schools has an incredible and longstanding partnership with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), and we are pleased to offer STEMKamp this summer for students in grades 3-8. STEMKamp is an enrichment and exploratory program where students immerse themselves in science, technology, engineering and math activities and projects. STEMKamp features indoor and outdoor learning for more than 130 students. We are very thankful for our community partners who are providing snacks for our “STEMKampers.” DoDEA will provide resources for STEMKamp summer programs for three years.
Another large group of students actively engaged in learning programs includes students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP). Hundreds of students are attending six week sessions to boost their skills, receive physical or occupational therapies, or simply engage in learning toward their goals. Extended School Year and Recovery Services programs are taking place all over the district this summer.
We are incredibly fortunate to have significant partnerships with local organizations who are providing food to families this summer. The Yelm Rotary Club has launched its Ten Weeks of Summer program to deliver weekly food bags for families. All Kids Win (formerly Homeless Backpack), Bounty For Families and countless volunteers are all working together to provide food and home resources for families. We are blessed and thankful.
Have a great summer.
On June 16 we will send our students off to their summer break and hopefully great family time. We have truly enjoyed having most of our students back for in person learning these last few months. It genuinely feels like we are just now getting to know them in person.
When the 2021-22 school year starts up next September, things will look very different than our experiences from the past 16 months. First, we will return to our regular schedules and students will be on campuses five days per week again. Our students and families will see the return of traditional activities and sports, along with positive interactions with peers and staff.
Another significant aspect of school ending for the summer on June 16 is that we immediately launch into a flurry of projects, all to be completed before students return. On June 17, our staff from Southworth Elementary will move into the old Yelm Middle School so construction can start on the new elementary. At the same time, our Yelm Middle School staff will move into the new building which will be completed this summer. We will have full occupancy in August, but we will begin moving in right away. Our field turf projects at Ridgeline and Yelm High School will be completed in August just in time for fall sports to resume. HVAC projects at Mill Pond, Prairie and Fort Stevens will be completed in time for the opening of those schools. Safety projects at McKenna and Lackamas begin the day after school lets out and will be completed this summer.
Even with the ambitious construction schedule, we will also have a robust lineup of educational activities this summer. We are excited to have STEMKAMP this August, a new opportunity for students in grades 3-8. STEMKAMP is a highly interactive and fun program designed to get students engaged in science, math and technology activities. Yelm High School will also host summer school opportunities starting in June. We will also be running Extended School Year, and Recovery Services programs for students who need specialized services throughout the summer.
It may appear that school will be out for the summer. However, we will be incredibly active getting ready for school to reopen fully in the fall. We will also be creating open house events at the new Yelm Middle School in September so that the community can experience that wonderful new learning facility.