Nisqually Valley News Columns
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.
As we approach the last month of the school year, our constant theme will be to finish strong and prepare for a full reopening of schools next fall. Between now and then we have a great deal to do, and we have time to positively impact student achievement.
Right now, roughly 80% of our students are attending in person four days per week. The difference in energy and positivity is clearly evident on campus, even with our COVID protocols in place. We are incredibly thankful that our students and staff have committed to these protocols, and the spread of the virus at schools is very low. Our elementary students have had the most access to in person learning, and their response has been impressive. Our middle and high school students have responded well to increased time on campus. Teachers and staff are working hard to identify and remediate any learning gaps that arose during remote learning.
Through the winter and spring we have successfully launched three abbreviated sports seasons. These activities are integral to student well-being, and the students and coaches have navigated the safety protocols. Our athletes and teams have experienced high levels of success and have developed positive memories of competition. We have also been able to conduct some limited student activities this spring. It is so important that students have opportunities to connect with their peers and their school.
We are really excited that our construction projects continue to develop on time. At the same time our school year ends, the new Yelm Middle School building will be completed. The middle school staff will move materials into the new building June 17, with full occupancy shortly thereafter. Concurrently, the staff from Southworth will move into the vacated middle school. That move signals the start of construction of the new Southworth building. We are so excited to bring these facilities to our students and the community.
Another part of our work to finish strong will be to create vaccination opportunities for students and families. Soon, students ages 12 and above will be able to receive vaccination. We are partnering with local pharmacies and the county health officials to offer our facilities for vaccination events. These opportunities will happen later in May.
With our focus squarely on high levels of learning in the coming weeks, our summer planning remains targeted at a full reopening of schools next fall. It will be great to have students back five days per week next year. Until then, please be aware that COVID transmissions are still prevalent in our community. Be safe at all times.
Community Partnerships More Important Than Ever
It has been so amazing to have students back on our campuses. Their energy infuses us all with a greater sense of purpose and community. We are truly excited to phase in more opportunities for in-person learning. Equally exciting, and equally important, has been our students having the opportunity to engage is athletics and activities. Participation in co-curricular events enhances leadership, commitment to a team and boosts esteem.
All of these are steps in the direction of returning to full school operation next fall. That is the goal for our district and for the state. One of the many lessons we have learned during the pandemic is that community partnerships are critical to our success. Our district enjoys and benefits from outstanding community organizations who have supported us throughout the pandemic.
It has been so wonderful to partner with Tim’s Pharmacy to assist them in getting vaccinations out to our community and to school employees. As more people, including students, become eligible, we look forward to co-hosting more vaccination events. Food insecurity is a real problem for families, and we are blessed to partner with All Kids Win, Bounty for Families, the City of Yelm, and the Yelm Rotary Club for their incredible determination to provide meals to those in need.
During remote instruction, our district has enjoyed incredible support from community members who have stepped in to be speakers in Zoom classes, served as online mentors as students work on their career exploration and high school and beyond plans.
We also enjoy a strong partnership with the Yelm Police Department. The school resource officers have really stepped in during the pandemic to help with home visits, wellness and safety checks, and have completely updated the Rapid Responder System with information about all our schools. This information provides critical support for all first responders if they need to access a school campus.
These are only a few of the many organizations that so generously support our students and district. It is incredibly gratifying to work and live in a community that cares so much about students and families. In our mission to return to full school operations, we will continue to seek new and supportive partnerships that help all our students.
March 5, 2021
March 13, 2020, will be a date education folks will always remember. That is the date where schools were shut down across the state due to COVID-19. Now, a year later, we are taking daily steps toward a return to full operation and in-person learning for all. Our K-8 efforts to bring back students in hybrid model has been a strong success, and we are ready to welcome our high school students on March 15.
Our teachers quickly and diligently learned how to educate students in the remote environment; and while it isn’t our preferred instructional method, it has been a successful, yet heavy lift. At the same time, our teaching staff comprises about half of our workforce; and any successes we celebrate also include our classified employees. Paraeducators, office professionals, bus drivers, food service staff, health room assistants, technology staff, custodians and maintenance workers complete the structures needed to operate schools. During the pandemic, these dedicated staff are often the strongest conduits between schools and families. Starting March 8 school districts will formally celebrate Classified Employees Week to honor these stalwart education staff.
During the pandemic, our classified staff have distributed more than 300,000 meals to students, made home visits to families in need, connected students to the internet, and are key cogs in the processes that distribute school supplies and resources on a weekly basis. Our bus drivers offer the first “welcome!” and last “have a great day,” our students receive each day. Collectively, our classified staff create the foundation and structures that result in great learning in the classroom. We could not succeed without them.
As a reminder, spring conferences take place March 31 - April 2. Schools will be in touch with families about scheduling conferences soon. Spring conferences are critical for all students as we want to build bridges from remote learning to hybrid classrooms. Staff will be able to share key information about student progress and will lay out our learning plans moving forward. Spring break then begins April 5.
Taking these steps toward full, in-person schooling has been really positive for our staff; and the students are excited to be in school again. Thank you to our entire community for helping us combat COVID-19. We are getting there!
A Step in the Right Direction
“It was the best day ever!” These were the words of a kindergartner after attending his first on-campus school day. We definitely feel the same way. It was great to start in-person learning for K-2 students on January 28.
The good news in our battle against COVID-19 is that transmission rates and test positivity rates are coming down with that trend spanning several weeks. Conditions are such where public health officials recommend increasing in-person learning for all students, starting with our youngest learners. The data behind the recommendation shows that schools have been successful in remaining disciplined to protective measures of daily screening, masks, physical distance of six feet or more, hygiene, cleaning and strong contract tracing, and thus, lowering the spread of the virus.
We are very excited to increase the number of students at our schools each day, but we are going to remain vigilant to our safety practices. Our hybrid learning model is not a return to normal school, but it is a strong step in the right direction. Here are the key points and dates in reopening timeline:
- K-2 students began their hybrid schedule on January 28.
- Grades 3-5 students are scheduled to begin hybrid schedule on February 18.
- Middle school students are scheduled to begin hybrid on March 1.
- High school students will begin hybrid on March 15 if case transmission rates have dropped to 200 cases per 100,000 population or below.
- The revised high school athletic schedule began February 1. Contests can begin as long as our county/region stays in Phase 2.
It is important to note that hybrid learning is not a two days on, three days off approach. Teachers are planning a learning cycle of five full days and the on-campus time is designed to complement the at home plan. During their at home days, students have access to teacher office hours, support staff, counselors and learning materials to help them meet academic standards. We will continue to support families that do not have internet service.
Our first days of hybrid learning resulted in many positives. It is clear that students do enjoy coming to school. One of our first graders said he was so excited because, “I get to go to school again.”
Bringing more students back to school is both an exciting and daunting task. We will do it right. Our success goes a long way toward increasing student in-person time, and eventually a full schedule. In impatient times, we will progress with staff and student safety in mind. Please note that our buses are on the roads every day, so we ask that drivers slow down near bus stops and areas where students are walking or bicycling to school.
We Can Come Together to Combat Food Insecurity During the Holidays.
Each day, more and more families are experiencing struggles obtaining food. During the weeks schools are in session during this pandemic, every student can receive a free breakfast and lunch. Families are taking advantage of our food distribution sites both on and off campuses. Our current practice, as suggested by families, is a five day box that is picked up on Monday so families only have to make one trip in for the free meals. The practice has been highly successful and we are distributing an average of 16,000 meals each Monday. These meals are for students, however, and not for the entire family. The Homeless Backpack program does amazing work as well, sending home approximately 275 weekend bags to those in need. Our partnership with TOGETHER of Thurston County, and their collective agencies also provide food and resources to families. I am also extremely proud of the creative efforts by our schools, PTA’s, PTO’s and Booster Clubs who have reimagined their holiday giving events during the pandemic. Even with these networks, however, there is still need.
We are very concerned about food insecurity when we go to break in late December because the student lunch program will stop for the two weeks school is out. Just like we did in providing a high volume of family meals for Thanksgiving, our district will partner with community agencies and entities to support food distribution across Yelm. What I do know about our community is that where there is need, there is energy to help. Below are a few food resources available during the holidays, and I am sure more will become available soon.
Yelm Community Services
Christmas Dinner from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 23
Food Bank open 1- 3:45 p.m. on Thursdays
Yelm Prairie Christian
Christmas Dinner 2-4 p.m. Dec. 24
New Year Eve Dinner 2-4 p.m. Dec. 31
Rainier Emergency Food Center
9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays
Please consider making a contribution to support families in need of food during the holidays. Also, if you know of a family in need who has students in our schools, please contact the counseling staff at the building. We will network with our community partners to help. Please check our website regularly as we will post all community food distribution events we can identify.
To our families, please remember to sign up for the Free and Reduced Priced meals program through your local school. Even with the free meal program this year, it is important to complete the application every year. Qualifying for this program also creates eligibility for the College Bound Tuition Program. College Bound provides tuition assistance for students when they graduate and move on to higher education.
Thank you for partnering with us during the holidays. We can all make a positive difference within our community. Please enjoy a safe, healthy and joyous holiday season.
Military Members Enrich Life at Yelm Community Schools
As a school district and a city we all benefit from our relationships with those who serve in the various branches of the military. Here in Yelm, our families from JBLM and our retired veterans are integral to our success and add the spirit of service across our community. In addition to our Veterans Day celebrations in our schools, I want to acknowledge the many contributions of our military members that often can go unseen in the operation of a school district.
Our school district could not do all the things it currently does without our military partnership with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). Our DoDEA grants during the last five years have provided a large portion of the Chromebooks students use daily, our AVID programs at secondary schools, curriculum and training resources for math and science, and most recently our work in social-emotional learning across the district. In our elementary and middle schools, a large cadre of dads volunteer in Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students). Many of our Watch DOGS are military members who give significant time supporting students. We are also partnering with JBLM to increase our mental health supports for students. A Military and Family Life Counselor works with our students weekly and is a truly valuable resource. Our local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) organization has been incredibly benevolent in providing food for families during the holidays. When we celebrate our veterans this week, we are not only thanking them for their service, we are also acknowledging how much stronger we are as a school district because of their support. Thank you, veterans, for all you do for us.
November also brings an opportunity for families to meet with their teachers about student progress. Parent-teacher conferences will take place the week of Thanksgiving and will be scheduled directly through each school. While we are in this remote learning environment, it is critical that teachers and counselors connect with families. In addition to our direct work with students, the holiday months allow us to support families in a variety of ways; and there is significant need now. Our schools are amazing this time of year with food drives, blanket, coat and clothing drives, and other supports for families in need. Most of these efforts are in conjunction with our community partners. Please contact us or your neighborhood school if you know a family who needs support.
October 2020After COVID-19 Delays, Exciting News for the Yelm School BoardDealing with all the Covid 19 impacts on schools has been a difficult navigation, and an ever-changing landscape. One thing that probably isn’t well known is that as school boards were required to shift to remote board meetings, the rules for open public meetings changed to where new district projects and ideas were put on hold as community input became difficult. Prior to March, our school board was actively planning and working toward an exciting endeavor - adding student representation to our board. Prior to Covid 19 the board enacted policy and procedure, but the shutdown of schools prevented our implementation. Well, we are getting back on track.
On September 24, the school board interviewed multiple high school juniors and seniors for the role of Student Representative on the Board. The Zoom interviews by the students were simply incredible. They were so articulate and full of energy. After careful and difficult consideration, our board will install Natalie McLaughlin and Kya Ramirez as the 2020-21 Student Representatives at our October 8 meeting. Additionally, junior Charles “Azariah” Carter will be named the junior representative for this year, and will move into the senior role next year. Skylar Myers was named as the alternate for this role as well. These four amazing students represent a wide range of interests, activities and aspirations for their peers and the district.
The Student Representative role is a non-voting position, but the students will have full ability to engage in all of the discussions about district governance and operations. It is really important to the board to hear from the students as they move forward in our work. Personally, I feel these are wonderful selections that will get our Student Representative program off the ground.
Even in difficult times the board and I feel great that we were able to put this great idea forward. It is also my vision that we create multiple opportunities for our student representatives to be part of our district communications. Their voice and ideas are so important.
Committed to Providing Great Service in Tough Times
The opening of a school year always brings excitement and energy as teachers and staff welcome students back to school. In Washington schools this fall, 94% of the students open the year with remote instruction. Yelm is included in that data. Regardless of the medium of instruction, we are absolutely committed to providing great service to students, while also preparing for when we can safely bring our students on to campuses. I am happy to report that we are off to a very positive start to the 2020-21 school year.
Since last March when the pandemic hit, our staff committed to building their skills in providing remote instruction. It isn’t the same, but we have learned so much in the last five months about how to bring successful in-person classroom strategies to the online environment. Most of our teachers have been training continuously since March to build expertise in creating an engaging online classroom, learning tools for student collaboration, and developing new ways to build relationships and effective methods of assessing student work.
In the first few days of the new year, we have focused intensely on building relationships and making sure families are connected to learning resources. We will have more than 5,500 computers in the hands of students. We have been working urgently to help families connect to school networks, and we will help qualified access state programs for internet services. I am very proud of our technology rollout across our 10 schools.
Just before Labor Day, the US Department of Agriculture announced it would continue to support free meal distribution to any student. We will work very hard to expand food distribution so all can benefit. Please check our website and Facebook page frequently for information about distribution sites.
Lastly, we know we didn’t have sufficient parent resources last spring. I am extremely proud of our response to that need. On our website, under the Safe Start to Success tab, parents have access to videos, FAQ’s and helpful tips on how to support their students in the remote classroom. We have tried to anticipate every possible question and need. We have also created a bank of help desk staff members if families need person to person support.
Without a doubt, we would prefer to be serving students on campuses and in classrooms. The recent COVID data is trending in a positive direction to where we can resume planning for in-person instruction. When safe to do so, we will excitedly welcome our students back.
Thank you to all of our community for supporting what I believe has been a very positive, albeit different, opening to the school year.
Online Learning Improvements This Fall
Shutting down schools in March proved to be the most difficult education challenge we have faced. All the systems we knew and were comfortable with changed - literally from one day to the next. It was a rocky start. Our mindset was fixed on working with students onsite and relationships were founded on direct in-person interaction. We had to learn, quickly, how to become distance learning experts.
Change is a constant in education, and I am very proud of the positive growth we made as a school system from March to June. However, even though we worked hard and improved, we all recognized that we needed to do things differently in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. We know now that we will start the year in distance learning mode, and we spent the summer learning and preparing to work successfully with students and parents.
To be outstanding in distance learning mode, we knew we had to change our approach to technology. Our response will be to issue a district computer to all students. We will also work directly with families that lack reliable internet access at home. We will better teach students how to access their learning and connectivity with teachers.
To be outstanding for our students, we will engage with them every day with the same expectations as we would in person. We will take attendance daily and in each course. At all grade levels, grading structures will return to what we knew prior to March. Instruction will target high standards, and we will achieve at least a typical year’s growth with students.
To be outstanding for our students, we have to demonstrate strong instructional practices - even in a distance learning environment. Our teachers have trained very hard to learn the tools that will allow them to deliver live instruction supported by recorded video and personal assistance with instructors. We have significantly enhanced our capacity to support the social-emotional learning needs of students.
To be outstanding, we have to support our parents. We didn’t have enough resources ready last March to help parents. This fall, families can expect consistent and well-communicated schedules for students. Our staff will use consistent tools of Google Classroom, Zoom, ScreenCastify and Google Drive. We are creating significant parent resources, helpful videos, a parent resource sections on our website, and each school will have a dedicated help desk person to assist our families.
Lastly, to be outstanding, we have to listen to your feedback and improve accordingly. It is our intent to seek feedback often so we can grow every day. Our teachers, principals and staff will be ready to excel regardless of the medium. We know that great instruction and achievement can and will happen with your students.