Nisqually Valley News Columns
Join Us in Celebrating Our Many Champions
Working in education is the most rewarding occupation I could ever imagine. Nothing brings more pride and joy than the celebration by students when they accomplish new things, meet their goals, and when they get to engage in traditional rites of passage that only schools can provide.
In the spring of each school year we get to look back and celebrate the achievements of our students. We celebrate grades, championships, recognition assemblies, concerts and ascension from one grade to the next or one school to the next. It is truly wonderful.
That said, schools make great efforts to celebrate all students. No, not in the sense that everyone gets a trophy, but rather the fact that each student is different and moves through our school system in their own unique way. I am incredibly proud of our multiple programs that support our special education students from preschool to age 21. In our district we often say, “All means all.” Accepting that statement, we must then celebrate the amazing growth and accomplishment we see each year.
On June 1 at Yelm High School, we will partner with the Rainier, Tenino and Rochester school districts to celebrate our students with special needs. The event is called Day of Champions. This year’s Day of Champions will see as many as 300 students engaging in games, activities and celebrations of students. Day of Champions is also an outpouring of support from students who do not receive special education services who show up to be a peer, a coach and a friend. The school-wide commitment shown is that schools embrace every student and welcome them into the larger school culture. Day of Champions is about smiles, laughter, happiness and the celebration of success.
Yelm Community Schools is proud to lead the effort to build Day of Champions for our students. The committee has spent many hours planning, organizing, soliciting resources for lunch, snacks, T-shirts and prizes for our champions. We are so thankful to be joined by local law enforcement and first responders, our local and regional partners who generously donate time and money to this event, and to our students and families who make this day great.
Come celebrate the champions with us.
Most things in schools really pick up pace after spring break. There are so many during and after school events to attend, but also many of our traditional school celebrations that we want the community to engage in with us. Here are a few really important events that we hope draw large crowds.
April 26 at 5 p.m. YHS will host our third Community Conversation of the year. The focus of this conversation will highlight the resources that support the transition from school to work and school to higher education. Like our other community conversation events, this one will host a resource fair and a panel discussion designed to help students and parents plan for life after public education.
May 2 we will host a Job Fair and Hiring Event from 1pm - 7pm at the Yelm Community Center. Yelm Career and Technical Education program in partnership with the Yelm Chamber and the city are bringing together employers and training programs to provide job seekers with access to local employers with potential onsite interviews. Currently 20 employers are scheduled with more to register. Over 200 job opportunities will be available from Health Care, Retail, Law Enforcement, Construction, Manufacturing, Automotive, Education, Entertainment, and much more. Great opportunity for anyone in our community.
May 3 at 4:30 YMS will host our annual Countdown to Kindergarten event. Kindergarten registration is already open at each elementary school, and this event will allow our newest students and families to meet school staff, take a tour of a school bus, talk with school nurses, and even complete a scavenger hunt for books and prizes.
May 10 at 3:30, starting at the city park, our Learners without Limits program will host a 5K run/walk as a fundraiser that will help support free school supplies, clothing, hygiene products, coats and blankets at our schools for families in need.
June 6 at 6 p.m. YHS will host the Community Scholarship Night. This is a public event where all the local scholarship providers will present their awards to seniors. Presenters will represent Dollars for Scholars, Yelm Community Education Foundation and other community-based financial awards. Our local military recruiters will also be present to recognize those heading into one of the branches of the armed services.
June 8 at 6 p.m. the District will host its awards night at YHS. This is a scheduled board meeting where we will highlight our School Bell, Friends of the Schools, Graduate Yelm Partner of the Year honorees, and the district will recognize our retirees, our staff reaching milestones for years of service, and each school’s top achieving students.
June 11 at 9:30 a.m. the graduating class of 2023 will receive their diplomas at the Tacoma Dome. I absolutely love that community members attend our graduations even when they don’t have students in the ceremony. We are really excited to honor more than 300 graduates this year.
All of the events highlighted are open to the public and great celebrations of the connectivity between the school district and the Yelm Community. Please go to our district website for more information. I hope to see everyone at the schools!
Spring is Just Around the Corner
As we nudge closer to spring break in early April, there are clear messages we have in schools. First, we must finish the school year at the highest achievement levels possible. Our students have done terrific work this year, and our winter data suggests that we are seeing growth and achievement that looks a lot like pre-pandemic performance. Second, we must also put in concerted work to plan for the next school year. That process calls for parents, students and staff to pull together and communicate about the next educational steps.
In a few short weeks parents and students will attend spring conferences. These conversations require high engagement by students and staff to demonstrate achievement growth and progress toward learning goals and standards. Conferences should also be a celebration of many things each student has achieved so far, and the discussion of what goals can be attained by the end of the year. At the middle and high school levels, the conversation also includes making informed decisions about courses to be taken next year. These decisions are critically important because they should reflect the student’s development of the high school and beyond plan. We want students actively engaged in work to determine their interests and strengths and learn what potential education and career paths are connected. Spring conferences offer the ability for families to engage with their teachers to make highly informed decisions.
At our younger levels, spring conferences offer incredible goal-setting opportunities for the final portion of the school year. What reading and math levels can be attained? Our winter data is showing that students who started the school year below benchmark for their grade are making the strongest gains. The data allows for the conversation about what can happen in the spring to continue high growth toward proficiency. It is really exciting to see students set and reach academic goals.
Equally exciting for is the spring focus on Kindergarten registration and the ability for families to meet the staff prior to starting school next fall. Kindergarten registration opens on March 20. This can either be completed online via our website or by paper packets received at the neighborhood school. We also have an exciting event planned for May 3 at Yelm Middle School from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. The event is called Countdown to Kindergarten. Families attending this event can meet their principal and some staff, gain information from our nurses, practice getting on and off a school bus, and also engage in games to receive books for the summer. Last year’s Countdown to Kindergarten was packed with families and a great opportunity to connect with the new school.
Spring is an exciting time. We want to get more and more focused on success leading up to the end of the year, and of course, graduation. Please continue to check the district and school websites for spring activities that everyone can attend. See you at the schools!
Community Resource Fair to Support All Families
I am regularly asked if schools are fully recovered from the pandemic. While we have made great strides in addressing the multiple challenges, not all families can be considered back to normal. Our low income population continues to grow, and we are working harder than ever to help families connect to services related to social, emotional and physical health, and basic needs of food, clothing and daily supplies. Our community outreach team and school counselors support hundreds of families each week as we know these services result in greater student connection to their school, increased attendance and ultimately strong academic growth.
On February 22 the district is hosting a community resource event at Yelm High School starting at 5 p.m. More than 60 organizations that provide services to Thurston County families will take part in a resource fair in hopes of connecting with families who need support. The event will welcome any family, not just those who have students in our schools. In addition to the resource fair in the high school commons, there will also be a panel discussion in the theater at 5:30 p.m. with a variety of speakers. There will be significant discussion about supports for families in need of social, emotion and physical health resources including self harm, anxiety, depression and other mental health topics. The goal of this event is to build partnerships and connections for families. We know that there are not easy “fixes” with these topics, but helping families move toward services can build the relationships needed for better health.
An amazing attribute of our community is the desire to support students and families with needs. At our schools we have pantries stocked with clothing, shoes, blankets, and hygiene supplies for students. The pantries are refilled through donations from the community. Often, when we provide some of the basic necessities, we learn more about what the family might need. Our staff can then connect the family to community resources. Ultimately, we want our students to be able to come to school, excel in their studies, and know that we will help create supportive structures for them to succeed.
I encourage everyone to check out the resource fair, or help us keep the resource pantries filled at our schools.
Yelm Community Schools is a unique title for districts across the state of Washington. We are the only district that formally acknowledges that it takes the entire community to operate quality schools and to create the environments where students can succeed. I also believe the name implies that where there is need, the community and schools will partner to fulfill that need.
What are the examples? The largest and most prominent is our Graduate Yelm! initiative. The need was to create a community-wide emphasis that our graduates need to develop and enact a plan for continued learning and work after graduation. The result has been more than 260 businesses, churches and civic organizations have stepped in to find avenues for our students to implement their post-graduation plan.
We are a district that is seeing increased poverty emerging from the pandemic. With poverty comes the need for support like food, clothing, hygiene products and household items. Our community outreach team, school counselors and social workers have partnered with our community to provide year-round access to these items. Additionally, this professional community also works hard to connect families to community services for health care and housing needs. During the holidays, our district and community partners worked to provide more than 400 meals, hygiene products, and family holiday clothing and presents.
Another example of strength in our community happens whenever we need volunteers and expertise to support classroom learning. Each semester hundreds of volunteers help us conduct mock job interviews, help teach young adults money management, help supervise student events and give guest presentations about the world of work.
As superintendent, I hear often from community members that they will help any student in need. Sound cliche? It isn’t. At every meeting, our board approves significant donations so that students can have access to unique field trips, leadership opportunities, competitions and events that don’t fit into the definition of basic education. We are a highly benevolent community.
Lastly, our community shows up just to support students. Whenever a student or team earns a state or national championship, that school enacts significant celebrations of success. Our board recognizes both individual and state champions at our meetings. However, our football team winning the state title is unique in that it was the first time in school history. Throughout the playoffs dozens of individuals and businesses stepped in to provide means, student tickets to playoff games, rooter buses and opportunities to celebrate. Recently, the city and district decided to collaborate to celebrate our team, but to also celebrate the community for their support through this special time. We ask that you join us on January 23, starting at 4 p.m. for a parade and celebration of our community success. Please check our district website for details and updates.
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.