Nisqually Valley News Columns
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.
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.