A panel of leaders at three area school districts — Ames, Gilbert and Ballard — joined moderator Laura Jolly of Iowa State University for a “State of Education” panel discussion Wednesday at the Ames Chamber of Commerce.
Jolly is the dean of the Iowa State University Department of Human Sciences where the School of Education is based. Other panelists included Ballard Community School District superintendent Ottie Maxey, Ames Community School District associate superintendent Jeff Hawkins and Gilbert Community School District superintendent Christine Trujillo.
The panel collaborated and echoed each other’s insights into the changing landscape of public education.
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Several questions from the audience and from Jolly focused on the issues of mental health, wellness, counseling and therapy within the school systems. These are issues schools have been dealing with in recent years.
“Lisa Heddens and I started having these conversations five or six years ago,” Maxey said, “and it was a brand-new topic back then. We were just starting to learn how to deal with it.”
Heddens, who was in the audience, is currently a Story County Supervisor. For 17 years she served in the Iowa House of Representatives, representing a portion of Story County.
Maxey said four years ago he reached out to LifeWorks in Ankeny, a company that partners with school districts to offer an array of wellness and mental health support. He said LifeWorks has three full-time therapists in the Ballard school district.
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The Ballard district is accessing at-risk funding to pay for the therapists. Student family insurance pays for some of the services.
“We cover any student costs who needs therapy and is unable to pay for that,” Maxey said. “And we just increased our financial commitments for that.”
Trujillo pointed out that bringing therapists into schools is nothing like relying on school counselors.
“Counselors aren’t therapists,” Trujillo said. “What Ottie is talking about could really help our students and it is really needed for not just students but teachers and staff too.”
Trujillo said the Gilbert district has built an internal student-led support and wellness effort called “Moving Forward.”
“The kids are in charge,” Trujillo said. “They are reaching out to other students who aren’t involved in activities, who don’t have a community, so they can feel included.”
Trujillo said the group of students hosted a bonfire over the summer with more than 125 students attending.
“I’ve been hearing students asking, ‘When is the next activity?'” she said.
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Other issues that came up in the discussion included new Standards Reference Grading in the Ballard school district that will help connect letter grades to actual mastery of skills. The Des Moines Public Schools has been using the system since 2012.
Another new initiative this year in Ballard is a new GPS systems on buses. Students will now use swipe cards to ensure they are getting onto the right bus and getting off at the correct stop.
“It may seem like a little thing, but bus issues can really consume a lot of your time,” Maxey said. “When 6-year-olds get on the Turtle bus when they are supposed to be on the Elephant bus, that causes huge problems.”
With the new system, Maxey said, parents can be sure their child is on the right bus and parents can communicate directly with the transportation system.
Building partnerships within communities led into the issue of rumor mills and the grapevine among parents.
All three school leaders said managing communications and social media rumors can be a big problem for the school districts. But often the issues at hand relate to confidential information with students and/or staff that school districts cannot legally address in the public arena.
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Hawkins said the Ames district has relied heavily on its director of communications, Eric Smidt.
“He’s been helpful launching a new website for us that is coming online soon, managing communications with parents, producing a podcast,” Hawkins said. “If we don’t work to tell our story, what we are left with is the void, which is sometimes not always accurate.”
Trujillo said the Gilbert district has just hired a director of community engagement, Troy Banning, to reach out and build “actionable” strategies.
But, Trujillo said, sometimes the best solution to dealing with incorrect information in the community is to turn to knowledgeable, broad-thinking parents. They can successfully redirect harmful and incorrect social media rumors.
“I’ve seen parents and community members go into a social media thread and comment and respond to clarify or say things like, ‘No, that’s not what happened,’ or they’ll say ‘If you go read the letter you’ll see that …'” she said. “That has been very helpful because it settles people down.”
Another significant change coming this next school year is the state legislature’s decision to waive the March 1 open enrollment deadline. Students can now open enroll throughout the year into other school districts.
“It’s a big deal,” Hawkins said. “Fortunately, the Ames School District will likely be a beneficiary of this change. But that means some other school system will not, and that’s the big deal. If we believe in a larger community, and the health of our larger community overall, then this change becomes problematic.”
Both Maxey and Trujillo said they are watching to see how this will affect their districts. The biggest concern they mentioned is the issue of staffing. Techer contracts are handed out in the spring and early summer. But if significant numbers of students come and go between districts all year long, districts could find themselves with too many or two few staff members.
As the group of nearly 50 community parents, business and community leaders discussed the coming year in education, Ballard superintendent Maxey took a break in the conversation to step back and take a breath.
“This is kinda weird,” Maxey said. “I’m really used to people coming to tell me what is on their mind. I do a lot of listening. This is like, ‘Wow, people are listening to me and they want to know what I’m thinking. This is really cool.'”
The school district officials adeptly fielded questions until State Sen. Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames) asked about a recent Ames Tribune story that explained how school districts will have to pay for some supplies for blind students.
“Thanks for the heads up,” Maxey said as he scribbled a note to himself. “This is the first I’m aware of it. And we haven’t received a push notification from the Iowa Department of Education on this.”
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Hawkins said he was aware of the change and the district is gathering information.
The news story Quirmbach mentioned states that the Department of Education will not renew a materials contract with the Department for the Blind — worth $575,000, including $75,000 for an extension through Sept. 30 — that allowed for the education department to be billed for Iowa students who are blind or have low vision being provided Braille and other accessible education materials.
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