BY DENISE PONTRELLI
“What comes easy won’t last. What lasts won’t come easy.” This is one of many similar quotes I’ve run across about change that resonates with me at the start of this new school year.
There is no doubt our school district leaders have made some very difficult decisions in the past year. It certainly hasn’t been easy on them, on our staff, or on families and residents in our community. But as the quote suggests, we’re not in the business of making the easy decisions. Our focus is to make a significant difference for our students and to provide them with the very best educational experiences possible. We want to ensure that each and every one of the children entering our classrooms has the opportunity to succeed. We want to remove barriers. Increase support. Provide each child with exactly what they need to thrive. We’re making lasting changes. And we know that is never easy.
The school board made learning the priority in decision making last year. They intentionally considered the needs of all students in our district as they weighed the pros and cons of each issue brought before them. They tackled class sizes and multi-grading. They responded to concerns about budget cutting and the impact of decreased services. They addressed staffing inequities and technology challenges. They confronted capacity concerns and uncovered issues in our systems and structures. And ultimately, the board approved a plan to address all of these issues moving forward.
Already in this new school year our students are feeling the positive impact of these important decisions. Knowing that our district would be right-sized, and that resources would be more available to staff in students through consolidation next year, the board was able to make some short-term investments this year. Here are just a few examples:
• Class sizes have been balanced in elementary schools and multi-graded classrooms were eliminated district-wide. (Afton-Lakeland’s 4/5 Express is the only multi-graded classroom, and staff chose to maintain this specialized program at their school.)
• New devices, like Chromebooks and laptops, were purchased to support learning in the classroom, and infrastructure was updated to improve access and connectivity for staff and students.
• Staffing levels were maintained this year to help balance class sizes at the junior high and high schools.
• Student leaders and district staff helped greet seventh- and 10th-graders as they entered their new schools for the first time this year. Improving opportunities for students to transition successfully between buildings and grade levels is a priority, with much attention being given to how students will be welcomed into our new middle schools and 9-12 high school in 2017-2018.
• Students and staff have more space to move around in newly renovated science classrooms at Stillwater Area High School and Oak-Land Junior High. Learners in our medically-complex program at Oak-Land are also enjoying new spaces to maximize their learning.
• Planning for a dual immersion program has begun in earnest. Several bilingual teachers have been hired and recruitment of students has already begun for the 2017-2018 school year.
• Specialized programs for gifted and talented learners, alternative learners, and special education students are being redesigned to fit expand opportunities and take advantage of new spaces in the coming year.
As we transition into the 2017-2018 school year even more positive changes will occur for our students across the district. To make these things happen is a balancing act. District leaders have had to prioritize. They’ve had to decide what things are most important for students. They’ve had to forego some things knowing that students would be better served if resources were directed somewhere else.
It’s incredibly hard work. It’s not easy. Ultimately, it’s about doing what is best for our kids. I’m incredibly proud of the team in place — from our administrators and staff to the school board members — who have decided to do what is best for our students, no matter the personal or professional sacrifice. And I’m happy to report back to them, and to all of you, that it is making a positive difference in the lives of our students.
Thank you to the community for supporting our schools, our teachers, support staff and district leaders.
Denise Pontrelli is the superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools.