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A new school year with new projects, people

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The weeks preceding the start of school are always a time of anticipation and trepidation, for students and teachers alike. There’s the promise of a new year, the excitement of new projects and the enormity of getting it all underway. All in all, it’s a blank slate — or blackboard — to kick off a new year.

The 2016–2017 school year brings a number of new faces to the district and a panoply of extracurricular activities for students of all interests. Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh and McKinney/Yellow Springs High School Principal Tim Krier discussed the possibilities awaiting students in the upcoming year.

What’s new at Mills Lawn

The number of students attending Mills Lawn is up, with a total attendance of 370 students, around 10 more than last year. There are “healthy numbers” of students in each grade, but not to the degree that it’s overwhelming, Housh said. Fourth and fifth-grade classrooms have around 22 to 23 students each, while there are three first grade classes this year, compared to two classes last year. The higher number of students can be partly attributed to strong open enrollment numbers, he said. There are 90 open enrollment students this year, compared to 76 last year. Some open enrollment students were even turned away from classes that were already full.

Mills Lawn has three new teachers this year: Carrie Juergens, teaching fourth grade; Shannon Wilson, teaching third grade; and Rob Grote, teaching PE. The focus across the board is on project-based learning, or PBL, an immersive, cross-disciplinary teaching philosophy. (See the accompanying article below for a profile of the district’s new teachers.)

Reflecting this approach, the teachers have developed some high-quality, semester-long projects, Housh said. Kindergarten through second-grade classes will be working together on projects related to water, studying access, cleanliness and the water system, while third- and fourth-grade classes will be doing projects that encourage healthy lifestyle habits, such as sustainable food and stress reduction. Fifth- and sixth-grade classes will be doing a project called HOPE — “Honoring Our Planet Earth” — that explores environmental and social justice. Teachers worked together over the summer to develop the themes and the ways in which they can integrate math, science and language arts.

“They are dynamic projects that integrate relevant issues from all over the world,” Housh said. “The projects involve the community and are designed to feature a high level of student voice and engagement.”

By this point, Housh said, many of the district’s teachers have been involved with PBL for five years and are able to have “deeper conversations” about the projects and the philosophy behind them. The projects are more rigorously planned, and there is a better grasp of how to assess student success, he said.

In addition to schoolwork designed to engage students, Mills Lawn now has a full-time music and performing arts teacher, which Housh said will allow for bigger productions involving more kids. The curriculum will also focus on outdoor education, which will feature more fieldwork around town and student camping trips, such as a three-day fifth- and sixth-grade trip to Camp Kern later this year.

All students will also spend time with counselor John Gudgel. District Superintendent Mario Basora said that Gudgel will provide traditional, one-on-one counseling services when needed but will also work with groups of students to resolve conflicts, discuss current events and generally explore how to navigate the stresses of life. Time for such work is embedded in the students’ schedules, Housh said. Classes will meet with Gudgel for a half an hour at least once per week.

What’s new at YSHS

YSHS Principal Tim Krier said that this year is the first in many that doesn’t feature a substantial change in the way the school operates. Full block scheduling was implemented at the beginning of last year, but the biggest change this year schedule-wise is the combining of lunches into one period. There were previously two lunch periods each for high school and middle school, but now students of each school will eat at the same time. The combined lunch will make for an uninterrupted hour of time in which teams or student committees can meet together. (High school students could meet when middle-schoolers have lunch, for example.) The new lunch configuration makes for a continuity of student leadership, Krier said.

There are eight new teachers and staff members at McKinney and YSHS this year, and an increase in attendance. McKinney students number 124, compared to 102 last year; while the high school boasts 258 students, compared to 225 last year. Open enrollment students number 31 and 84 at McKinney and YSHS respectively, compared to 33 and 66 last year. Basora said that the district is still signing some open enrollment applications.

The primary curricular difference this year will be a greater number of STEM opportunities for students, which Krier characterized as remarkable for a school the size of McKinney/YSHS.

A new engineering program will be offered as an option to YSHS students, in conjunction with the Greene County Career Center. The initial class will be taken by all eighth graders and engineering will be an elective path in high school. The courses take students through the engineering design cycle, from planning to revision to prototyping to creation. The YSHS maker space has all the tools for working with wood, Krier said, and the school is looking into acquiring other tools like 3D printers and a laser engraver.

On the extracurricular front, First Tech Challenge is a national program in which students use robotics to address common problems. YSHS will host two teams composed of seventh through 12th graders, and one team of high-schoolers that will be heavily focused on coding and the building of actual robots. The funds for getting the teams started came from corporate sponsors, Krier said. For the less robotically inclined, Project Lead the Way is an Ohio-based engineering program in which students “create products that meet real, authentic needs” said Krier. It is a project new to YSHS in which students will learn the principles of engineering, designing solutions and then building them.

Eighth graders will have the opportunity to spread their dramatic wings with a new performing arts class taught by Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp. The school made a decision to invest in performing arts, Krier said, and now students have an additional option alongside choir and band. Also new this year, YSHS will host a National Debate Team. Krier said the team does “hardcore, traditional debate” in a competition in which participants are known to show up lugging five or six tubs worth of research for the chosen topic. Previous topics include whether or not military intervention is warranted in the Middle East and the circumstances in which US visas should be extended. The district is currently looking for a coach for the debate team.

The high school winter sports selection has increased this year as well, with the inclusion of a high school bowling team. The team is an Ohio High School Athletic Association team, meaning that it can compete for a championship, Krier said. There are three other teams in the league. The YSHS team’s home court is the Beaverview Lanes in Beavercreek.

Testing stays the same

The state testing requirements will stay the same for both Mills Lawn and McKinney/YSHS students. In 2015, the district was one of 15 Ohio districts that applied for a waiver exempting it from some state and federal testing requirements. The state approved Yellow Springs’ application in spring of 2015, but the federal government denied the application in February of this year due to the passage of new federal education legislation.

As such, third- through sixth-grade classes will take reading and math exams; fourth and sixth grades will take a social studies test; and fifth graders will take a science exam. High school students are given year-end assessments in nine classes throughout their high school career, the scores of which count toward graduation requirements. High school students will also take standardized tests in the spring, as well as Ohio Graduation Tests for seniors expecting to graduate.

The schools comply with the state’s requirements but are not sold on how beneficial the testing is, Housh said, as the tests haven’t evolved with teaching philosophies. Moreover, the testing takes up a significant amount of class time. Each test taken by Mills Lawn students is in two parts, which means that the mornings of two days are disrupted in order to take the tests, he said.

“I’m not happy with what tests do to our culture and our kids,” Housh said. “Kids don’t like their learning being interrupted.”

However, the district remains a state waiver district, which means that it can apply for testing waivers or waivers from related policies, such as the tying of teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests.

Testing requirements aside, school staff and administrators are looking forward to the start of the school year and the opportunities awaiting district students. Both Krier and Housh agreed that this year’s faculty is the best group they’ve had the pleasure of working with. The teachers are used to sharing resources and collaborating on projects, Housh said, which is critical to the district’s PBL approach.

“We’ve got a solid group of people,” Krier said. “Everyone here is incredibly passionate about what they’re doing.”

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