Schools get ready for students

Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Guidance counselor Karen Graves helps a student get registered for high school.

In long lines, their hands clutched with paperwork, students registered for fall classes in the Mountain Home School District last week.

Parents accompanying them wrote checks to pay for the fees and asked the key questions at each stop on the registration loop that the kids themselves were too unsure to ask.

At the high school, soon-to-be seniors sauntered into the gym with the confidence of "those who are now on top," while many of the incoming sophomores had "deer in the headlight" looks on their faces.

At the elementary schools the younger students, especially those entering first grade, displayed both anticipation and a little fear as they followed their parents through the registration stations.

Overall, Supt. Jerrie LeFevre said, registration last Thursday "went really smoothly."

But students and parents who couldn't make it to the formal registration sessions are still coming in to the schools to register, and LeFevre said it wouldn't be until the end of this week that the district begins to get a true picture of how many students and in what grades the district has to deal with this year.

Unlike some school districts, where 100 students in fifth grade last year means 100 students in sixth grade this year, the Mountain Home School District, which serves the ever-changing population at Mountain Home AFB, is never really sure what its student demographics will look like until school starts.

Registration numbers from last Thursday show a total of 3,516 students registered for classes. Until the late arrivals show up for the start of classes in two weeks (typically 100-150 students) the district currently is down 225 students from roughly the same time last year.

Of particular concern to LeFevre is the drop in enrollment in the base schools, which currently are down 112 students from last year. A younger set of airmen on base than in many past years has resulted in lower attendance there. In fact, attendance at the base schools has been declining for several years. The district closed one school on base two years ago and this year, as the district tightens its belt in the wake of reduced state funding, only one principal will administer both the base primary and Liberty Elementary schools on base.

But if there will be plenty of room in the hallways at the base schools, at Hacker Middle School the always crowded facility may get even more crowded for its fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade population.

"Hacker is a real concern," LeFevre said. "Not from the standpoint of educating the children. The staff there always finds a way to make things work."

But as state funding has declined, the team-teaching method that had been developed in the past and used as a model for other school districts in the state, has been dismantled, the school returning to the more traditional schedules and techniques. Each grade at Hacker has a completely different schedule and attendance at the school has continued to grow.

LeFevre is relatively comfortable about the elementary levels, where the district has insisted it intends to keep class sizes in the low 20s.

But the cuts forced on the district over the last two years also have caused class sizes to grow at the secondary level, where LeFevre said it won't be unusual to see many classes with numbers in the low 30s.

Still, the district is looking better financially than it has in several years, LeFevre said. Last year, the district adopted a budget with half a million dollars of red ink, hoping the legislature would make up the difference. It didn't.

But a freeze on spending and hiring helped cover that deficit, and while the annual audit won't be in until October, LeFevre said he expects to see a positive fund balance.

"This district is in much better shape financially than it was four to six months ago," he said.

Last spring, the district invoked its RIF policy, and notified nearly 35 teachers and an equal number of other staff that they would probably not be rehired this fall.

Between then and now, attrition due to retirements and the normal movement of teachers to other districts has meant that all the teachers that wanted to stay with the district and who had been on the RIF list still have jobs. Only eight new teachers were hired, as compared to a normal year when 35-40 teachers are hired to replace attrition.

There will be fewer teachers overall, however, and fewer electives offered in the district this year and in the future until state funding levels are restored, and parents will be asked to contribute more in terms of higher fees for classes and extra-curricular activities, and more out-of-pocket expenses for classroom supplies (an area where the district has cut back considerably). The district also has eliminated the counseling staffs at Hacker Middle School and has a lot fewer teacher aides and support staff.

All those factors mean a more focused effort on core programs, LeFevre said. "We're going to be focusing on the three Rs," he said.

He's pleased with the district's efforts on improving reading skills among students. Several years of special programs to improve reading, many funded by the Albertson's Foundation, have boosted test scores and overall abilities of students.

One area of concern for the district has been the student math skills, and this year a major push begins with special programs, especially at the elementary level, to improve math skills.

But for a district that has prided itself on being one of the leaders in innovative programs, may be it for a while. "We need to get more focused and organized on the initiatives we've started in the district," LeFevre said. "I don't want any new initiatives. We need to work on what we have, get focused and get better."

Students and staff must also deal with an increased testing load. Both the state and federal government have required a number of "performance evaluation" tests for students in an effort to mandate improvements in student skills. The teaching staff is now rewriting its curriculum to conform to the needs of those tests, which will eat up 10 of the 180 days of classes during the next school year.

School board chairman Jim Alexander noted that while testing was valuable in helping identify areas of concern, both in overall curriculum and individual student performance, many of the new tests being added are more the result of politicians trying to look tough with schools than they are efforts to actually improve performance. "I'd have no problems with these tests if every member of the legislature would be forced to take and pass them, first," he said, doubting that many could.

The state, in fact, will require at some point in the near future, in addition to passing the required number of classes in high school, "exit testing" in order to earn a high school diploma. The exact procedure and timing, however, is still being worked out and the requirement will affect this year's sophomores, but not the seniors.

"The test load is heavy," LeFevre said, "but I think the staff has made the best of a bad situation."

For many students, however, the biggest changes they'll notice right away are the new faces serving as principals in the district. Or, more accurately, old faces in new jobs.

At the junior high, Ernie Elliot will replace Shawn Bier as principal, after Bier took a job near his midwest roots. Elliot is moving up from being principal at Hacker Middle School. Before that, he was principal at North Elementary.

Replacing him at Hacker will be Sandy Herbolt, who has 14 years experience as an administrator in the district.

Nancy Brletic, an early childhood learning specialist, will become the new principal at West Elementary, and West's former principal, John Fearey, will now oversee both of the functioning base schools.

LeFevre said the district is still shifting staff around, trying to find the right spots for each teacher to fill particular needs, and still has a few open positions in the event enrollment rises significantly between last Thursday and the start of school.

"Shifting personnel around is necessary, but very disruptive," LeFevre said, adding that after the brush with the RIF last spring, and all the changes that have had to be made to properly utilize the existing staff, "it wasn't real good for morale," among the teachers he said. "I think we need some healing time, right now," he said, while at the same time praising the staff for their skills and dedication. "We've probably got one of the best groups of teachers of any district in the state.

"This is a very good district, striving to get better," he said, "and all the issues we have, funding, testing, (state mandated) curriculum changes, are not going to distract the staff from educating the kids."

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