Last week, on the eve of a new school year, Darlene Schottle gathered together the 42 teachers entering Kalispell’s classrooms for the first time this fall. As her tradition goes, the district’s superintendent welcomed the latest group by offering words of affirmation and guidance, remembering the blend of nervousness and excitement that sets in before each new year. Some were experienced teachers transferring into the largest school district in Northwest Montana, encompassing 6,000 students spread across nine schools; others were bright-eyed and about to begin their careers as educators.
“It is quite honestly one of the most exciting times to be entering the education world,” Schottle told them.
They discussed new ways to connect with kids and encourage academic achievement, including ever-evolving technology and expanded classrooms. They prepared for the constant challenges, including many that intertwine with the community, like homeless teenagers. They renewed their pledge, which Schottle echoes as a rallying cry to the valley’s residents and businesses, to celebrate learning and encourage all young people to be successful and embrace high aspirations.
She saw the contagious energy and enthusiasm among the teachers, and later said it filled her with excitement and happiness. There was a part of her that wished she were just starting her career, rather than approaching its end.
The Schottles were a tight-knit migrant family. The father was a mechanic and moved around British Columbia wherever he could find work. Before she was 18, Darlene attended 13 different schools. Her mother had a sixth-grade education; her father an eighth-grade. No one in their family, including cousins, had graduated high school. Yet Darlene’s parents emphasized to their young daughter the importance of schooling.
“They just valued the fact that if I went to school I’d have the opportunity to do something more,” she said. “To me it was the Canadian dream and the American dream. If I wanted to have my own house and be able to buy a new car, I had to have an education.”
Schottle became intent on attending college despite the challenges in front of her. Beside her family’s sparse education background, Schottle lived in a culture at that time — the 60s and early 70s — that rarely saw women pursuing higher education.
“Most of the people in the communities I lived in, the women rarely worked. They were stay-at-home moms,” she said. “There was a little bit of that, ‘ Why do you want to do something like that for?’”
She received scholarships that allowed her to attend the University of British Columbia, where she trained to be a teacher. Over the following decades, she would serve as an educator for 14 years and earn multiple degrees, including a doctorate, which allowed her to move to the U.S. and eventually become the top school administrator in a major district near Reno, Nev.
It was then and there, after leading the creation of three new high schools, that she would be hired to tackle a similar situation in the rapidly growing Flathead Valley, home to the largest high school in Montana and a jigsaw puzzle of elementary and junior high schools.
Eleven years later, Schottle is entering her final school year as superintendent of Kalispell School District 5. She announced her decision to retire to the board of trustees in the spring. The search for a replacement launches this week, with trustees deciding whether to establish a separate search committee or handle the effort as a board.
In an interview last week, Schottle, 61, reflected on her tenure and the noticeable transformation within the city’s school district, while also discussing the constant challenges and issues facing schools and teachers.
Kalispell public schools have seen improvements in graduation rates in recent years and reached an 83 percent graduation rate in 2012, nearly 10 percent above the national average.
Eight new classrooms have been recently built in the district in response to another year of record enrollment of kindergarten students. The district’s overall enrollment is up 1,000 students since 2003.
Another urgent priority to recently surface is the influx of homeless teens and the district has hired a coordinator to facilitate resources for those in need. Kalispell has begun serving an increasing amount of free meals to teens, and Ronda Stevens is now in charge of helping teenagers who are without a permanent, safe residence.
“In reality, one of the best places to coordinate those efforts is through a school,” Schottle said. “I think it’s the right thing to do for children.”
Maintaining Flathead High’s building over the long-term is another priority.
“I think at some point we’ll have to do something with the gym and the surrounding area and those are challenges that we’ll have to address,” she said. “But I really think it should be built upon.” Schottle’s legacy will most likely be tied to one of the most significant — and tumultuous — chapters in Kalispell’s history: the creation of Glacier High.
When she arrived in the summer of 2003, the community had come to terms with the fact that something needed to be done in the school district.
Within a year, Schottle had spearheaded a plan that would overhaul the district’s configuration with a new high school and redevelopment of what was then Kalispell Junior High. In 2004, voters approved a $39.8 million bond to build Glacier. In 2007, the 229,000-square foot building opened.
Today Flathead High enrollment is roughly 1,450 and Glacier’s is 1,200, according to the school district. Six years later, some tensions still exist between the two schools.
“I did not know the amount of commitment the community would have to its high school, and the growing pains that it would go through creating two out of one,” Schottle said. “But that passion is also what makes it wonderful.”
When asked if she would do anything different, Schottle said she would better explain the district’s reasoning behind its decisions through community meetings and listening sessions.
“I think that we have staff at both schools who are very passionate about their own schools,” she said. “I like the fact that they’re developing a little bit of their own personalities as far as academically. They’re similar but they’re not the same, and I think that’s very important as you develop a culture for a school.”
“I always get excited this time of year. I look so forward to seeing our kids coming back to school,” said Mike Nicosia.
For the last 19 years, the superintendent of both the high school and elementary school district has watched burgeoning students stream the halls and fill the classrooms in Columbia Falls. But this fall holds a special significance for Nicosia.
The second longest serving superintendent in Montana is entering his final year before officially retiring in June. He announced his decision to the board of trustees in April. But in a surprising twist, he proposed a generous deal that would extend his tenure by one final year and save the district a significant amount of money. Nicosia is working this school year for less than one third of his salary, or roughly $31,000.
“This community and these schools have been absolutely wonderful to myself and my family for 18 years,” Nicosia said. “This is my family’s way of paying back our little debt of gratitude.”
Nicosia’s gesture is more than kind; it’s rather necessary in a time of financial turmoil.
For the fourth year in a row, the high school district’s budget is less than it was a year prior. Since 2010, the high school budget has dropped $422,000, according to Nicosia. The elementary district’s budget has shrunk each of the last three years, for a total of $300,000 since 2011. The school board approved the latest fiscal budgets on Aug. 13, and Nicosia reported a net deficit of $428,093 between the two districts.
Nicosia estimated that 30 staff positions have been lost over the last three years in Columbia Falls.
“We’re at the point now where there isn’t much left to cut,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for years. When your budget doesn’t go up, your costs still go up.”
The troubling situation is nothing new for Columbia Falls, or other small communities across Montana that are struggling with declining enrollment and a funding mechanism largely weighted on school sizes.
Columbia Falls’ high school enrollment plummeted from 945 in 1997 to 692 last fall, a 27 percent decrease. The elementary district shrunk to Ruder and Glacier Gateway schools in 2011 after Canyon Elementary was closed, the result of enrollment diving from 230 students in 1997 to 75.
Whitefish has experienced similar changes, with elementary enrollment dropping 8 percent and high school enrollment shrinking 29 percent in the last decade. Bigfork’s high school enrollment has dropped off 27 percent, while the elementary numbers have turned around in recent years to equal a 9 percent rise.
In contrast, Kalispell has enjoyed a 19 percent rise in elementary numbers and 14 percent in high school since 2003. Kalispell’s entire district has increased by roughly 1,000 students in the past decade, according to administrators.
More than a decade ago, Nicosia spearheaded an effort to change the way schools are funded through the state. The idea was to increase funding for struggling school districts and it evolved into a collection of schools that sued the state of Montana in September 2002. The lawsuit, titled Columbia Falls vs. the State of Montana, claimed that budget reductions were leading to significant program and teacher cuts and creating “a crisis” in many of Montana’s schools. The state district court ruled in favor of Columbia Falls in 2004, and the state Supreme Court affirmed the decision a year later.
Yet nearly 10 years later, Nicosia sees the same struggles and problems persisting for Montana’s smaller schools.
“As far as the school financing and changing things, I fought that fight. We won the lawsuit, but it really didn’t change much,” he said.
Despite the perpetual challenges, Nicosia keeps an optimistic tone and will carry it through his final school year. The community does appear to be growing, albeit slowly, and enrollment in Columbia Falls’ schools appears to be holding steady this fall, he said. The high school is expected to be slightly higher than last year, with roughly 710 students.
“I’m really dedicated to having the best year we can,” he said, “and then sitting back and doing anything I can for our community and our school districts on a volunteer basis.”
Montana is one of six states whose school lunch programs have completely, or almost completely, implemented healthier national school lunch guidelines created in an effort to reduce childhood obesity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week.
Kalispell School District has led the nutritious transformation under the guidance of food service director Jennifer Montague. In 2011, Montague began revamping the cafeteria with healthier homemade options, including Montana beef and locally grown vegetables.
Along with serving meals during summer, the district provides nutritious breakfasts and lunches to more than 4,500 students in 11 schools, five days a week during the school year, and those numbers have continued to grow the past two years, according to the district.
Junior high students in Bigfork might not have to stress over getting straight A’s in the future.
Matt Jensen, the principal at both the elementary and middle school in Bigfork, is proposing an overhaul of the grading system for sixth through eighth graders that would eliminate the age-old letter grades and replace them with more in-depth proficiency assessments in reading and math classes.
Standards-based grading is a system that has gained traction over the last three decades as a new model for student development and evaluation. Instead of the traditional grading scale of A through F, standards-based grading measures students’ overall understanding of the subject materials through a numerical system that adds up to separate classifications, such as “novice” and “advanced proficient.” ‘Advocates of the new system tout its ability to track measurable progress and better determine a student’s understanding of school material rather than relying largely on test-taking abilities.
Critics, like the seven community members who voiced their opposition at Bigfork’s Aug. 13 school board meeting, contend that standards-based grading is ineffective and stymies students’ motivation to reach for well-known accomplishments like straight A’s.
Bigfork’s elementary school has incorporated aspects of standards-based grading, and Jensen told board members the transition has been smooth.
Kalispell Middle School began incorporating standards-based grading five years ago for some classes in kindergarten through fifth grade. Last year the entire school transitioned.
“Students are graded on what they know and what they’ve learned, and how well they do after they’re taught specific skills and standards,” second-year principal Tryg Johnson said. “(The transition) went well. We’re pretty excited about it.”
Bigfork’s school board of trustees will review Jensen’s proposal at its meeting on Sept. 18 and asked that further information about standards-based grading be presented, including a sample report card.
Not a moment too soon, the eight new classrooms in Peterson and Edgerton elementary schools are fully constructed and ready for a fresh batch of kindergarteners.
When the school year begins Aug. 28, Kalispell will have its largest collection of kindergarteners ever in the district, according to administrators. More than 360 youngsters are enrolled in their first full year of schooling. This is the third year in a row that kindergarten enrollment has been around 360 in Kalispell, and the large number surpassed even administrators’ predictions. Just last week, Hedges Elementary added another kindergarten class in response to the high number of students entering the district.
Kalispell’s five elementary schools have swelled in the past three years, primarily in the younger grades. The flood of students sparked overcrowding concerns among teachers and administrators, and even led to several classrooms expanding beyond state class-size accreditation standards. Last fall the school district proposed a 10-year, $3.35 million bond seeking to alleviate overcrowding at the K-2 levels, and voters approved the request.
The bond has led to expansions at Peterson and Edgerton and five additional staff members. A third component of the bond, a brand new central kitchen for the district, is about to break ground and should be completed by June, according to district administrators.
Edgerton Elementary, located off Whitefish Stage Road on the north side of Kalispell, has four new classrooms and restrooms.
Peterson Elementary, located on Second Street West and South Meridian Road, has four new classrooms, a multipurpose area, three restrooms and a serving kitchen.
“Our new additions look great,” Principal Rick Anfenson said. “We’ve really reduced our class sizes. And with the new additions, we’ve been able to return neighborhood kids to their neighborhood school.”
It’s been described by some as the most significant education reform in generations and a critical step if American students hope to keep up with their global peers. It’s also been demonized and blasted by others as a government agenda that would minimize individual achievement with uniform goals and wreak havoc on the nation’s classrooms.
Since debuting in 2010, Common Core has evolved from a new set of national learning standards for math and reading into a politicized — if not misunderstood — lightning rod.
Montana is one of 45 states to adopt the initiative and schools across the state are in the process of implementing the changes this year. Kalispell School District is ahead of the curve, and local classrooms began undergoing the Common Core conversion a year ago.
In April, the Republican National Committee denounced Common Core as a “one-size fits all” plan that “fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” The RNC encouraged states to reject the curricular standards that are supported by the Obama administration. A funding proposal was shot down in the 2013 Montana Legislature that would have helped schools pay for the implementation of Common Core material.
Yet advocates say reform is desperately needed in the nation’s public school system, and that more myths than facts have surrounded the heated debate and turned it into a political scuffle.
Compared to students in 27 industrialized countries, American students rank 25th in math and 14th in reading comprehension, according to the Broad Foundation, an educational reform organization.
“The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy,” an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Affairs wrote in its report on U.S. education reform and national security.
“Educational failures puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk.”
So what is Common Core?
Common Core is an education initiative that seeks to align curricula and standards across the nation by creating an outline for grades K-12 of what children should learn to be ready for today’s colleges and careers. It creates a clear set of expectations for English language arts and mathematics for each grade, but does not dictate exact curriculum or lesson plans; school districts still choose reading material and other teaching models that supplement the Common Core standards. The new standards emphasize critical thinking and reading instead of test preparation. They do increase the exposure to informational texts, such as America history documents like Common Sense, and literary nonfiction, while keeping ties to literary fiction classics, such as Shakespeare.
For decades, schools across the country have taught students different material at different ages and rates, and assessed the learning abilities’ through different standards.
For example, a fifth grade student who moved from Oregon to Montana could arrive and take math classes that are either way above or below the student’s abilities.
Starting in 2007, two nonpartisan organizations — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — began crafting new, higher standards that are consistent across the U.S. Teachers, administrators and education experts provided input that led to revisions during the process.
“Common education standards are essential for producing the educated work force America needs to remain globally competitive. This voluntary state-led effort will help ensure that all students can receive the college- and career-ready, world-class education they deserve, no matter where they live,” Craig Barrett, the former CEO and chairman of the board for Intel Corporation, said in a statement supporting Common Core.
School officials are still ironing out how to pay the final bill, but Whitefish High School’s transformation is underway and entering its final stages.
This year’s students and teachers will have to endure the nuisance of ongoing construction on campus, but they can also enjoy the benefits of renovation.
The gymnasium has been entirely remodeled with a new basketball court and expandable bleachers and crews are finishing the locker rooms and a new athletic training facility and weight room, which are being funded by a recent donation of more than $1 million from the Iron Horse Foundation.
After that, construction will enter the final phase of redeveloping the high school, which remains on track to be completed by August 2014.
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