May 17, 2022

Elementary Vision Team recommends ‘one PCM elementary school’

The team presented ideas on the vision for the elementary buildings at school board meeting

The Vision Team for the two elementary schools in the PCM District presented its findings to the school board during its meeting Jan. 17. The team, made up of parents, staff and administrators, started meeting in November and recommended the board “move from two stand alone elementary schools ... into one PCM elementary school.”

After sharing with the board what they had come up with, board members had the opportunity to ask questions about the complicated topic.

“We were established to create a vision of the future of our PCM elementary schools. We all came with a common goal in mind that we want to be a part of change at PCM,” parent member Samantha Van Wyk said.

To start, members thought of five things they wanted the elementary schools to embody. They visited the schools and came back with ideas for the group. Lively discussions were had where people didn’t always agree, but the group worked through ideas constructively to find a conclusion.

“From there, we came back and discussed all of our content and we came up with six categories of most need, our biggest challenges within the school. Went into small groups with these categories,” Van Wyk said. “We identified specific areas of inequality that we feel make the elementary schools’ experience different for all of our kids. Our vision is to provide a grade alike learning experience for all PCM elementary students while supporting and retaining our staff.”

To do this, the group recommends moving to one PCM elementary school. The details of what that would look like were not shared, but an overview of ideas was given.

“Our long-term goal is to combine our students on one campus. We understand that a significant change like this does take time and money and resources,” Van Wyk said. “We do feel like in the short term we can work with the board and administration to come up with progressive, student-focused steps to make one PCM elementary school possible in the future.”

The team went over the six categories they found had the strongest challenges in the elementary schools. They included staffing and volunteers, equity of policies and practices, class size, space and safety, early childhood learning and communication and partnering.

Staffing and volunteers

First grade teacher Tiffany Mueller spoke on the struggles the schools have had keeping staff, especially during the past couple of years. Also, because there are two schools and some staff is shared between both buildings, there are additional challenges for faculty.

“We talked about how we are really struggling to retain teachers, especially when they have to share between both buildings. One example is music: they have to go between Monroe and also go to Prairie City,” Mueller said. “Lately, we have been struggling to cover teachers, associate absences. Students might miss classes or parts of classes because substitutes can’t be found. Sometimes it is very messy, like a puzzle to figure out. Functioning as one elementary school allows to shift staff how we need to shift time.”

She also brought up how each school has its own parent teacher group. Because there are two different groups, opportunities are not the same for all students.

Equity of policy and practices

Teacher and parent Tara Williams discussed that although the elementary schools have the same handbook, it can be hard to implement it based on logistics, giving the example of the parking lots. Also, each building has its own guidance counselor but the group recognized the schools can meet the social and emotional needs of the students by utilizing the guidance counselor’s flexibility across buildings rather than just being set in their building.

“Opportunities look different because of facilities. In Prairie City in fifth grade, if you are proficient or excel in math you can move up, we don’t have that in Monroe,” Williams said.

Class size

In the elementary schools, class size has started to stand out as an area to address. First grade teacher Angie Landgrebe explained her perspective working at Monroe Elementary.

“Currently, I have 16 students. My partners in Prairie City have 24,” Landgrebe said. “(Elementaries principal) Mrs. (Donita) Geetings sent out an email at the beginning of the year, contacted parents if anyone was willing to send their kids to Monroe and I think we had one come over. If we were a multi-age building then everyone could have the same class size. Sixteen to 24 is a huge difference.”

She also brought up the developmental kindergarten program no longer offered in the district, along with the challenges with preschool and transportation to the half-day program.

“The last year that we did offer DK, basically only Monroe people attended it. Everyone in Prairie City stayed in Prairie City and did kindergarten twice,” Landgrebe said. “If we were all in one building, I feel like DK is the best for some kids.”

Space and safety

The group shared the population of Monroe had grown roughly 25 percent since 1987. Parent Brad Cartwright brought up safety concerns in the parking lots, and first grade teacher Aliyah Creger shared challenges she has work storage in her classroom and the fact that Monroe Elementary doesn’t have a conference room.

Early childhood learning

As a continuing area of concern, early childhood learning is a space the group would like to see the district address. Kindergarten teacher and parent Heather Fenton shared her experience as a teacher for the youngest in the schools.

“What we know is this (preschool) is where we get the kiddos and keep the kiddos. We have more people that are going out for open enrollment than are coming in and that becomes a revenue issue for us,” Fenton said.

She said they can’t say for sure but it is assumed some children are going to preschools where there is also childcare provided throughout the day, relieving parents with the issue and transportation mid-day.

“Also, right now we do not have equal preschool sizes. We would like to be at full capacity. Research shows is if you get a kid in preschool they are likely to continue in kindergarten and first grade,” Fenton said.

Communication and partnering

Cathy DeHaai, who works in the front office at Monroe Elementary and is also a parent in the district, shared the struggles she finds with communication between the two buildings.

“Right now we see our kids as Prairie City kids and Monroe kids, and our vision is that these are PCM kids and we need to have someone get our communication and partnering aligned so parents receive the same email at the same time,” DeHaai said. “I truly believe that thinking, even if we have to stay in separate buildings, if we are one Prairie City Monroe Elementary, we can start to put together a strategy so all of the communications go out as one package to parents.”

She also spoke about the great community partners in each town and how bringing the resources together for all the kids would be beneficial.

“I’m excited that you got to this conclusion without anyone pushing that way,” board member Leslie Duinink said.

Board member Greg Ingle addressed the team first with questions and concerns about the idea. While he wanted to come at it with an open mind, he also remembered the first time this change was suggested for the district about 10 years ago.

“I didn’t just hear about the things that happened, I lived them at the board level and other levels,” Ingle said. “I think there are some things we are forgetting. I heard two perspectives, there are a lot more than two perspectives going on here.”

Along with parents and teachers he said there are economic and political impacts of making that kind of change. He also brought up the promise that was made to have community elementary schools in the district.

“You will still have people in the community that will say we were promised, and I was there when we promised it so it means something to me, that there would be elementary schools in each town,” Ingle said. “I am a little upset that I feel like we as a board are behind the situation here. I didn’t know all of the work that you guys put in was going on. I feel like the cart has got a little ahead of the horse, that we are going to forums next week and I think there is still an awful lot of very specific questions that need to be asked before you take on the public.

“If I wanted to sell this I would want to know answers to a whole lot more questions specifically than just an overall vision. People are going to ask specific questions and they are going to want specific answers.”

When asked what questions he had, Ingle asked what the economic impact would be on each community if it doesn’t have a lower elementary school and how students would be transported and how long will they be on the bus.

“I’m not saying there aren’t answers, I’m saying I would need to know those answers before going to a public forum because I would be afraid of being ripped apart,” Ingle said.

Board member Scott Grass also added when it comes to busing, the length of time the kids will be on a bus is a question for the team.

“We live a mile from town right now. We drop him off, take him to school, don’t care. If he was riding the bus, he gets on the bus at 6:47 in the morning, a mile from town,” Grass said. “I’ll drive him to Monroe, don’t have a problem with that. But how long is he going to be on that bus? Will he be on it an hour and a half? But a first, second, pre-ker. Just some questions the public will bring up.”

Busing continued to come up in questions from the board with chair Ryan Van Der Kamp commenting his kids are already on the bus for 45 minutes and does not see how “riding another 15, 20 minutes to Monroe, is fair for a little kid.”

“I’m going to jump on the safety side. The dropping kids off and on scares the crap out of me. I won’t do it. I don’t see how that is going to be fixed when we will have double the amount of students if Monroe people are taking their kids to Prairie City. That is my concern, getting them there and how you would handle that many parents at the buildings. It isn’t going to get any safer. There is going to be twice as many people at Monroe Elementary every day. It is scary to me,” Van Der Kamp said. “I am really worried about kids on buses. The preschoolers come to the fire station and the preschool teachers do awesome getting them to mind. I don’t know how you are going to get them to get on the right bus and change buses.”

Throughout the conversation the history of PCM and the combining of the two school districts into one was mentioned. From the perspective of people who were in school when the districts combined to parents and community members who were there from the start of PCM and those who came after and only know the district as PCM, different viewpoints were given and how it plays into this proposition.

“I think Prairie City and Monroe has done a remarkable job of healing over some wounds, I just don’t like opening our old scars and I know it is going remarkably well. And if we’re going to go that direction I want it done absolutely as perfect as can get it, everyone question thought out that we can think of, reasonable explanations on why the alternatives are not good compared to what is being presented‚” Ingle said. “We can never give the impression that it is already decided and don’t think that just because things have gone well that the old sores aren’t just laying there ready to explode. I don’t want that to happen because it would destroy the progress we have made.”

Two panel sessions are planned for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at the high school library and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the middle school auditorium for the Vision Team to share its presentation and take questions and concerns from the public. A Zoom link will also be available for the meetings for those who cannot attend in person.

“On big projects, you can’t be over prepared, especially ones where people’s feeling trump their logic,” Ingle said.

Contact Jamee A. Pierson at 641-792-3121 ext. 6534 or jpierson@newtondailynews.com