Numbers consistent as school starts
Trend shows slight decline, one district up
The annual ritual of picking out the first-day outfit, organizing binders and backpacks and mentally preparing to have a great and successful school year took place across Barry County last week as students, parents and staff members came together for the first day of school.
Tim Jordan, Exeter K-12 principal, said 299 students graced their halls on the first day of school, which was Aug. 25.
“Ninth-grade through twelfth-grade students came in at 91, while pre-K through eighth grade came in at 208,” he said. “There are six students kindergarten through eighth grade doing virtual learning and one in the high school.”
The smallest class is kindergarten at 11 students, and preschool follows with 13.
“Normally, we get several kindergarteners that come in who did not go to preschool,” he said. “It is possible that some of the kindergartners just haven’t enrolled yet. We like to get them in the district as young as possible. The pre-K numbers are good, and that comes from the focus on our Parents As Teachers program.”
The largest Exeter class is a tie between juniors and seventh-graders at 30 students,” Jordan said. “That is consistent with last year’s numbers.”
Jordan said the first hour of the first day was full of energy and excitement.
“All of our entrances were decorated, and the elementary teachers were all greeting the students and helping to take photos for families,” he said. “It is hard for parents who want to walk in with their children. We feel like our teachers really helped with that feeling.”
In the junior high and high school, teachers made an effort to greet the students and guide them from the cafeteria to the hallways to their classes.
“We are making it a point to make this transition period easier for everyone,” Jordan said. “It has been so long since we have been in school — it is good to see smiling faces.”
The district’s focus at this time is on making sure the students are safe.
“There are a lot of new challenges this year for our teachers as well,” he said. “We are trying to support all of the different elements, as well as prepare teachers for utilizing technology to guide and improve instruction.”
The district wants families to do whatever is best for them, but the district also wants the students to be where the teachers can impact them.
Trish Wilson, Wheaton superintendent, said her district’s first-day enrollment numbers totaled 470.
“That number does include the virtual learners, as well,” she said. “There are 61 students utilizing the virtual leaning options currently.”
The Wheaton school district is actually up 24 students from March 16.
Last year’s first-day numbers were 431 kindergarten through twelfth grade. With 25 students in preschool this year, the total K-12 numbers for this year are up by 14.
“Around September, things begin to level out and transfers in and out slow down,” Wilson said. “We are very pleased with our enrollment.”
In the high school, about three families decided to homeschool due to COVID-19.
“We are hoping to see them back in person once COVID-19 is over,” she said. “The first hour of the day went great. Administration had great plans and teachers were prepared.”
This year looks different, but Wilson said they saw no negatives to that.
“There are more student drop-offs instead of students riding the bus,” she said. “Bus routes are something that normally changes in the first few weeks of school.”
Once parents and students get into the swing of the school year, there is usually a rise in bus riders.
“We have six new elementary staff members this year and one new high school teacher,” Wilson said.
Tosha Tilford, Southwest superintendent, said it was great to see students back on campus.
“The first-day numbers, including preschool, are 731,” she said. “However, we have three students using MoCAP and 101 using our PRIDE option.”
MoCAP is a state option where the students never come on campus.
“PRIDE is what we have developed for our students,” she said. “They have a traditional school day via webcam.”
The students go to every class for the full school day.
“Last year’s first-day numbers were 798, preschool through twelfth,” Tilford said. “That is only a loss of five students based on those numbers. According to final counts, through, we are down by 25 students from last year to this year.”
The largest class is ninth grade with 73 students. Additionally, ninth grade has the highest number of PRIDE users at 15.
“The smallest class is fourth grade with 38 students,” Tilford said. “That is consistent with last year, which had 43 students in the third-grade class.”
The district is happy with their enrollment numbers.
“Everybody was happy to have students back,” she said. “And the students were happy to be back. It was a very positive first day.”
Southwest started school on Aug. 13, eight days before the rest of the county.
“On the first day, there is always a higher number of drop-offs,” Tilford said. “Also, the new system for afternoon pick-up is working great.”
Staff members made small adjustments throughout the first few days to keep everything running smoothly.
“It is just so nice to have students back,” she said. “Going from March to August and now to see a full campus again, it is great.”
The Purdy school district opened with 658 students, an increase of 19 over last year, with 40 taking classes virtually. The high school saw a net gain of six students and the middle school dropped by six. The biggest change was at the kindergarten level. Superintendent Mindi Gates said last year's opening with 67 students, which dropped to 63 by year's end, was unusually high. This year's start of 27 was more typical.
“I feel like we had a very good first day,” Gates said. “It was very nice to have students back in the buildings. There were a lot of smiling faces on students and staff. Overall it went very smoothly. There are always first-day hiccups. We'll work those out.”
This year, due to the pandemic, students saw a number of changes in routine and strategies for getting around campus. Gates said students masked up entering the building and when they left for transitioning between classes. The district acquired masks and face shields for both students and teachers, giving them the choice of when to wearing them. In classes, where social distancing is possible, the use of masks becomes optional. Mask breaks have been worked into the schedule.
Gates noted students sixth grade and under are eating both breakfast and lunch in their classrooms, which is new this year. A third shift has been added to lunch for seventh graders and older, providing more opportunity to spread out.
Changes extend to buses, where families were contacted ahead of time to alert them to plans for assigned seating. Students got to pick their seat on the first day, and were asked to hold that spot for at least the rest of the quarter. Family members were encouraged to sit together, Gates said. A seating chart has been posted in each bus.
The district had adequate bandwidth to offer the needed capacity for virtual learning. Gates said many teachers were already using Google Classroom and Dojo for instruction, and that would continue. In addition, the district purchased an online curriculum, powered by Accelerate Education, that will be taught by the district's teachers. That will enable families to switch to a virtual learning format in case another wellness break is ordered.
Before classes began, Gates offered a pep talk to the faculty. “The biggest thing I was trying to convey is that this year is going to be different than any other we've experienced,” Gates said. “We're still educators. We're going to welcome students in and show them school is a safe place to be. Nothing of our daily job as educators is changing. Masking and sanitizing shouldn't matter to what we do every day. We're just going to keep on teaching, even if we have to switch from classroom to virtual.”
Purdy has a higher concentration of students at the younger level, with sixth grade and under in one wing totaling 350, compared to 291 at the start of last year. That includes both the largest class, the first-graders, and the smallest class, the incoming kindergarteners. Seven classes all number in the 40s, reflecting a consistency among the student groups that will continue for some years to come, including this year's graduates.