By BECKY THOMAS and JAMES EIK
At its Sept. 6 meeting, the West Plains Chamber of Commerce had some educational guests.
Local school district superintendents spoke to chamber members about the new school year and the issues facing their districts in the annual “State of Our Schools” address.
Medical Lake's Superintendent Pam Veltri said the district continued to see financial difficulty as its student population faced annual declines. Most of the drop was attributed to fewer students living at Fairchild Air Force Base, since housing requirements allow airmen to live up to 55 minutes away from the base.
All told, the district has seen a drop of 500 students over 13 years.
Since the change of standardized tests in Washington state, the district has been using the Measurement of Student Progress. For some in the district, however, it appears similar to its predecessor.
“It's no longer the WASL, they just changed the name,” Veltri said.
But, with all of the tests to which students must adapt, it can be overwhelming for some. Teachers have worked to continue regular classroom instruction while mixing in testing strategies.
“I think we're getting to testing saturation,” she said.
Based on results from tests, however, the district is showing stronger passing students.
“Assessment results are up and down, but there's an overall increase,” Veltri said.
In addition, the district remains in the top 5 percent for graduation rates in the state and has a significant number of students performing beyond projected testing results.
This June, the district also received a $1.35 million grant from the Department of Defense for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) classes and activities. The three-year grant will focus on helping students understand STEM concepts to help them with future education and employment in the field.
She also mentioned the upcoming initiative on the November ballot to introduce charter schools to Washington state. Veltri said the initiative would likely be promoted by those outside the education industry. She also said public schools could do just as well as some charter schools if several of the state's rules and regulations were removed, allowing greater freedom in some districts.
Although the district has seen the aforementioned enrollment declines, it has seen its fair share of good news. All of the district's buildings are set for the next 20 years, with the recent renovations of Hallett Elementary and the middle school, which added around $16 million to the local economy through construction.
While Veltri promised that school construction and renovation was over for a while in Medical Lake, Cheney schools are in the thick of facilities talk, with two new schools open, one under construction and an existing school with overcrowding issues. The issue stems from continued enrollment growth in the district, “a good problem to have,” new Cheney School District Superintendent Deb Clemens said.
Clemens highlighted how school construction helped the local economy. She said over 300 contractors worked on the two new middle schools that opened this month.
Clemens said the schools, as well as new sport fields in Cheney, were boons for the community as well as for the schools, as local recreation programs would benefit from the facilities.
Clemens also discussed Cheney High School, showing photos of portable classrooms that were moved from the old Cheney Middle School to the high school parking lot over the summer.
“Our high school is overcrowded,” she said. “All the portables are full with children and teachers.”
Besides the facilities focus, Clemens told the chamber members about non-academic programs the district will focus on this school year.
“Academics of course is our business, but we know that in order for kids to learn they need a lot of support structures around them,” she said.
Two programs that began last year are ramping up in 2012-13, she said. The first is a childhood obesity prevention initiative, which began last year with scratch-made meals. The second is a school-based clinic at Sunset Elementary School, which opened at the end of last school year. Clemens said the clinic provided immunizations and other services to students at Sunset.
Lastly, Clemens asked the chamber members to participate in the district's Give Five volunteer program. She said volunteers were needed in many different capacities.
“If you have a passion or interest, really we would love to have you in as career speakers in one of our classes,” she said. “It's our goal that all our kids experience success and with your support that can really happen.”
Spokane Teachers Credit Union sponsored the chamber meeting, held at the Holiday Inn Spokane Airport near Airway Heights. Instead of giving away promotional items, STCU asked chamber members to vote for an educational program, and the top two vote-getters would get $500 from the credit union.
The winners were Hallett Elementary School in Medical Lake and Westwood and Cheney Middle Schools' InvestED program, which provides small grants to students in financial need.