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School superintendents talk biggest challenges, surprising successes as fall semester ends

Student literacy and substitute staffing have emerged as areas of concern for central Iowa school districts.

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Josh Ehn, Oelwein Community School District Superintendent

What is your overall impression of the first semester?

I'm really proud of the efforts of our teachers and staff: everyone from bus drivers, cooks, janitors, associates, teachers, administrators. The effort they put in to help kids learn this year is really phenomenal. And I think that's probably true across the state. What we've seen them do and put forward this year is really remarkable. 

What have been the biggest obstacles?

Our staff illness. We haven't really seen large community spread in our students, which is awesome. We want to keep them safe and continue keeping them safe.

But our teachers being out in the extended quarantine time periods, and then availability of substitute teachers to fill in has been a significant challenge. As I hear stories from other districts, that kind of seems to be resonating across the board with everybody. It's kind of a daily wonder of will we have coverage across the board, to make sure that we we can continue educating our students. 

How are you ensuring that children are not falling behind?

I think that we were pleasantly surprised, actually, with our assessment data that we got back in the fall. We too, saw a small bump. But it was not the bump that I think that they were discussing the other day, maybe a little hyperbolic in terms of what that data looks like. 

NWEA recently came out with an NPR story .. just talked about that they were [excited] that the data was not as significant as they thought as far as that a decline in student learning. I think that we saw that here locally. And that's positive, because if we can hold the water to get through the next few few weeks and months, I really think that we're going to be able to celebrate coming out of it.

What is the biggest thing you have learned during the pandemic?

I think it's going to refocus on what matters most. There are a lot of moving parts in a school system.  And you know, from the very beginning when it was you know, about taking care of and protecting your staff, it was about feeding kids and keeping people safe throughout the educational process. 

This school year, it's really been about you know, getting rid of the fluff, and really grinding out those things that are most important. So you have to sharpen the tools to get right down into what we're trying to educate kids around.

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Jenny Risner, Ames Community School District Superintendent

What are the biggest priorities for your district? And the biggest challenges?

I think, you know, some of our challenges, of course, are the same, you know? You're dealing with a system that is trained to educate students. And so you have students as well as staff that you are trying to manage. And so those challenges are the same. 

So I think some of the differences in size is around just ... we have buildings that are already overcrowded. And so you know, our middle school is sitting just under 1,000 students, our high school is over 1,000 and both buildings are crowded. And so the challenges are a little bit different in serving, you know, 5,000 students and over 700 staff members. You have a different set of challenges sometime.

Is data reporting that kids are falling behind in literacy a big concern? And how is the district addressing it? 

It definitely is a major concern, and it's one of the things I've spoken openly about publicly, especially our early learners. And the difficulty with parents at home trying to teach beginning reading, that is difficult. 

And so we are looking for every opportunity to bring our students back, especially our early learners. And we get better every week, we get better at delivering in in this type of environment every week. 

But I think the most important thing is going to be for us to be ready with heavy-duty intervention that we've never, you know, we've never seen this type of aggressive intervention model. And so we're really going to have to be prepared for that. 

And maybe do so with less money in the budget, but really put a focus on that intervention and skill building.

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