A Closer Look at Oskaloosa Education

Oskaloosa Community School Administration

by Amy Langdon

Whether you have children or not, schools matter. Experts say good schools mean high property values, a better-educated workforce, and more successful young people. As part of our continuing coverage of Election 2012, CRI is focusing each week on the issues that affect voters in Oskaloosa and Mahaska County. This week, we’re taking a look at education from the viewpoints of administrators and teachers.

Oskaloosa schools superintendent Russ Reiter says big changes might be coming to education in Iowa under Governor Terry Branstad’s proposed education reform. Branstad introduced a $25 million plan in January that would raise requirements for prospective teachers, invoke a statewide literacy program and strive to bring more technology into the classroom. That’s something Reiter says Oskaloosa schools are already doing.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time. With the state’s efforts and what the governor is trying to ask school districts to do, bringing in more science and technology, the engineering, the math programs, what they call their STEM initiative, we think we’ve been ahead of the game,” says Reiter.

Last year, the high school put a laptop in the hands of every student, and the elementary school installed Smart Boards in its classrooms. The interactive white boards allow students and teachers to access web pages, play games, and write notes with digital ink – all for the entire class to see. High school history teacher Amanda Reynolds says enhanced classroom technology means students have more tools than just a textbook.

“They literally have the world at their fingertips, as long as they know what they’re looking for,” says Reynolds.

“Every kid having one will definitely will change how you give instruction. We can no longer just sit there, give 25 minutes of notes on a white board,” says Reiter.

But technology costs money. The laptops cost the district roughly $800,000. The smart boards were paid for with private grant money. Reiter says the state’s push for more technology is good, but some other proposed programs may be asking schools to do more with less. Unless the Iowa legislature does something next session, state funding for the 2013/2014 school year will not grow.

“It’s not a bad thing but what it really comes down to is can you afford it. Whether you have more money, the same or less, a lot of it comes down to is enrollment,” says Reiter.

The Oskaloosa school district has 2,334 students enrolled this year; that’s down 18 from last year. This number is important because how much money school districts get from the state is based on how many students are enrolled. The amount districts get per student is based on what’s called ‘allowable growth’ – the percent per student that school budgets are allowed to increase each year. Reiter says not knowing what that percent is–is hard.

“Trying to work on next year’s budget – 2013/2014 – with a number that still hasn’t been given to us, it does make it difficult. We’ve been told we should know early on when the legislature meets,” says Reiter.

The Iowa legislature will also be taking a look at Branstad’s education reform plans, which had not been voted on when the general assembly adjourned last May. The next legislative session will begin in January, and which party will control the legislature depends on next month’s elections.

Oskaloosa Curriculum Director Mary Cooksley says the proposed reform won’t have too great an impact on how and what Oskaloosa teaches. Cooksley says it’s about going beyond simply recalling information.

“We need to get them to think differently. When we went to school, we took a lot of paper and pencil tests and not that there’s anything wrong with that but a lot of them tended to be very low-level,” says Reiter.

Oskaloosa’s curriculum is based on two things – the Iowa Core and Grade Level Benchmarks. The Iowa Core is a set of academic standards for all Iowa students, which state what a student in each grade should know.

“Any content or skill, so in math, it’ll tell you when you leave Kindergarten, here are the skills you have to know,” says Cooksley.

Oskaloosa’s grade level benchmarks breaks those standards down to individual skills and concepts students should know as they move through a school year.

“We just finished our unit on the West. Some of those benchmarks were how Native Americans impacted, how minorities impacted, how the settlement of the West changed America,” says Reynolds.

This week, Cooksley is working with teachers on those benchmarks, and finding new ways to teach those standards.

“We’re really digging into every itty bitty thing that they have kids do for that grade-level benchmark and the components and analyzing every single one of them. Is it rigorous enough? Is it helping me know if my students are ‘getting’ what I’m trying to teach?” says Cooksley.

Cooksley says Oskaloosa teachers are working hard to come up with innovative strategies to help students learn. The average teacher’s salary in Oskaloosa is around $36,000, according to teachersalaryinfo.com. That’s below the Iowa average of $50,000 and the national average of $56,000. But while Oskaloosa may not offer the most money, Reynolds says feedback from current teachers helps bring in quality applicants.

“With the interview process, we make sure we have teachers in on that, and we share that this really is a learning community, that we are very close-knit that we want to work together with each other, with the administration, with new teachers, that we’re focused on students and student needs,” says Reynolds.

Reiter says the focus of teaching has changed dramatically in the past ten years.

“In the olden days I guess you’d say we’d teach to the middle of the class. If you had a class of 30 kids, you’d teach to the middle 15-20. The top 5, the bottom 5, if they get it great, if they don’t you kinda went on,” says Reiter.

Now, he says, the focus is on every student — teaching the lesson in several ways so everyone understands. Reiter says this shift in thinking means fewer students fall through the cracks.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, the 2010/2011 high school dropout rate in Oskaloosa is 2.95%, that’s 21 drop-outs out of 711 students. It’s slightly less than the state average of 3.38%, and below the national average of 7.4%

And making sure that number stays low means starting early. In 2007, the Iowa legislature passed a law requiring the state to provide voluntary preschool to Iowa’s 4-year-olds. Pre-K principal Tim Milledge says more kids in preschool means more Kindergarteners can be challenged.

“Our kindergarteners are reading so we’re asking a lot of our kids coming into kindergarten. Our preschoolers are coming in they’re learning letters, they’re learning numbers, they’re learning simple addition,” says Milledge.

And the administration hopes starting at age 4 means students will be ready to go to college or join the workforce at age 18.

The biggest chunk of your property taxes – about 40 percent – goes toward the Oskaloosa School District. The amount you pay did go down from last year – about a $95 decrease for a home worth $100,000.

Posted by on Oct 31 2012. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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