FORT SMITH — School is back in session, and there’s a palpable excitement among students, teachers, parents and the community as education goes back to normal.
Superintendent Terry Morawski said it was exciting to get out on campus and see kids again Monday. He said the district has had a great start to the school year.
Donna Jones, principal of Bonneville Elementary School, said after two years of parents not being able to access the buildings, there was enthusiasm and momentum when the school had its open house. The school was also able to have community volunteers such as Landmark, United Bank and Regents Bank come back to help kindergarten and first-graders learn cafeteria procedures.
Jones said it makes a difference being able to speak face-to-face instead of through computer screens.
“I know we have a new look to what normal looks like, but we’re getting back to some of the things that maybe we took for granted before, that we didn’t realize how much we enjoyed. So there is an excitement in the air,” she said.
First-day enrollment was 13,155 this year compared to 13,048 last year.
Tiffany Bone, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said while the enrollment numbers are big, the district feels like a small town.
“It’s a great culture in that everyone genuinely cares about the kids first of all, but then we care about trying to increase communication with each other and to improve relations among our staff,” she said.
This is shown in an initiative the district started a couple of years ago called Capturing Kids’ Hearts.
Jones said the same language is used throughout the district to build relationships with students first, and teach them how to modify and regulate their behavior. A goal this year is to expand the program to recognize teachers’ accomplishments, she said.
“They work extremely, extremely hard,” she said. “I want the kids to see that. We really want to showcase the teachers’ part so the kids can see that we not only celebrate them, but we celebrate our staff as well, so that’s one of the things that we want to do. “
Bone said she has a lot of goals for the school year, including increasing dual-credit offerings between the secondary schools and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, increasing career focus and showing students additional post-secondary opportunities, and training all schools in the district to have a high reliability schools level one certification by the end of the school year.
Orr and Spradling elementary schools received a level one certification in the Marzano High Reliability Schools program during the 2021-22 school year by proving their day-to-day operations are safe, supportive and collaborative.
The program was created by Marzano Resources and uses community feedback to confirm the effectiveness of a school in order to help ensure student success. The education administration program is based in Colorado and is built on the education research of co-founder and Chief Academic Officer Robert J. Marzano.
In a video on the Marzano Resources website, Marzano explains the concept of the High Reliability School program that came from adapting the processes of high reliability organizations such as aircraft carriers or nuclear reactor facilities.
“They are highly reliable in the sense that they don’t make many mistakes. Or more accurately, if they make mistakes they clear them up very, very quickly,” Marzano said. “The emphasis is to make as few errors as possible in what they do.”
Both schools worked on the professional learning community process for six years.
Professional learning communities are places where teachers collaborate and research ways to improve student achievement, and the process helped both schools in providing a strong foundation for a High Reliability Schools certification.
Marzano has five levels of certification. Orr and Spradling hope to achieve a level two certification by next year.
According to the Marzano Resources website, level two helps develop and maintain teacher effectiveness across classrooms by building a shared language of instruction. Level three ensures teachers have time to teach a viable curriculum and students have access to the same quality curriculum no matter what teacher they’re assigned. Level four has staff develop an effective system of grading and monitoring students’ progress on an individual basis, and level five provides opportunities for students to take part in individualized learning and move through the curriculum at their own pace.
“It’s really about a system of continuous improvement,” Bone said. “Even though we can look at our data and see that we have safe schools, we don’t have a lot of issues in our schools, but what is the perception of safety from the parents’ point of view or from the students and staff point of view?”
The Environmental Protection Agency recently determined 17 district buildings provided healthier, more efficient buildings for improved learning and gave them an Energy Star certification.
To earn Energy Star certification, buildings are verified to perform in the top 25% nationwide for energy efficiency and meet strict standards.
“On average, Energy Star certified buildings use 35% less energy, cause 35% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and are less expensive to operate than their peers, all without sacrificing performance and comfort,” said Shawn Shaffer, executive director of facility operations.
Shaffer said the environmental impact is equal to taking 1,785 cars off the street or planting 126,792 trees in the community.
School buildings earning the Energy Star certification include Beard, Bonneville, Carnall, Cavanaugh, Euper Lane, Fairview, Howard, Orr, Park, Spradling, Sunnymede, Sutton, Tilles and Woods elementary schools; Chaffin and Ramsey middle schools; and Northside High School.
Shaffer said the goal is for the remaining seven Fort Smith schools to get this award as well.
Something district officials are excited to add this year is unlimited tutoring 24/7, 365 days a year through the district’s subscription to TutorMe.
Bone said TutorMe was paid for through $290,000 of Title I funds, which can only be used for student achievement, staff development or parent involvement. She said there are about 30 languages and dialects spoken in the district, with the major ones being English, Spanish, Welsh, Vietnamese and Arabic, and that TutorMe has tutors who can teach in all of those languages.
Kris Griffith, director of customer success at TutorMe, said in a School Board meeting Monday the platform has over 15,000 tutors who can teach more than 300 subjects in addition to ACT prep.
Other features include a text editor, virtual whiteboards, audio and video chat and screen sharing. All lessons are archived for future reference. Students also have access to the writing lab to submit their essays, papers and other writing assignments for detailed feedback from an academic writing expert within hours.
Students can access TutorMe through their district-issued Clever account like they do with all district programs.
“I can remember when my child was in middle school to high school and what math help looked like for him,” Bone said. “I was trying to pull up YouTube videos and stuff to help, and I’m an educator. So I just think having that access to a tutor who can help answer those tougher questions or to help guide students through that, I just think that’s an absolutely fabulous opportunity.”
Bone said the district will track usage for TutorMe this year, which will help officials decide if they want to enroll all students again next year or limit access. Teachers are already coming up with ideas to incorporate TutorMe in the classroom, like having tutors lead small group sessions while the teacher works with a different group, she said.
The district’s website states covid-19 protocols this school year are to continue to practice high-level cleaning protocols designed with CDC guidance to disinfect buildings, classrooms and touch points daily. Individuals may wear a mask at any time, although it is not mandatory.
“Students the last couple of years have been trained, so some of that is good, and we’re keeping that,” Jones said.
Students with communicable diseases, including covid-19, that could be transmitted should not attend school. If a student or staff member tests positive for covid-19, the district asks them to refer to the current Arkansas Department of Health information for guidance.
Further guidelines are outlined in the 2022-23 student handbook.
As the current capital improvement projects get finished, the district has completed the Vision 2023 plan with $390,000 left in total capital improvement money and is looking to start a new plan.
Vision 2023 was paid for through a 5,558-mill property tax increase voters approved in May 2018 that generated roughly $121 million before expiring. An additional $13 million funded from gifts and other sources increased the total capital improvement money to $134 million.
Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent, gave an overview of the Vision 2023 projects to the School Board, including additional safety and security, building improvements, increasing classroom capacity, expanding technology and creating a career and technology center.
Morawski said the next step to continuing capital improvements is to listen to what staff, students, parents and community groups want to see happen and collect their feedback.
The goal is to have discussions done by December and a condensed list of goals by March, then work from there, Morawski said.
“As I’ve spoken to people in the last several years to people in our community, there is not a strong interest in another capital campaign,” Morawski said. “There’s really more interest in improving our processes, improving our learning outcomes for our students and really kind of digging into the internal work of the district. To me, that’s really where we need to look for the next five years.”