Back to normal? Students begin school year in familiar surroundings and routines

A common theme seems to be running through Philomath School District campuses as students return to classrooms this week — administrators would like to make it as normal as possible.

Sure, the state-mandated mask requirement remains in place as a safety precaution meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. Students will also see the hand sanitizers out for them to use and a few of the buildings are sticking with things that worked well last spring. But for the most part, the kids are back in school with a return to familiar routines that disappeared in March 2020.

“We’re really trying to create a day that makes students feel normal with something they’re used to,” Philomath Middle School Principal Steve Bell said, although he added that in addition to the masks, the school is also continuing various management and structure techniques such as hand sanitizing and washing stations, traffic flow through the building and entrances unique to each grade level. “Some of those things that we found out last year we liked, we’re keeping. … Overall, as far as the daily structure and class time, we hope that it feels more normal for sure.”

Philomath High School Principal Mike Bussard said a primary focus on his campus is to enter this fall as close to a standard environment as possible following the past several months when students were not able to experience “a true high school life.”

“We really want to return to normalcy, to have as many normal activities for our students, for our parents, for our community, for our staff, that brings joy back to school,” Bussard said, using Associated Student Body activities such as dances, tailgaters and the Haunted Hall event as examples. “All of the activities that make high school so enjoyable, we are planning. And if we have to wear masks, then we have to wear masks. To me, it’s a small price to pay.”

Bryan Traylor, Philomath Elementary School and Blodgett School principal, also said a student’s day will return to a regular routine, but with some of the safeguards held over.

“The COVID situation is as serious or possibly more serious than it was last spring and so I’m determined as a principal and with my staff to not let our guard down,” Traylor said. “The normal is five days a week with all classrooms open with 20 to 25 kids in a classroom, full curriculum, all of the things that make school normal but with social distancing, face masks, sanitizations, all of those things we’ve done for the last year to keep things safe.”

Screenings upon entry to the building go away with Traylor hoping that parents will keep their children home if they appear to be sick.

“We’ll still have all of those safety precautions that we practiced last year in place but having all of the kids back and being able to do things we couldn’t do last year feels like we’re getting closer to back to normal,” Clemens Primary School Principal Abby Couture said.

At Kings Valley Charter School, Executive Director Jamon Ellingson said students’ schedules expand from partial to full days.

“I feel like there’s a lot of excitement about getting kids back in school this year,” Ellingson said. “As far as a normal year, it will be normal with all of the protocols and following all of the guidance. That is different but it is something that people are now used to and understand the importance of.”

Philomath Academy Principal Dan Johnson feels good about the alternative school’s ability to serve as a life preserver during these pandemic months to meet the educational needs of several families. With traditional school options close to being back in place, Philomath Academy transitions its thinking back to the original intent.

“We believe now that academy is a viable choice for families that are looking for something out of the traditional brick-and-mortar school,” Johnson said. “We’re not in competition with those schools but we want to provide families with a choice.”

The bottom line is that the students are back in classrooms.

“We are dedicated to making a great experience for our students this year,” the high school’s Bussard said. “That is a key thing.”

Said Johnson, “If the worst thing is we have to wear a mask to go back to normal school, then wearing a mask is awesome.”

Philomath High School

Bussard said last week that the high school’s enrollment numbers appear to have rebounded this year to resemble pre-COVID levels. Bussard believes many of the students that had left the district for other learning options over the past year are back in the fold and a good-sized freshman class is also having an impact.

Justin Marshall (math) and Andrea Heidinger (art) are two new teachers on campus this year. Heidinger also teaches at the middle school. Bussard said the new hires fill positions that had become vacated before the pandemic.

In the curriculum arena, PHS has added another advanced placement option for students with U.S. history. Instructor Amy Leonard oversees that AP class and American government.

The high school building saw no major facilities work other than the shuffling around of some classrooms.

Philomath Academy

As of the middle of last week, Philomath Academy enrollment was sitting at about 80 — a number that’s close to what Johnson had anticipated. He believes enrollment will fluctuate as the academic year progresses as students determine their best fit for learning.

Johnson said PA will be staffed from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. to provide as much accessibility as possible to support students.

The academy continues to be located in the high school library, which includes a computer lab. Johnson reports no changes with the teaching staff. The same programs are available to students, which includes the capability of expanding curriculum beyond what other schools can offer.

Philomath has offered alternative learning options for 14 years with the officially-established PA now in its second year as a school.

Sixth graders heading into the school
Sixth-grade students enter the middle school building on Tuesday morning. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Middle School

At the middle school, a new addition is the launch of Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtII), a program designed to improve student achievement using research-based interventions matched to the instructional need and level of the student.

Bell said the program also evaluates core curriculum in language arts and math to make sure the subjects are being taught consistently across the board. RtII specialists have been working over the past few years at the primary and elementary grade levels.

The program has impacted the teaching staff with Adeline Stewart moving from language arts to RtII specialist. New hires include Alan Jozwiak (language arts), Cristina LeBrun (math) and Heidinger (in the shared art position with PHS).

With the retirement of Yvonne McMillan, the school is actively looking for a music teacher but in the meantime, Diane Crocker has returned to campus in a temporary role. Jolene Latz filled a new district position as media and technology director and the school opted to blend the tech and health positions with Malori Ambrose moving into that spot. Ambrose previously was a PE-health teacher and that position was expanded to provide physical education to seventh and eighth graders daily instead of every other day. The PE job has also not yet been permanently filled with Terry Stephenson filling in for now.

“For us, we’ve had quite a bit of changes as far as staffing from what we’re normally used to,” Bell said.

As of this past Thursday, the middle school’s enrollment stood at 336, numbers that Bell said had been projected. The numbers are roughly 30 fewer than two years ago, but officials knew that the sixth grade class coming in was smaller than what’s typically seen. Last year, middle school enrollment was about 295.

In terms of facility work over the summer, the middle school saw no major projects, although last week a new roof was to be installed on the modular, which had been damaged in a windstorm this summer.

Philomath Elementary School/Blodgett School

The elementary school expanded its RtII program with the addition of a second staff person. Emily Helpenstell moved from fifth grade teacher into a full-time Oregon RtII specialist position “so we think we’ll be more effective at helping to close the gaps that have developed” in literacy and math, Traylor said.

The school hired Shawn Bonine, who had been a long-term substitute teacher, to take over Helpenstell’s former position. Jake Craig comes on board as a new physical education teacher. Lexi DeVicq, formerly at Monroe, is now in the elementary school counselor position.

Traylor said PES enrollment is in the 350 to 360 range, which he indicated is similar to last year and below 2019 levels.

Facility improvements were minimal with the most significant work being new lighting in the gymnasium and cafeteria.

At Blodgett, Elaine Hall transferred in from Clemens Primary School and Nicholas Burnett is the physical education teacher.

Clemens Primary School

Clemens Primary School is approaching the new school year on a slightly different schedule than the others with student assessments on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then half of the students starting Thursday with the other half coming on Friday. Then all students will begin attending in full force this coming Monday.

Couture explained that in a typical year, all kindergarteners are required to do a state-mandated assessment. That requirement was waived this year, but the district still wanted to move forward.

“We decided to take that time to do the district assessment and then allow the students and parents to come in alone and meet the teacher during that half-hour time slot and that way, the student can get familiar with the school and have that time that’s COVID safe so that when they come on the first day of school, they’re not as intimated,” Couture said.

As of last week, Couture said there were 78 kindergarteners and 85 first graders, numbers that are up a bit from last year but around 10 fewer than 2019-20.

The building required no significant work over the summer but a visible change to the exterior is on the horizon with the addition of a school garden. The garden will be located near South 19th Street and the campus entryway in the vicinity of where the CPS sign is located.

On the staff, Alyssa Blackstone, a long-term substitute, takes over full-time as a first grade teacher to fill the vacancy created when Hall transferred to Blodgett. In addition, the school hired a behavior specialist.

Kings Valley Charter School

Kings Valley Charter School welcomed kindergarteners, sixth graders and high school freshmen back to class on Tuesday with students in all other grades scheduled to begin on Wednesday. Jamon Ellingson, executive director, said enrollment is down by a few students heading into this fall.

The K-12 school does have some teaching staff changes. Rick Campbell comes on board as a physical education teacher, Jeanie Jones will be a second and third grade teacher and Karen Hidde comes in as a first and second grade teacher. In addition, Sarah Nieminski has been hired to fill the gardening teacher vacancy. Randall Ashcraft is a new bus driver.

In the classroom, the school will introduce new language arts curriculum for elementary and middle school students.

With facilities, recent projects included replacement of the gymnasium’s roof and a remodeling of the outdoor restrooms. The pole barn project has been put on hold.

“That project is still moving forward but not as fast as we would like it to be,” Ellingson said. “Just with the price of materials, we’re holding back just a little bit.”


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