Wauzeka-Steuben School District: A small town school with a big heart

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Dustin Smith’s third grade students get plenty of individual attention as the small class sizes in the Wauzeka-Stueben school district fosters a supportive and family-like atmosphere. (Melissa R. Collum/Courier Press)

The kindergartners in Cathy Thornton’s class say two of their favorite things about school are homework and recess. (Melissa R. Collum/ Courier Press)

By Melissa R. Collum

    There has been a great deal of buzz in the community and the educational community, at large, over the academic achievements in the Wauzeka-Steuben (W-S) School District.

On the 2021-22 State School Report Card they were named a Four Star School – exceeding expectations in all categories. They were also named best among the schools in their conference and one of the top schools among the CESA 3 school districts. But what makes this school of 252 students, 27 teaching staff, 25 support staff, and three administrators so successful? Caring – from the academic and social-emotional support shown to students, to the supports given to the educational staff to succeed, to the overwhelming support shown by the community to the school and its students – at W-S everyone has someone to support and care for them.

Tiffany Dums, the district principal has been with W-S for nine years and is a W-S graduate. Her four children attend W-S and her husband is the high school math teacher. Dums credits the success of the school to many things but first and foremost the teachers. “I credit it to my teachers. We have one teacher per subject level and one teacher per area. But we offer so many things, for example teachers give up their prep time to teach AP,” comments Dums. “They are doing it for the kids and so that the kids have the experiences. It is the whole package; everyone has to work together to provide these opportunities. In a school system it has to be that way, all hands on deck. I credit everything to them.”
    This is the second time interim district administrator Dr. Gary Albrecht has worked with the W-S school district. “I was interim from 2018-2020 and the board asked me if I was interested and willing to come back,” states Albrecht. “It has always been a joy to work at this school. I retired six years ago so I don’t have to be here, but I want to be here.” Albrecht credits much of the success of the district to Dums. “The culture she has created with the staff and the students I credit to her leadership,” notes Albrecht. “I have witnessed her individual work with the staff and the kids. Principaling is a really tough job right now.”

There is a culture of caring and respect that flows through the hallways and classrooms of W-S and is infused into the students. “At the end of every year I do an exit survey of the graduating seniors and one of the questions I ask what are the things you appreciated about our school?” states Dums. “Every year I hear the appreciation for ‘staff caring about me’. There genuine feeling of people caring for them.” The administration, staff, and community reflect that understanding. “I feel very strongly that size of our school is a factor in that equation,” notes Albrecht. “We have teachers that actively seek out students that need help. If children can have an adult they can go to, someone they can trust. It makes a huge different.”

The spotlight that has been placed on the W-S district in relation to the State Report Card is not an emphasis for the District. “The foundation is all about the connection between kids and adults.” observes Albrecht. “In actuality, when you have the other things in place, the staff and leadership engaged, and the expectations and community support . . . then test scores are going to come together for you once in a while.”

Trying to meet the needs and wants of the students in a small rural district could be overwhelming. The W-S staff goes above and beyond to make the sure the students are afforded as many or more experiences of students in larger districts. The district offers multiple AP courses, access to courses for college credit, youth apprenticeship programs, as well as independent study options, and a large number of clubs and extra curricular activities. “I love the fact that we can send out seniors who want to be a teacher down to work in a third grade classroom to teach. Or we can send our first graders over to learn from our high school AP Environmental science students about ways to make the environment better,” expresses Dums. “We do so much of that, we would not know how not to. It is part of who we are and part of who our kids are.”

There has been a great deal of coverage in the national news about the learning loss that happened during COVID. When working to address the learning loss that may have happened with students due to COVID, the district administration has been working closely with the Title I Reading Teacher, Jennifer Folbrecht. “As a District wide Title 1 school, W-S is able to provide in-depth attention to those students who may need the extra help. She has worked very hard to really look at the data points and look at what we are doing with our elementary students especially,” states Dums.

As far as depending on statewide assessments to address student-learning loss, Dums states that she does to want to rely on those assessments. “They change every year and it is a different demographic they are testing every year. It is not fair to say ‘you did not have any learning loss because this group tested this way.’ We are looking at the tracking piece as the students go through.  We are noticing some learning loss, but nothing to the extreme that hearing about that other districts may be feeling.”

W-S also runs a five day a week after school program from 3:30-5:00 pm. It was started with grant funding and the district now funds the program. Dums credits this program with helping to address the learning loss that is being seen in the district.

One of the post-COVID issues the district is working to address is that of the social-emotional needs of the students. “One of the big losses was the emotional toll that it took on us. There is a big gap in the social–emotional learning” comments Albrecht. “Kids did not have the interaction with their peers or with their teachers. They did not have the social piece and that is huge.”

Both administrators note that over the last four years there has been an increase in mental health needs. The district increased the opportunities by starting a program that provides a mental health mentor. The program has increased from a monthly event to weekly, as the district works to address the needs of the students. “I don’t think the increase in need in 100% the result of COVID, I think social media has a large influence. The need for mental health care overpowers the academic need,” comments Dums. The counseling program has a social-emotional curriculum that is being taught from kindergarten through eighth grade. In addition, the school resource officer works with the classroom teachers to present programs on issues effecting students today such as social media, vaping, and more.

The small school culture is another element of the district’s success. Not only does this environment enable the staff to know all the students to better understand their needs, it also fosters a sense of family within the district. “There are things that happen here that other districts may never understand. They may never understand why that high school math teacher is working with a pre-4-K kid who is learning how to tie his shoe in the hallway,” notes Dums. “It is those things that make our school great.” According to Alissa Mullikin, Business/Finance Teacher, “I think the best way to describe working here is that it is one big family. The teachers and the students are all really close. Every body gets along, works hard. It is nice that younger kids are close with the older kids.”

It is not only the interaction between the staff and students that promotes the caring atmosphere but also the interaction among the students. There advantage to having high school role models for the younger students. The interaction that takes place among the students is demonstrated in both the classroom and extra curricula activities. Dums notes “The impact with all the students here all together is extraordinary, I don’t think anyone could really understand it, if they don’t live it. Everyone knows that they have somebody and it is not just their classroom teacher.”

That support is demonstrated in the renovations that are underway at the school. The funds for the building upgrades are coming out of the District Fund 46, which was started five years ago. A Fund 46 is also known as Long-term Capital Improvement Trust Fund. “When I was here the last time the board talked about three things – improving student achievement, staff retention, and getting the building in a place where it looks good, that is it is safe and it is dry,” explains Albrecht. “We are planning to have those things completed in the summer of 2024.” There is currently 1.5 million in the Fund, which has been accumulating over the past five years. This will enable to district to update the buildings windows, fix the roof, insulate the building and cover it with a steel paneling, and a boiler has already been replaced.

Ultimately, no matter the test scores or the opportunities afforded the students, it all about how the students feel about their learning and school atmosphere. When speaking to Mrs. Cathy’ kindergarten class here are some of their comments about what is the best thing about their school. James likes learning. Eliene,  Emay, and Jason said math was their favorite. Eli likes homework. Mr. Smith’s third grade class was a bit broader in their answers: Kaylee and Reed like the food, which they stated was both delicious and nutritious. Abigail likes the teachers. Kenny loves 3rd grade and Porter loves EVERYTHING about the school.
Perhaps Mr. Smith sums up the culture and environment of the Wauzeka-Steuben School District. “I love how the W-S school district is a very tight knit community. I love the support we receive here from faculty, staff, students and parents. You talk about the quote, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ WS is the epitome of that.”

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