Willmar Junior High School students offered enhanced courses, a few perks as they return

WILLMAR - Seventh-grader Cory Nellermoe grinned when he talked about going back to school at the Willmar Junior High Open House this week. Cory had just come off his first day of football practice, and his grin got broader at the thought of havin...

WILLMAR - Seventh-grader Cory Nellermoe grinned when he talked about going back to school at the Willmar Junior High Open House this week.

Cory had just come off his first day of football practice, and his grin got broader at the thought of having physical education classes all year long.

Cory's mom, Karen Lange, said she believed students would benefit from new expanded phy ed classes.

She also liked the idea of serving all students a free breakfast every morning.

Several moms and dads called it "wonderful" that their eighth-graders will be studying Spanish and French this year


"I think it great they're offering foreign language at the Junior High," said Marni Vollan, whose daughter will be entering seventh grade this year.

The school offered world language classes in the past but stopped after major budget cuts six years ago.

This year, they're back along with a number of other new or expanded classes students will find when school starts on Tuesday.

The changes come about with the work of administrators and staff dedicated to offering the students a broader, healthier experience in the seventh and eighth grades, said Junior High Principal Mark Miley. And they did it without significant changes in the school's staff or budget.

"I'm so proud of the staff for having the initiative, getting behind this, doing the research," he said. "We're doing what's best for kids."

The new schedule grew out of staff and administrative discussions during the past school year, Miley said.

Superintendent Kathy Leedom gave him the go-ahead to adjust the schedule but warned that it needed to be done with the current budget and staffing, Miley said. Staff members took up the challenge and did their best to work within that guideline.

Each class of about 300 students will be split into two teams, each with the same teachers for core classes of communications, social studies, science and math. The teachers will be able to work together to help students who are struggling or who might be ready to move to more challenging work, Miley said.


"It will translate into better learning for students," he said.

The move will also make the school "so it doesn't seem so big," Miley said.

"It really makes optimal use of student time," Leedom said. "It's a very demanding schedule."

The schedule brings back some of the concepts used at the school before budget cuts in 2001, she said.

"I believe the new schedule allows staff to concentrate even more on the well-being of our students," Leedom said. "We have a genuine commitment to the overall wellness of our young people," she added, and expanded physical education and health classes will contribute to that at the Junior High.

The new schedule will cost the district a bit more. The Junior High could have faced some budget reductions this year because of declining enrollment, and those cuts weren't made, Leedom said. And the Junior High has benefited from its share of about $800,000 in staff additions made throughout the district to address student needs.

Leedom praised Miley and his staff for their efforts to rework the schedule using existing staff. "A major schedule change has been made with very minimal new dollars," she said.

From a practical standpoint, the school day has been lengthened slightly, about 10 minutes. Part of that time will allow students to eat breakfast, which will be provided free to all students at the school, Miley said.


What's up?

"The kids will be busy," Miley said when he described the new schedule.

Communications, science, social studies and math classes will be expanded to include some advanced offerings for gifted students, Miley said. It's something parents have asked for in the past.

New classes include "foundations" classes for students who need additional help in math, reading or science; Spanish and French for all students; a technology course; and a computer exploration course.

Expanded courses include physical education, health, family and consumer science, and art.

A Red Day/White Day system will help students keep things straight in the classes that operate on an every-other-day schedule, Miley said.

In the past, the school offered one trimester of physical education in each grade. Students who had phy ed in the winter both years "never went outside," Miley said. Now, all students will be active throughout the school year.

The technology course will introduce students to a variety of potential careers, he said, and the computer exploration class will help seventh graders improve their keyboarding skills.


At the end of the day, all students will continue to have a 15-minute class called REACH, which includes reading and character.

Looking forward

While there is some trepidation about facing so many changes this fall, many teachers are excited about the new schedule, said Ann Hendershott, who has taught at the Junior High for 18 years. She will teach American History, including an advanced class, to eighth-graders this year.

Hendershott said she is looking forward to returning to the team concept. "It just helps us keep a better handle on the kids," she said. "We can get to know them better."

Noemia Gesch, who has taught English Language Learners for 23 years, is excited about teaching Spanish. She's wanted to do it for some time, and she already has plans for the class that will begin at mid-year.

"From the first day, I want them to speak," she said. "For the time I have, I think this is the best way to teach Spanish."

Gesch said she looks forward to having Latino students in her classes. Those who already speak Spanish could help her lead the class, she said, and "they will feel they are having success."

All students will benefit from learning more about history and culture, including hearing about famous people from Latino backgrounds, she said.


The new schedule may be better for the students, but for the staff, "this isn't easier," Miley said. Those teaching the advanced classes will need to make the classes richer and deeper, not just cover material faster. Some teachers will see every student in a grade in two days, and they'll have 300 names to learn.

Health teacher Mary Hanson agreed that she and others face some challenges. She will teach the same material 12 times in a row over two days, and when it's time for students to turn in a project, she'll have 300 to grade.

Still, she's excited. The additional time will give her a chance to talk with students about current events and to cover important topics like Internet safety, first aid, body image and nutrition.

"If they are healthier, they'll learn better, and they'll be successful," she said.

Hanson has yet to figure out how she'll handle 300 tests, papers or projects coming in all at once, but she and the others in that situation will come up with something, she said. "I don't think there's a teacher here who doesn't put kids first."

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