Excellence in Education recognizes local students

Excellence in Education recognizes top-achieving high school seniors from Kalamazoo County’s public and non-public high schools. This year, 43 seniors were selected for the honor, which comes with a $1,200 scholarship. Each student recognized an educator who had a significant impact on their education.

Elijah Bombich
Vicksburg High School
Parents: Matthew & Myriah Bombich
College: Michigan Technological University
Major: Engineering
Significant Educator: Amanda Szczesny

Allie Goldschmeding
Schoolcraft High School, KVCC
Parents: Amie & Jon Goldschmeding
College: Undecided
Major: Accounting
Significant Educator: Melissa French

Noah Green
Vicksburg High School
Parents: Amy and David Green
College: Kalamazoo College
Major: Pre-Med
Significant Educator: Rachel King

Joseph Loriso
Vicksburg High School
Parents: Joanne & Anthony Loriso
College: Illinois Institute of Technology
Major: Computer Science
Significant Educator: Lucas Wolthuis

Maeve Stitt
Schoolcraft High School, KVCC
Parents: Marna Godby & Rusty Stitt
College: Kalamazoo Valley Community College
Major: Nursing
Significant Educator: Douglas Martin

Levi Thomas
Vicksburg High School
Parents: Steve & Theresa Thomas
College: Undecided
Major: Business
Significant Educator: Amanda Sczcesny

Schoolcraft eyes hosting KRESA ‘Early On’ program

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft school district is looking into adding Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency’s “Early On” education program to the district. Elementary Principal Matt Webster gave a presentation on the service to the school board at its April meeting.

It’s intended as an early intervention system that helps with learning and development in children up to three years old. Early childhood teacher consultants, occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists are on hand to coach parents in ways to support growth and school readiness through the children’s daily routines. As an example of the work they do, Webster said, a speech pathologist might teach games to parents that will help them grow the child’s vocabulary without the child even realizing it.

Webster said after diving into the data on incoming kindergarten students, he saw areas needing improvement that the Early On program could help with.

“That in my opinion is where this Early On opportunity comes in because we see young fives, kindergarten students, coming into the district who have this social, emotional, academic need, and until they come to us, that need hasn’t necessarily been addressed,” Webster said.

Partnering with the program would costs the district nothing. It would need only to provide space for sessions twice a week, lasting approximately an hour each. The benefit is not just in early child development; Webster sees it as an opportunity to connect with families earlier and possibly keep more in the district.

“If we can get to know this family early, there’s an earlier opportunity to intervene, an earlier opportunity to start providing some supports. I’m pretty excited about this,” Webster said.

If the district decides to support the program, it would be the southernmost participant in the county, providing a more convenient location for families from Schoolcraft, Vicksburg and Portage who currently must travel to West Main in Kalamazoo.

Webster noted that KRESA is also offering to help write up some grants to get some appropriate toys and equipment for the program.

Board President Jennifer Gottschalk and Treasurer Wade Rutkoskie both expressed support for the idea. Gottschalk encouraged Webster to look at the next steps in adopting the idea and come back to the board with more information when needed.

“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Gottschalk said. “I like that it is another chance to get younger kids in our school district because once again, bring them in young, they’re going to stay, and they’re going to go through our school district.”

Goodall gets Breaking Traditions 2021 recognition

By Lorrie Jancarz

Vicksburg High School junior Haylee Goodall was recognized by the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Career and Technical Education (CTE) for her high level of competency in all areas of Mechatronics. The Breaking Traditions Award recognition is given to an outstanding student who has excelled in a CTE program that is nontraditional for their gender.

Haylee is a second-year student in Mechatronics, taught at Vicksburg High School. She has a strong knowledge of two computer-aided drawing software packages, MasterCam and Tinker CAD. Haylee has also earned many certificates for her successful completion of ToolingU, a program that promotes workforce development training modules.

Haylee is a responsible and dedicated student. She goes above and beyond the normal classroom requirements and is always ready to accept a challenging project.

COVID concerns at Vicksburg school board meeting

By Jef Rietsma

County health departments, not school districts, are responsible for declaring outbreaks of diseases, Vicksburg Supt. Keevin O’Neill told board members and the mother of a Tobey Elementary student who tested positive for COVID-19.

He defended the district’s transparency about the spread of the disease within the district.

Erin Hoekstra at the board’s April 12 meeting said O’Neill hadn’t been forthright when he neglected to mention students at her child’s K-5 school who tested positive for the disease. O’Neill in the email she cited had written that “the high school setting has proven to be safe, as we have no evidence of any outbreaks or person-to-person spread in the school.”

“Although your clever wording specifically referenced the high school, you conveniently made no reference to Tobey Elementary or the middle school,” said Hoekstra, herself a teacher. Her third grade son tested positive March 19. She said parents deserved to know of the classroom situation and that it was, in her opinion, a bona fide outbreak.

O’Neill said the declaration of an outbreak is not theirs to make. Such a declaration, he said, is made by county health officials, who report to state health officials.

The school district’s website has listed each instance of students or staff member testing positive. No names are used, the school and number of persons who tested positive is shown in a letter, signed by O’Neill. In most letters, a single student or staff member is reported. In a few, two students in a building have tested positive. The site says 33 students or staff members tested positive in April by late in the month. Another 30 tested positive in March. The site is at vicksburgschools.org/covid-19-information.

At Tobey, six students and two staff members tested positive in March. Letters posted on March 9 and 12 referred to staff members. One Tobey student tested positive in letters issued March 16, 17, 26 and 29, and two students on March 22.

A positive test resulted in contact tracing. But O’Neill said no tracing was conducted in cases where a student hadn’t been in school for several days prior to the test.

“We were transparent about every case the minute the staff member tested positive,” O’Neill said. “We immediately quarantined the entire class and as those cases came out, we notified every family in this district about those cases.”

“We’ve been transparent about every case in our schools, including providing a notification every time we have a positive case, which isn’t even required,” O’Neill said. “We try to go above and beyond to make sure every family knows every time we do have a case. We’re always going to be transparent. Always.”

In an interview after the meeting, O’Neill said his comments cited by Hoekstra had been specific and about the high school.

“The district prides itself on transparency and has worked hard to notify parents about every case.  Furthermore, all Tobey third grade families were notified of the additional student cases on March 18th.”

“In fact, Tobey Elementary principal Mike Barwegen emailed Mrs. Hoekstra specifically on March 22,” he added. “This was the first instance of apparent person-to-person transmission, which would meet the definition of an outbreak, that the school district is aware of. It is our understanding that the designation of ‘outbreak’ is determined and communicated to the state by the health department as explained at the April Board of Education meeting.”

“Importantly, all of the required steps and procedures were followed by Tobey Elementary staff and district administration.  While it is unfortunate that students appear to have been infected at school, the fact that these infections occurred after the students were quarantined offers evidence that the procedures worked effectively and exactly as they were designed.  All of these cases were reported to the health department and parents even though they occurred after the students had been quarantined at home for several days,” O’Neill continued.  

County health director Jim Rutherford acknowledged that outbreaks happen, “when two or more than two individuals from different households all test positive and have been in close contact.”
He said he has talked to O’Neill.

“They did everything correctly,” Rutherford said. “We’ve come to terms with the fact that public health at the national level doesn’t have the ability to do all contact tracing.”

VHS grad Claudia Ramsey earns medical degree

Claudia Ramsey, a 2013 Vicksburg High School graduate will receive her medical degree in May from the Medical College of Wisconsin. Ramsey graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from Central Michigan University. During her time at CMU, she won four biology department scholarships, completed three medical/public health Global Brigades to Central American and participated in tuberculosis research. While earning her MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she received the Hiram Benjamin Award in Anatomy, was a Pasteur Award candidate, and was a four-time recipient of the Scott Scholarship. She managed the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Saturday Clinic for the uninsured and participated in research to increase access to fresh produce for Milwaukee residents. Ramsey will graduate as a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and will begin her training at the University of California San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital Pediatric Residency Training this July.

Vicksburg bands prepare for concert, raffle

After a challenging year, Vicksburg Middle School and High School bands are preparing for their spring concert. The event will be held outdoors in the Vicksburg Stadium at 7 p.m. May 25.

During the concert, the winners of the annual spring raffle will be drawn. Tickets are $5 with a chance to win $2,500, $1,000, or $500. They’re available for purchase from band students, band parents or at Craig Rolfe’s office at 328 West Prairie Street, Vicksburg.

As Band Director Ben Rosier reflects on the year, he’s proud of his students and their continued striving for excellence; he is also thankful for the help of the administration’s safety protocols that “kept our student musicians healthy throughout our music making.” Rosier is planning a full calendar of events for summer as well as the return of the Big Red Machine in the fall.

VCS union leader seeks more input for coming year

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Education Association President Jennifer Rodas wants the union to be involved in administrative discussions centering on the 2021-22 academic year, she told School Board members at an April 12 meeting.

“We are asking that the district include us in the process. We are hoping that decisions and discussions will be made with us and not communicated to us later,” Rodas said. “We are hoping to have a better return to school than we did in the 2020 fall.”

She also implored board members to consider hiring more school counselors to help students who are struggling with stress and other issues wrought by COVID-19. She said more school counselors would provide relief for a five-person team of counselors that, she said, is overworked and at risk of burnout.

“We are hoping that the district and the school board will invest in the emotional well-being of our students and give our counseling staff realistic expectations with the amount of students they can service effectively,” she said.

The district took the first step in a borrowing process to purchase six new buses. Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said the installment purchase agreement was originally discussed in February.

The 77-passenger, gasoline-powered buses will be purchased through the Michigan School Business Officials Cooperative bidding program at a total cost of $533,478.

“In our experience, we get the best prices available by doing that,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of very low interest rates and we’ll pay those notes off in three years.”

Also, O’Neill said the district’s partnership with South County Community Services and Kalamazoo County Health Department to stage a vaccine clinic at the high school was a success. The event took place March 31.

VCSF awards reading and Earth Day grants

4th graders Emma Welch (left) and Alyssa Smith (right) help advisor Michelle Malito with Earth Day activities.

By Bob Willhite

The Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation approved a grant for the district’s third-grade students to receive books via mail throughout the summer, adding an additional component to the three elementary schools’ summer reading initiatives.  

To help engage current third-grade students to read throughout the summer, the staff proposed the implementation of Kids Read Now, a nonprofit summer reading program.

Kids Read Now sends children nine brand new books through the mail, and families are able to keep the books. Students also receive comprehension postcards which help connect students to their reading.

During a kick-off event, families and students will learn about the summer program, and students will select their first three books, designed to share their interest and preferred genres. The total cost per student is $39.99, totaling $7,118.22 for all of the district’s third grade students. The VCS Foundation funded $6,618.22.

The foundation also gave a $300 Curiosity Grant to the Sunset Lake Leadership Team – the student council – for its Earth Day service project. The total cost was $612, with the leadership team paying the other portion. These student leaders handed out 600 Douglas fir saplings to the entire student body and staff.

Vicksburg deals with summer learning, construction

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Community Schools officials are preparing for a busy summer at some of its buildings.

In addition to juggling a few significant construction projects, administrators face the task of coordinating summer-learning programs.

“We have ramped up our discussions around the summer … one of the big maneuvering aspects of summer services is, as we’re doing construction, where can we put the kids?” Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said. “We certainly will be working through that and we’re confident we can put together a plan. We’re working with our staff right now to see the interest in doing some summer school, so, stay tuned.”

Board member David Schriemer acknowledged the district’s staff has gone above and beyond this year, and deserves a break. Still, Schriemer said he hopes there are some enthusiastic teachers willing to help out this summer.

“I think it’s so critical and if we have more dollars available to do something, I really hope we’re able to do something even bigger than we’ve done before,” Schriemer said. “I think that’d be fantastic.”

In response, O’Neill referenced House Bill 4048, which would provide funding from the state for teachers and support staff involved in K-8 summer programs or high school credit-recovery programs.

Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss elaborated on the pending construction work taking place this summer at Sunset Lake and Tobey schools, financed through last year’s voter-approved bond issue.

“The work is about $5.2 million worth of construction and it’s going to relate primarily to upgrading the mechanical systems at those two buildings. There’s a lot of work that goes along with that,” Goss said.

He said the work will include new windows, replacing curtain walls, a stucco-like façade, mechanical upgrades to bring cooling systems into the buildings, new piping, electrical upgrades including a conversion to LED lighting and acoustic ceilings.

“It’s very daunting when you look at the summer construction season and every year the needs to use the building for the summer go up and up and up,” he said, adding that a number of discussions have taken place with principals, O’Neill, the district’s curriculum director and others in an attempt to coordinate summer-instruction options. “I feel like we’re walking a tightrope because we have a limited amount of time to do a lot of work, and we have a limited amount of time to work with our students.”

Goss said the added expense of running air conditioning at the schools will be largely offset by savings realized through the installation of energy-efficient windows, exterior insulation and LED lighting. Replacing the single-pane, glass windows – which are original from the building’s opening – at the east side of Sunset Lake, for example, will result in a substantial degree of energy efficiency.

Work at Sunset Lake will be done over two summers considering the magnitude of construction there.

Sixteen bid packages related to the summer work were subsequently approved by the board. The board in coming months is expected to review bids related to stadium improvements at the high school. The work will include replacement turf on the football field, and replacement asphalt and track coating.

Meanwhile, O’Neill said the majority of the district’s employees have had their second COVID-19 vaccination. As a result, some parents have inquired about class sizes, as some families want to move their children from virtual back into in-person learning.

He said the district has capped its elementary rooms to 23 students and is has started to add potential returning students to a waiting list.

“If there’s no room in their home elementary school in that grade level, we ask them if they would like to attend a different elementary for this school year only,” he said. “We’ve had some success there.”

O’Neill said there has been no consideration given to increasing class sizes beyond 23 students per room.

VHS students qualify for DECA state conference

By Justin McDonald, DECA advisor

Vicksburg High students Max Dinzik, Alyvia Bailey and Jacob Wood qualified for the state Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) state conference. DECA is a business club that prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe. DECA students compete in live role plays in front of a judge and take an exam for their event category for district, state and international conferences.

Max Dinzik qualified for the Sports and Entertainment Marketing series event. This is his second year in DECA. He is a two-time state conference qualifier. Alyvia Bailey is a first-year DECA member and qualified for the state conference in the Principles of Marketing series event. Jacob Wood is a third-year DECA member and qualified for the state conference in the Quick Serve Restaurant Management series event. He is a two-time state conference qualifier. All three students are district conference champions, which is a requirement to qualify for the state conference.

DECA was conducted virtually this year due to the pandemic. Normally, students would have traveled to Detroit for the state conference and to Anaheim, California for the international conference if they qualified.