Category Archives: Schools

Middle Schoolers Display Projects at American Axle

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Vicksburg 7th graders Reed Tassell, Brendan Kelly, and N.J. Topash show off their robotic engineering projects at American Axle.

By Travis Smola

Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program at Vicksburg schools, recently exposed seventh grade students to real-world careers available in these fields with a visit to American Axle & Manufacturing in Three Rivers.

The visit included a tour of the factory floor. Students brought with them a variety of engineering and robotics projects they’ve been working on since January to share with the employees. American Axle has been a supporter of Lead the Way since the beginning. Debra Kolberg, STEM teacher consultant project manager at KRESA, helped organize the event. The projects the students presented ranged from simple pull toys and robots programmed to perform simple tasks to orthotics designed for someone with cerebral palsy.

“They learn in the way that they learn best, which is by doing,” Kolberg said. “They’re very excited about it.”

Seventh-grader N.J. Topash built a robotic dragster he programmed to travel a certain distance before stopping. He excitedly explained to the engineers what he learned about gear ratios. The project also helped him learn about one key element engineers deal with every day. “I learned that timing is key to everything,” Topash said. “You can have something that works, but the timing, if that’s off, it will make everything off.”

One of the major ideas behind Project Lead the Way is simply to show students career options. These options don’t always have to focus on further education after high school. Kolberg said American Axle serves as a good example of the options available because it hires workers with high school diplomas and those with four-year college degrees.

PLTW has a heavy focus on critical thinking, communication, collaboration and problem solving that will be useful to the students no matter what they end up doing. “Since we don’t know the future, when these kids get up to the working age, we don’t even know what kind of jobs there will be when they’re here,” Kolberg said. “What they need more than head knowledge is skills.”

Teacher JoEllen Pollack agreed. She previously worked on PLTW at Climax-Scotts before coming to Vicksburg. “What we’re trying to do for the middle schoolers is to get them excited about engineering,” Pollack said. She noted the students learn valuable skills like coding, mathematics and science, but soft skills like problem-solving and teamwork may be even more valuable.

She said members of a group often have different ideas about what they’ll do for their project. They then go through a design process where all the pros and cons are weighed before work ever begins. “It’s a way of learning through interaction and play and cooperative learning, doing rather than just memorizing facts,” Pollack said. She also said she’s hopeful other local businesses will want to do similar events with PLTW.

“I think this is what inspired what I want to be now,” Clara Centofanti said. The seventh grader is an aspiring engineer. She’s not sure what she wants to specialize in, but the visit gave her a chance to explore more real-world options. She said it was encouraging to see how the things she is learning now can apply to a real-world career in the future.

“You see a truck, or a car and you think ‘Oh, that’s just something I use,’” Centofanti said. “But now you get to see the real science and technology and engineering behind it.”

American Axle employees were equally impressed by the projects the students came up with. Brian McDaniel, Senior Manager of Human Resources, challenged the students to build an axle for next year and a robot that could throw foam stress cubes the company gave to the students.

Manufacturing Manager Mike Waldrop, also impressed, said the students were displaying knowledge and skills he didn’t learn until four to five years later in high school. “By the time they hit college, they’ll be way beyond where we were 30-plus years ago,” Waldrop said. “For the future of the company, opportunity for local kids who may want to stay in the area, it’s excellent. Anything we can do to help support it is great. I enjoy seeing these kids come in and help demonstrate what they know.”

New Reading Room at Indian Lake Elementary

By Bob Ball

The third-grade teacher is letting her students read for fun. It’s 1945, and the children are sitting at desks in the Detroit classroom, reading quietly. One is reading a Winnie-the-Pooh story. In Owl’s house, the room is tilting. Things are falling. In the classroom, the boy begins to laugh uncontrollably. The girl in front of him raises her hand and complains to the teacher. The teacher scolds the boy.

True story.

Decades later, Vicksburg’s Indian Lake Elementary has a different outlook: Leisure reading is important. It should be pleasant. Students should want to read for leisure, for pleasure, and in pleasant surroundings.

Teachers and a retired administrative assistant have outfitted a room in the building just for the purpose.

It’s green, outdoorsy, woodsy, mountains on the horizon. It’s furnished with tents. Boats to sit in. Comfortable chairs. A turtle has come out of the water. Not a live one. There’s a plant. Not real. There’s a fire ring. The flames are inflatable. Cool.

The space, adjacent to the library, was last used as a computer room. It was unneeded when students were issued their own Chromebooks. “So, the room needed a new purpose,” said third-grade teacher Diana Haring.

Changes to the room came from a $1,000 Bardeen teacher incentive grant awarded by the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation, Haring said, “to encourage new thinking and ideas that will enhance student learning.” Other donations, some from the teachers, also helped. The Bardeen grants are administered by the school foundation and given annually to teachers or staff with a special project that can’t easily be funded by school operating monies.

Sue Haines, a former administrative assistant who retired last year, “played a key role in designing and creating of the Reading Room,” Haring said. Haines painted it. The room is dedicated to her.

The Reading Room, Haring said, is used by all in the school, students and staff. It provides a place to read individually, with a friend, in small groups or even with an entire class. Guest readers have come to the room to share their favorite stories.
Vicksburg school board members were provided a tour after their monthly meeting that is held once a year at Indian Lake Elementary.

Haring pointed out that much of a school day teaches students what they need to know to become critical readers, from the knowledge that it’s “imperative” that students see reading as enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s clear from research that leisure reading improves comprehension, vocabulary, general knowledge and empathy for others.

Repurposing the room was her idea, she acknowledges, but she’s not concerned with the credit. “I had help and support from others.” She was inspired by a twice-read book. “After re-reading the ‘Book Whisperer’ by Donalyn Miller, I was inspired to awaken the inner reader in students.”

Maureen Ouvry Retires as School Food Service Director

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Maureen Ouvry, on the right, welcomes her replacement, Sarah Dyer, as Food Service Director for Vicksburg Community Schools.

By Sue Moore

“I think about food every minute of my work day,” exclaims Maureen Ouvry, director of Food Service at Vicksburg Community Schools. Yet she remains a slim and trim 59-year-old who has been working in food service since she was 14. She will retire April 1 with a record 34 years as a school food service director.

“So much has changed even in the past five or six years,” Ouvry pointed out. “Michelle Obama’s efforts to encourage healthier eating has made a big difference in what we serve in the school lunch program. Her efforts to encourage a healthier America have been significant. For instance, Frito-Lay didn’t even have a whole grain chip to offer before her tenure. Now they sell baked Lay’s, a better choice.

“Our target is to have a lunch meal offering that comes in at 750 calories and breakfast at 350 to 400 with lots of fruits and vegetables included. I often stand by the trash barrels to make sure the food is being consumed,” Ouvry said. “We must remember that lunch is a social time for students. The trick is to get them to eat while they socialize. Kids can’t go through the lunch line without taking a half cup each of fruits and vegetables.

“In the elementary we don’t see any refusals because that’s all they know. The middle school is getting better and at the high school it is still a challenge. We have a ‘stop’ sign posted at the end of the line to remind them to choose wisely. Still, we aren’t going to arm wrestle with a teenager over their choices. We want to make the food attractive and have it be a good bargain with each meal.”

Vicksburg schools have been serving breakfast for 20 years in the elementary cafeterias. It was previously called “breakfast in a bag,” keeping the choices simple. Now it involves breakfast pizza – which is always whole grain – along with cereal, cinnamon rolls or muffins. Tobey serves hard boiled eggs on a stick but it didn’t catch on at the other schools, Ouvry said. She changes the menu every month with the fun one for April being grilled cheese on Texas toast, bananas, barbecue chicken flat bread pizza topped with chicken and barbecue sauce, a trend right now at pizza places.

In the middle school, where students begin class at 7:39 a.m., second chance breakfast is served in the hallways about an hour later. It is a grab and go system, with selections served on a cart that consist of cereal bars made of Nutri-Grain, fresh fruit and milk. They can eat on the run or right where they are. Payment for all foods are accounted for on an iPad with a pin number the student’s parent has pre-loaded. They also accept cash or checks anytime in the cafeteria.

The goal of the food service is to break even while watching the budget carefully. “Which hot dog or apple are we going to buy, I have to ask myself. It’s every hour that we are constantly making decisions about purchasing and watching everything we buy,” she said. On March 15, 498 kids had breakfast and 1,200 ate lunch. It’s all computerized: The system knows which students receive free and reduced-price lunches so they aren’t singled out in front of their classmates.

Ouvry began her career in Vicksburg in 1990 when she was hired by Superintendent Larry Cole after she had put in five years in Parchment. But she started working at 14 with a job as salad girl at Greco’s in the Maple Hill Mall. She stayed there 13 or 14 years and progressed through several jobs, advancing to bus girl, dining room manager and general manager. She tended bar and turned out the lights when the restaurant closed for good in 1984.

“Work made me happy. I’m constantly eating or thinking about food all day long.” She walks several miles each day and lately has been doing cardio drumming in a class at Sunset Lake school.

About 60 percent of Vicksburg’s 2,700 students eat school lunch. Others bring their lunch or don’t eat anything. “If we notice that a student isn’t eating, they aren’t singled out but we make a point to work with the administrators to be sure it’s not a financial need or talk with the parents to try and figure it out.

“The beauty of this is we are a team and I’m grateful to the dedicated food service staff that I’ve been fortunate to work with. Meals are so much healthier now and our staff and administrators care about nourishing the kids bodies with caring hands each day.”

Facilities Planning Committee Plans Second Survey

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Schoolcraft elementary students in their cafeteria. The School Board is going to conduct a random telephone survey in April about the need for newer facilities to replace the aging classrooms these young people are in now.

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft Schools’ facilities planning committee is still facing challenges on how to address the district’s aging elementary and middle school buildings.

The committee has narrowed its focus to a bond proposal of approximately $39.9 million to finance construction of a new pre-K-6th grade building and add a dedicated addition to the high school for 7th and 8th graders.

The committee earlier decided not to go forward with a bond issue on the May ballot after an Epic-MRA phone survey showed there likely wasn’t enough support for the issue to pass. In addition to spreading the word about the issue to the community via flyers, Board President Jennifer Gottschalk wants to do a direct survey of parents to get a better picture of how people feel about the issue.

“In our phone survey data, we realized that 70% of the people who responded were people that didn’t have kids in the district,” she said.

The committee announced plans to further spread the word during parent-teacher conferences. Gottschalk said the committee want to do a second Epic-MRA survey after spring break.

High School Principal Ric Seager presented testing data to the board from the Michigan School Index that shows the district is performing especially well in Kalamazoo County.

The Michigan School Index system looks at data from several tests including NWEA, MSTEP, SAT and PSATs and gives schools a value ranging from 0-100 based on how they meet state targets in those tests. Seager said a perfect score of 100 means a school is meeting all its target test scores all the time. The index measures school performance in areas such as student growth, proficiency, graduation rate, assessment participation and student success.

In a summary of elementary schools from Kalamazoo and surrounding counties, Schoolcraft came in eighth out of the 45 schools on the list with a score of 91.36. The average score in Kalamazoo County was 70.52. The middle school was the top-ranked one in Kalamazoo County for the second year in a row with a score of 92.40 in 2018. Other schools in the area cited averaged 63.59.

“We are on top of the heap again for the second year in a row. Kudos to the staff and leadership in that building for making that happen,” Seager said. “You know, they don’t get there without a solid foundation.”

The high school also finished in first place in the county for the second year in a row, tallying a 97.32. The next two closest schools were Portage and Vicksburg with scores of 94.99 and 93.15 respectively. The average score for a high school in Kalamazoo County was 72.75.

“Our scores are up again, and we stretched our lead on the schools around us,” Seager said, although he noted there are many quality schools in the area and that is difficult for a smaller school like Schoolcraft to compete with them.

“They’re nipping at our heels all the time,” Seager said. “We preach that all the time in the building that we want to stay here. It’s not good enough just to get here.”

In other business, after being a club sport since 2006, the board unanimously approved making bowling a full varsity sport. Both the board and Superintendent Rusty Stitt agreed it was an easy decision because the team has been highly successful, fielding several individual regional champions and state finishers and several bowlers who have gotten scholarships to bowl in college.

Matt Wagner Returns Home While on Tour with Diavolo

By Sue Moore

The scene in the Schoolcraft Middle School library was one of adulation as all the school’s 5th graders crowded around their hero, Matt Wagner. He talked about his experiences as a gymnast with the Diavolo dance troupe which performed at Miller Auditorium on Feb. 27 and 28. The students attended the daytime performance on the 28th as part of Kalamazoo County’s Education for the Arts program.

Wagner grew up on Barton Lake, attended school at Howardsville Christian school and was a neighbor of Kelli Mein, one of the fifth-grade teachers in Schoolcraft. She had invited Wagner to come and talk to the students while in Kalamazoo for the performances. He was gracious enough to oblige, she said.

The students’ hands were up repeatedly, asking questions about his work, his experiences and even his conditioning for the arduous dance routines the unit performs. The group is subtitled “architecture in motion. The routines resemble modern dance to some extent but also involve athletic techniques, gymnastics and endurance. The structures they perform on cost millions to construct, Wagner told the students.
Some of the questions they asked:

How much do you practice? “Sometimes many hours a day.”

Do you know how to play Fortnite (an online video game)? “Yes, but I don’t play it.”

Why is Jacques the leader? “It was his dream to have a dance troupe.” Jacques Heim is the troupe’s founder and artistic director.

How much does it cost for the entire troupe to travel? “A lot. The 16 to 18 people have to fly, stay in a hotel room, travel in buses to get to the performance venue, rent studios for practice, pay for food for each day, employ truck drivers for the rented semi-trailers, costumes and sets. It adds up fast.”

What’s the biggest theatre you have performed in? “One in Germany where we appeared on TV.”

How did you come up with the logo? “Jacques actually did and this is the second one we have that plays on the name Diavolo.”

Did you win on America’s Got Talent? “No, we placed second.”

Did you get to talk to the winners? “We spend a lot of time waiting around backstage and get to know the other contestants.”

Do you get paid for doing this? “Not a lot but getting paid for what you love to do is not a problem.”

Do people recognize you when walking down the street? “No.”

Can you do a back flip on the ground? “Yes.”

Can you do a side aerial? “Yes.”

Do you get injuries? “We don’t use safety nets or mats when flying. We do have bumps and bruises but that just goes with the territory.”

After the performance some students waited around to get Matt’s autograph and ask him a few more questions. It appeared that they felt a little star struck and desired to know more.

When asked if he had any advice for the 5th graders, he replied, “The more you do, the better life can be for you! Always be willing to try new things!”

Rutkoskie Appointed to School Board

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President of the Schoolcraft School Board Jennifer Gotttschalk administers the oath of office to Wade Rutkoskie who was selected to take the seat vacated by Darby Fetzer on the board.

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft school board appointed Wade Rutkoskie to fill the board vacancy opened by the resignation of former board President Darby Fetzer last month.

The board interviewed two other candidates, Michael Wilson and Dr. Lloyd Peterson for the position. The three candidates were interviewed for about 10 minutes ahead of the regularly scheduled board meeting. Each answered the same series of seven questions and board members scored the candidates answers on a rubric.

The questions varied. One asked about the relationship the board and district should have with their stakeholders. Another asked about the challenges facing education in Michigan, both at the local and state level. The board also questioned the candidates what they believed were their strongest personal traits that would make them ideal for the position. “I don’t like to lose, that is something that has driven me my entire life,” Rutkoskie told the board. Prior to filling the vacancy, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for election to the board last November.

At the conclusion of the three interviews, Rutkoskie had tallied the highest score and was sworn in to fill the vacancy.

Rutkoskie is a 1990 graduate of the district and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from WMU. Currently he works as the Senior Member of Business Integration at Tekna. His wife works at Stryker. Their son currently attends the middle school.

He has also been involved with the district already as president of the Athletic Boosters, an advisor for Junior Achievement and as a coach for Rocket football and Little League. More recently he has also been involved with the facilities planning committee looking into options for the district’s aging elementary and middle school facilities. He said the facilities are one of the biggest challenges the district is currently facing. “Assessing is one thing, making a long-term plan is another,” Rutkoskie told the board members during the interview.

He also said he’s talked to some parents who are upset in the belief that out-of-district students attending Schoolcraft schools through the school of choice program don’t pay property taxes to the district. All Michigan property owners pay school taxes to the state. The state pays foundation grants to districts based on the number of students enrolled, whether or not they live in the district. Rutkoskie said that communicating that will be a big goal during his term.

“My goals as part of the board are to be a conduit from the folks that are accustomed to the inner workings of the board and understanding what they do,” Rutkoskie said after the meeting. “I appreciate the trust that they put in me in appointing me to the board.”

“I want to say thanks to everyone who came out and threw their hat in the ring,” Board President Jennifer Gottschalk said. She also extended invitations to both Peterson and Wilson to become a part of the ongoing facilities study committee.

Middle School Report Card Presented to the School Board

By Sue Moore

Vicksburg Middle School Principal Matt VanDussen and Assistant Principal Dennis Kirby presented data to show outstanding performance in math, social studies and science when compared to nearby schools of similar size. February is designated for the Vicksburg Middle School to host the monthly school board meeting to report on the progress made during the first half of the year.

“We are building a collaborative culture in the middle school,” VanDussen said. “We have student intervention teams where all the teachers for one student get together to help if the need arises. The goal is to maximize the success for every single student. We do this with data management, collection, analysis and then focus on the results with data review days.”

“We only have three years to figure this out for kids. Our job is to try and get them on track and keep them there. We look at it as the K-12 whole, while ensuring that all students learn while in our domain. We hang our hat on this, from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning each day,” VanDussen told the board. “We have a multi-tiered system of supports that includes homework club, extended learning opportunity classes, with tutorial the most important.”

He presented a slide show of graphs and test scores to show how Vicksburg Middle School compares on the M-Step test and how students collectively are doing compared to other schools in the state, especially in the Student Growth Percentile. This measures the individual student’s and teacher’s performance in math, English Language Arts, science and social studies.

All the data VanDussen reported can be found on the Parent Dashboard that all parents can access.