Big Horn County School District No. 2 Supt. Rick Woodford was the bearer of good news regarding the local school district at the Lovell Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon held on Monday at the Brandin’ Iron Restaurant in Lovell.
“Probably the best news right now is that our student enrollment is up from 688 to 717, so we are up 29 kids,” said Woodford to a group of local business owners. “In a year where big cuts to state funding are expected (at least 1 percent or more), the ADM increase is very good news for our district, because it will generate more than $450,000 in funds for the district.”
Woodford said the district has been bracing for an anticipated cut in its funding from the state, due to declining oil and gas revenues.
“We’ve been bracing for a loss of revenue, but with these additional kids, it’s going to generate more than expected for us,” said Woodford. “That’s really kind of a nice bailout for us, because it will allow us to continue doing the wonderful things we are doing with our kids, and we will probably not have to scale back as much as we thought we would. With most districts in the state actually losing kids, our increase is actually very good news for us.”
Woodford said he thinks the increase in student enrollment has a lot to do with the nature of our community.
“We have a lot of strong families here and when relatives run into trouble with employment and what not, they come here for refuge and to be with their families,” he said.
Woodford also discussed recent and future improvements to school facilities.
“Projects underway include a new kiln building that can be seen from Great Western Avenue,” Woodford said. “The small structure for the kiln was built due to lack of space in the school’s regular art classroom.”
He noted that the kiln building paved the way to other improvements, like an area adjacent to the new building that has been designated as an “outdoor learning environment.” The outdoor space is protected by a wrought iron fence to afford both security and privacy to the students.
The space can be accessed from several classrooms and is designed for use during “good weather months.” Woodford said the space will be set up with white boards and will literally serve as a classroom outside. He noted that the project will be complete this month, with the exception of landscaping, which will take place in the spring.
“The outdoor space will be a nice enhancement for our high school,” said Woodford. “And burning pottery in a kiln is something the students haven’t been able to do for about two years now.”
Another important project coming up will be the construction of a security vestibule at the entrance to Lovell High School.
“We’ve been working with the state for some time to get some funding to build a security vestibule and to reface the entrance to the school,” explained Woodford. “We just got approval for that project and construction will begin after school gets out. We should be breaking ground on that project around June 1.”
He also addressed concerns about the Lovell Elementary School kitchen/cafeteria area that was recently made safer with the use of emergency funds.
“Something is happening under that part of the building and there’s a little upheaval that’s been going on for a couple of years now,” explained Woodford. “It’s actually pushing the supports for the roof slightly upward and has caused the walls to bow out a little bit. We recently got some emergency funds from the state to secure the trusses to the walls using brackets, so it’s safe for now. Though the walls aren’t going to come down now, we still need to replace that part of the building in the near future.”
Woodford said he was headed to Casper this week for a meeting with a select legislative committee on school facilities. He said he will be asking for $3.4 million to relocate and rebuild and new cafeteria/kitchen at the elementary school.
“The kitchen/cafeteria will be moved from its existing location to the southeast corner of the building,” he explained. “The new kitchen/cafeteria can’t be built on the same spot as the old one because it must remain operational throughout the construction process, since it is the central kitchen where meals are prepared for students. Once the new building is complete, the old building will be demolished, somewhat changing the look of the front of the school.”
Though not in detail, he described the front of the school having a new façade once the old cafeteria/kitchen is removed.
“Hopefully, if things go well and the legislature approves it, we should be able to break ground in June,” said Woodford. “We’ve already started the design phase using some of the emergency funds and we’re moving forward and putting it into the legislators’ hands. I think because it’s a safety issue, they will take care of us.”
Woodford said the school is facing “capacity issues” due to class sizes that are growing beyond the state mandated student to teacher ratio limits. At the same time, he said he doesn’t expect anything to be “left in the pot” in the state’s budget for school facilities to rectify the problem by the year 2018. He said he believes the state will up classroom size requirements from of a ratio of 16 students to one teacher for grades K-3 to as much as 19 students to one teacher.
“As soon as they do that, it will eliminate a lot of the capacity issues across the state,” said Woodford. “When you look at the research on class size, having a good qualified teacher in the classroom can accommodate a few more kids.”
He said he’s also heard from other school superintendents that the coal trains are moving again and that might stabilize the economy again, especially in conversations with his colleagues in areas like Gillette, Newcastle and other areas in the heart of the coal industry. He said those discussions have made him feel optimistic about the state’s economy in the future and he believes that things will stabilize in the state, allowing the resources to exist for schools in the state.
Woodford said the best news of all for the district, is the excellent progress the district is making in terms of student achievement.
He noted that PAWS results from last spring had students scoring higher than the state average in all 13 data point areas covered by the assessments.
“We were above the state average in every one of the PAWS data points,” said Woodford. “I think that’s fantastic and something to be proud of, because there aren’t many districts in the state that can say that.”
He also reported that the ACT/Aspire scores for ninth and tenth graders were the highest scores in the state of Wyoming and that the eighth grade class had the top composite scores in the state of Wyoming in their PAWS assessment scores.
“So, what we have at Lovell High School right now is a freshman, sophomore and junior class that all produced the top scores in Wyoming last spring,” said Woodford. “I can look at that and say ‘that is the top performing high school in Wyoming.’ I think that’s pretty neat to be able to say that, right here in Lovell, Wyoming.”
Woodford also had some excellent news to report regarding the district’s special education program. When Woodford came into the district, 24 percent of the students were identified with special needs and were on IEPs (independent education plans). He noted that he has seen that number come down to 18 percent.
“Coming into this district as a former special ed director and special ed teacher, I saw that as something we really needed to work on,” said Woodford. “And we worked really hard to provide better regular education services for our at-risk students and already that number has come down from 24 percent to 18 percent. I would expect that to continue to come down until we get to the state average, which is about 14 percent. That shows that our schools are working very hard with students before they require special education services, helping them backfill any skill gaps they have and helping them become successful in the regular classroom.”
Woodford attributed the progress of students in the district to the high quality staff and teachers in the district.
“I’m just amazed by the quality of teachers we have here,” said Woodford. “My own daughter, a junior, brought her schedule home this year and I looked down that list and there wasn’t a teacher on there that I would trade for any of the teachers I supervised in Star Valley.
“We have a phenomenal staff of teachers here. We have high quality people working in the district and I believe that’s why
we are seeing so much success. The community is also fantastic. We see a lot of support for our kids from their families and from the community and we appreciate that.”
By Patti Carpenter