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Wagner Community School plans for the future

WAGNER -- Wagner residents met Thursday night to discuss the future of Wagner Community School, building on Superintendent Linda Foos' mantra that a "school is just a building until kids and ideas are added."...

Community members discuss ideas to improve the future of Wagner Community School Thursday night at the school. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Community members discuss ideas to improve the future of Wagner Community School Thursday night at the school. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

WAGNER - Wagner residents met Thursday night to discuss the future of Wagner Community School, building on Superintendent Linda Foos' mantra that a "school is just a building until kids and ideas are added."

The meeting, which was the first of two sessions, was held at the school and hosted by city and school officials, as the first part of the district's strategic planning for the future.

The goal: Garner community input for how to "generate ideas to help push Wagner Community School from good to great."

Expecting 40 people, with invitations sent to school board members, parents, teachers and other city officials, Director of Economic Development Kelsey Doom said she was surprised about the 22-person turnout, but was encouraged by the lively discussion among the people who did attend.

"Everyone who was meant to be here, was," Doom said. "We had good discussions and got a lot out of the session, so I think it was effective and beneficial for everyone, definitely."

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Prompted by a series of questions, topics discussed included what the school is already doing well, what it can do differently or more of, and how to make those ideas for improvement a reality.

The group was split into smaller groups of three to four people, who spent 15 minutes discussing each of three questions provided by Doom and Joe Bartmann, vice president of community innovation for Dakota Resources. With a theme highlighting the importance of each individual's ideas, creativity and honesty, the meeting flowed smoothly, Bartmann said. Then, each small group's ideas were shared with the rest of the audience.

"You'll no doubt hear something you disagree with or think is crazy," Bartmann said. "Use those moments as an opportunity to give the gift of listening. Instead of getting into defensive mode, open your mind to possibilities."

For the audience, highlighting what the school does well wasn't difficult.

The list ranged from the students' involvement in community service and the staff's involvement in helping produce well-rounded young adults, to being a large employer in Wagner-employing approximately 15 people-and informing the community when a school-sanctioned event is happening.

And as easily as the positives were to identify, community members had a large assortment of ideas for what the school, as a whole, can do better, and how school officials can possibly take action on those ideas.

A large section of the meeting was devoted to discussing how to bring career readiness opportunities to the district. Residents highlighted the need for organizations and businesses within the community to get involved in school functions and activities to help promote students' interest in job opportunities. Specifically, Wagner residents with special talents in areas like music and art should be invited to help enhance the school's programs, attendees said.

"There's a lot of good ideas to do things, but as they said, we have to abide by (rules), too," Lory Dufrain said. "But it helps when more people and more organizations come out of their comfort zones and step up to the plate to help with these things."

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Additionally, participants talked about possibly incorporating more face-to-face contacts between parents and staff, in hopes of creating a more well-rounded learning environment.

Bringing academics to the forefront of students' school day, instead of sports, and being ready to accommodate special-needs students, like those with diabetes or severe asthma, were also discussed, along with a need for better food options in the school's cafeteria.

But there is a larger issue at hand to handle lunchroom issues, Foos said.

Food guidelines are determined on state and federal levels, leaving Wagner officials with few options for alternatives.

But that doesn't mean school officials won't look further into the issue.

Moving forward, Foos said there will be a second meeting in late July where more discussions will be held.

Bartmann added that although ideas were grouped into categories and some were mentioned more often than others, none will be dismissed.

"As we organize things, every piece of paper, everything that was gathered, will be part of further discussions," he said. "This process helps all of you see it all, the whole of the conversation and make meaning of it as you go out the door."

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And, regardless of what comes from further discussions, Foos said she hopes to have more sit-down and face-to-face conversations with parents and community leaders in the future.

"There's only so many hours in the day, but it's going to take all of us to get things done in the school and in the community-we need to give ourselves the opportunity and time to have these conversations," Foos said.

School expansion

In the midst of discussions to further improve the Wagner Community School, the elementary wing is undergoing an expansion and remodel project, which is adding six classrooms and bettering 20 more.

Construction is expected to span six months, with a completion date set in late October.

Built as a school without walls, Foos said, there were a lot of big, open spaces, which didn't work for the school's increasing enrollment numbers. Ultimately, the space wasn't being utilized efficiently.

According to Foos, two years ago, the school added 40 students, 20 in 2015-2016, and anticipates 20 new faces for the 2016-2017 school year-a continuous, upward trend, creating the need for better-constructed classrooms and more of them.

Each classroom will contain features that will promote sensory learning. There will be standing desks, sitting desks, new white boards and half of each room will be carpeted, while the other half is covered by a vinyl-type of flooring.

Additionally, the 10,000-foot expansion will house a new art room, which Foos said is vital to the school, where kids are showing increased interest in the arts.

"For a lot of kids, this is where they fit," she said. "For some, this is what will keep them in school."

As classes begin in the fall and construction continues, some teachers will be displaced, conducting lessons in gyms, the wrestling room and special education rooms. But Foos doesn't foresee the displacement causing any issues for teachers or students.

"Everyone has been so positive about it because they know the end result is going to be a really nice learning environment," Foos said. "They can only build so fast."

For Foos, the expansion project is a reflection of the "great work" students and staff are demonstrating. But the school's building doesn't define the district's success.

"I always say it's a great building, but it's not a school until we have our students here. That's when things happen."

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