Longtime and now retired Benton educator Howard Conrad would remind students and staff that it was always a great day to be a Bobcat. As we welcome students back to Benton Community this fall I am reminded how far we have come over the last eighteen months to maintain that Bobcat standard. In 2019, administration and staff began working with Grant Wood Area Education Agency and a consulting firm known as Context EDU to “Re-Design” the Benton Middle School/High School experience. Our focus was to honor the traditions and foundation of what it is to be a Bobcat and reach those students who felt disconnected from that. Little did we know the incredible challenges we would be facing from then to now. We dealt with a 53 day school closure. We dealt with the uncertainty during the Summer of 2020 around COVID. We created Return to Learn Plans on the fly. We came together to battle a Derecho and clean up. We started the 2020-2021 school year with students who were masked and teachers whose students couldn’t see their faces. And our community faced incredible tragedies and loss. As we enter our third school impacted by the pandemic we are moving from that darkness into the light of the start of the 2021-2022. Our faculty, staff, and students have stayed the course. We are about to harvest the crop that we planted so long ago through the redesign so that it is easy to say “it’s a great day to be a Bobcat!”
In facing those challenges over the course of last year, the pandemic allowed us the freedom to fail and try again. With that theme, we introduced a hybrid schedule last year with “block” classes that allowed for limited passing times and longer instructional blocks. By no means was this perfect. We learned a lot about scheduling conflicts and working with ever changing parameters. The one message that was heard loud and clear from students and teachers was that it is critical that we work hard to maintain that schedule going into 2021. Our counselors Mr. Aaron Cretin and Mrs. Natalie Nesbitt worked tirelessly well into late June to accomplish just that. At every turn another roadblock presented itself but they have found solutions for most to do what is best for our students. The new schedule will allow students to focus on four classes at a time with guided practice to ensure deep learning of the curriculum. We continue to think outside the box to meet the challenges of classes that require continuity and practice to maintain our students' skills. We are confident that our staff will make all the necessary adjustments to accomplish our goals.
The schedule was a main anchor to the redesign but it was not the only goal. The pandemic also highlighted a need to continue to support our most vulnerable population of students. With that notion being validated, we started working on the systemic change that would allow success at school for every student. We developed our Student Assistance Team made up of administrators, counselors, instructional coaches and teachers. This team will serve our students who need extra assistance. Certified teachers will have access to the other classrooms to help team teach, help all students receive support, and assist in connecting to students who have difficulty finding their champion at school. The Student Assistance Team members can help students with organization, homework, difficult concepts, or just being another adult for students to go to. Student Assistance Team teachers can also assist classroom teachers with extra supervision, project assistance, and other aid as needed. This allows every student to have an adult they are comfortable with to assist them.
The pandemic didn’t just show us that our schedule needed work and our most vulnerable students needed a safety net, it also showed us that the social and emotional health of our students and staff is critical to our success. Our teaching staff has worked all year on creating social and emotionally supportive classrooms guided by the “CASEL SEL Playbook”. This resource highlights three key practices of a social and emotionally supportive classroom. These key practices are creating a welcoming and inclusive lesson openings, engaging instructional strategies, and optimistic closure to our lessons. With this framework, individual teachers have found strategies that allow them to connect with their students on various levels. As Theodore Roosevelt once said “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This is the foundation for our work not only during the redesign but has long been the foundation of teaching at Benton Community.
With these main anchors for our high school redesign now two years later being fully implemented we are anxious to see the impact that Benton Community Faculty and Staff can have on our students. The work is just beginning and it will not be perfect. We will “Bobcat Up”, face every challenge presented, and find a way to make every student who enters our system successful. It truly is “A great day to be a Bobcat”.