For Westfield Washington Schools Supt. Sherry Grate, the way the staff and students have handled the twists and turns during the coronavirus pandemic has been impressive.
“This has been a unique experience for us the last five months or so,” Grate said. “We say every day is a new day, sometimes it’s day by day, sometimes moment by moment.”
Grate relayed to the Westfield Chamber of Commerce how the district coped with shutting down March 13 during her annual State of the Schools Sept. 17 at The Club at Chatham Hills.
“Once we were able to realize this virtual environment was going to take place right away, everyone just rallied around to make sure every family, every student had the devices they needed to be able to access their education,” she said. “We need to make sure they had their Wi-Fi and their hot spot. We started have weekly meetings with all our community partners, just talking about what the needs were. I can’t say enough about how this community came together to rally around our students and our families.”
Three students joined Grate to explain their experiences when the schools were shut down.
“When we got the news, my friends and I were so excited we got a month off of school,” Westfield Middle School seventh-grader John Cason said. “Once we figured it wasn’t just going to be a month, we were all disappointed that we didn’t get to end the school year with each other.”
Westfield has in-person students on Monday and Wednesday and then a different group on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday is a virtual learning day.
“We also have students who are 100 percent virtual,” Grate said. “Our teachers and administrators have done a lot of planning. The planning started way back in March, but the planning continues to happen day by day. We do know the most important kind of instruction is when students can be with their teachers face to face.
“We also know these are challenging times and that may not absolutely be able to take place, so we are trying to be as flexible as we possibly can during this time.”
Westfield High School sophomore Lily Foster said she has adapted to the hybrid learning model.
“It’s been really effective for me, and I think a lot of students feel the same way because I think it really allows us to work at our pace, which is really important on our days off,” Foster said. “Although we have only online communication with our teachers on the days off, it’s not been a problem because of the efficiency of the Westfield staff.”
Planning for the future
Supt. Sherry Grate said Westfield Washington Schools enrollment continues to grow.
“Each month, we get updates on housing starts in our community,” she said. “One of the things that we know is we’ll continue to watch those numbers, and the 2020 census will be really important to us to be able to make any updates and decisions we might have in terms of our facilities and our growth and enrollment.”
Grate said the Westfield Intermediate School and Westfield Middle School projects are nearly complete. She said the district is in the last phase of the high school part of the project that was part of the $90 million referendum in the spring of 2017.
“With the completion of our natatorium at the end of December, we will be able to move into the final phase of the high school, which we are calling the wellness renovation. That is where our pool is,” Grate said.
Grate said 21 classrooms are utilized in the elementary schools for an early learning program.
“If we could free up space in our elementary schools, what that would do for us is, it would allow us to not have to build another elementary school, at least right away, because we would still have space in our elementary schools,” Grate said. “(What) we have to take in consideration is our early learning programs are fee-based programs, they are not tax-based programs. One of our next projects that we’ll be beginning in the spring is an early learning center in a central office. With our due diligence and looking at locations, we are going to be building that up on the Monon Trail Elementary School property.”
Grate said it will be important to free up the 21 classrooms in elementary schools.
“Before we would even think about another elementary school, we would first want to take in any kind of redistricting that might need to be done,” she said.
Grate said the district leases space for its central office for $120,000 annually. She said those dollars would go back into the classrooms.
Grate praised Brian Tomamichel, the district’s chief financial officer, and the school board’s vision.
“With the tough decisions and right decisions that have been made over the last few years, we’re celebrating that by the end of 2020, we will have a rainy day fund and there will be a $5.4 million balance in that,” she said. “This will be the first time since 2012.”