For the first time in nearly two decades, Verona Area School District students will return to classrooms in August.

As students fill hallways and lunchrooms and parents return to school year routines Aug. 23, officials will be keeping a close eye on this year’s calendar, knowing that Mother Nature could throw a wrench into construction plans next summer.

That’s one of our top five stories to watch in the district this year, as weather closures could force schedule changes in the middle of the year or delays to construction work on a tight timeline to be ready for the fall 2020 opening of the new Verona Area High School and other building shifts.

While that has the potential to be a top concern this year, it’s just that: potential. The rest of our top five will surely affect parents and their children in the upcoming school year.

At No. 2 is a new software for personalized learning plans. The prior software vendor, Epiphany, shut down its operations near the end of last school year.

Middle and high schoolers who spent their elementary years in language immersion programs this year also have something new to look forward to, our No. 3 story.

This year is the first of the Two Way Immersion Spanish program’s expansion to the middle school level, and it’s also the first time students who learned Chinese at Verona Area International School will be able to take an advanced section of the language during the school day.

No. 4 is physical changes in and around Badger Ridge Middle School.

With building wide air conditioning installed this summer, they’ll be cooler during the early summer start, while those walking to school crossing Main Street will have the crossing beacon installed after a student was hit by a car there last spring.

Finally, the Sugar Creek Elementary and New Century school buildings will be used for the final time this year, as students will move elsewhere for the 2020-21 school year and beyond with the opening of the new high school. The connected buildings are the district’s oldest in use.

None of that includes the ongoing high school construction and implementation of boundary changes to go along with it, but it all should make for a busy 2019-20 school year.

Tight schedule

District leaders have talked about the academic disadvantage of starting school after Labor Day over the past few years.

This year they’ll get an exception to the 2000 state law requiring a start date after Sept. 1, but the reason has almost nothing to do with academics.

Renovations required to turn the Badger Ridge and K-Wing buildings elementary school student friendly and the current high school building into an elementary and middle school will take longer than next year’s normal summer would have allowed. District leaders petitioned the state Department of Public Instruction for an exception to the state law and received approval, with school going from Aug. 23 to May 29 this year.

At least that’s the plan.

As recently as this past school year, weather wreaked havoc on the schedule and required the district to get creative in making up the hours to meet state requirements, eliminating late starts at the high school for the last few months of the year. This year, the margins are much thinner.

Even with adding five minutes at the end of every day, there is only one “snow day” built in for the high school, which requires 1,137 hours of instruction by state law.

“We could have no snow,” superintendent Dean Gorrell said when the calendar was approved last fall. “We could have five days of snow days.”

Options if there are more than one snow day would include using April 10 – Good Friday – as a school day instead of an off day as scheduled. Gorrell said last fall the district might consider instructing staff not to plan on a day off that day to keep it as a placeholder, though that’s a tricky balance, he acknowledged.

Hours of instruction requirements at both the middle and elementary school have more flexibility, so extending the school year or start times districtwide might not be necessary. Instead, Gorrell said last fall, the high school could try to find time “internally” through shortened passing times before and after lunch or adding time at the end of the day.

If Mother Nature cooperates with a mild winter, it would make all of the contingencies moot – an outcome that would almost certainly be welcomed by students, staff and families.

PLP software

One of the district’s most significant initiatives over the past seven years is undergoing a change this year.

Personalized learning plans will be on a new software – two, actually. After debuting last year on Epiphany, the plans that outline individual students’ performance and goals are switching to two systems, one for elementary school and one for grades 6-12.

District director of personalized learning Amy Arbogash told the school board Aug. 19 staff will use Seesaw for elementary students and Xello for grades 6-12. Both, Arbogash said, are familiar for some teachers already.

Arbogash told the board Seesaw will give staff “more flexibility when it comes to the learner profile” than Epiphany and that it has an “amazing parent access component.”

“It won’t just house our PLPs, it’s also a great teaching and learning tool in the iPad,” she said.

The Xello application was formerly known as “Career Cruising,” and is a product designed to help with academic and career planning for students.

She said she expects parent access to be available within the first semester, but not immediately as staff get used to the new systems – an adjustment she hopes familiarity will make easier.

“We’re actually implementing two products that are more familiar to us than brand new,” she said.

The switch comes after Epiphany discontinued some of its services in the spring, something the district announced in a May email home to parents. PLPs were switched at that time to Seesaw for K-5 students and Canvas for the rest.

Language programs

An expansion of middle school language instruction has been a long time coming.

The district’s TWI program has been set for a middle school debut this year since it began six years ago, while VAIS parents have been waiting for Chinese to become part of the school day beyond fifth grade for the past four years.

District staff began publicly discussing how to continue the Spanish-language immersion program for students who participated in grades K-5 into middle school in 2017 and unveiled the schedule plans last school year after working with parents and middle school principals.

The program will be housed entirely at BRMS, so even those students in the SOMS attendance area who participated in TWI from grades K-5 will attend BRMS, with busing provided. Students in the program will have one class period of Spanish Language Arts and one content area class taught in Spanish each year – social studies in sixth grade, life science in seventh grade and U.S. history in eighth grade.

The Chinese addition to the middle and high school World Languages program, meanwhile, comes after three years of parents requesting such an option. The first class of VAIS students – with seven students – moved on from elementary school in 2015 with no set program to continue their Chinese language learning.

Instead, the district first offered an online program that parents said was unreliable and ineffective. The next attempt, a before-school option, was destined to have a problem with class sizes, with only one teacher trying to reach students at various levels of language expertise.

In February, the school board approved a plan that will allow VAIS graduates to continue their language learning at SOMS for 2019-20 and at BRMS for 2021-22 and beyond. Sixth- and seventh-grade VAIS graduates who wish to continue Chinese instruction would have to give up either music or the quarterly rotation of art, family and consumer ed, technology and world language to fit it into their schedule.

The district is continuing its overarching review of its world languages programming in the meantime, and the success and interest in these programs this year could play a role in determining what languages schools will offer in future years.

BRMS changes

BRMS students will almost surely be more comfortable on hot school days this year with the addition of building wide air conditioning.

District and City of Verona officials are hoping they’ll be safer getting to and from the building, too, with the new crossing beacon at the intersection of Llanos Street.

The beacon is an additional safety measure to help two crossing guards already stationed there during the busy time before and after school. In March, a 12 year old crossing to the school for an afterschool program arrived after guards had left and was hit by a car while in the crosswalk.

The boy was hospitalized and his mom campaigned to city and district officials for stoplights at the intersection. Though city officials acknowledged the situation wasn’t related to traffic problems during dropoff and pickup, it nonetheless inspired action, and they determined the beacon was the best option that could be implemented quickly. It was installed just before the end of the school year.

With the building transitioning into an elementary school in fall 2020, local leaders are likely to keep an eye on the beacon’s effectiveness to determine if further steps are required to ensure students’ safety.

Final year at SC, NCS

The district is letting go of two buildings this year – one more than a century old, the other six decades.

Both the Sugar Creek and New Century school buildings have had additions installed since they were originally constructed, but their age is starting to show. After this year, neither will be a school building.

The Sugar Creek building is likely to be demolished as the city works toward a new plan for the land it will receive in a trade with the district for helping fund some road work near the new high school. The New Century building will remain, per the agreement between the two, but it remains to be seen how it will be used.

A 2016 facilities study highlighted a long list of concerns with the buildings, including a lack of air conditioning, student pickup and dropoff congestion and a lack of accessibility for those with disabilities.

In fall 2020, Sugar Creek will move into the Badger Ridge building, built in 1992. New Century – along with VAIS – will move into the K-Wing, built in 1960.

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.