APS Column: Adjustments benefit the students at I.J. and Ellis

Published 6:15 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

By Dewey Schara

I.J. Holton and Ellis Middle School Principal

Change is hard, even when we know it’s the right thing to do. When I accepted the job as principal of both I.J. Holton Intermediate School and Ellis Middle School, I knew the mission: Unite the campuses and reduce transitions for students. As a former teacher at Ellis Middle School for eight years, assistant principal for five and an elementary principal for nine, I know this is the right thing to do. Transitions are hard. Transitions are hard for children and perhaps even more difficult for adults. Understanding how we are joining the campuses is important.

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Last year was year one. My primary goal was to understand all the systems in both buildings and discover where we could make change with lasting impact that would create a foundation for a smoother student transition between buildings. Based on my experiences last year, we have three major shifts underway this year. First, we are working on administrative cohesion; second, our counselors will now move with one grade for four years; finally, we have one leadership team for both buildings.

Our assistant principals are Karen Dunbar at Ellis Middle School and Kane Malo at I.J. Holton Intermediate. In the past, the assistant principals were primarily responsible for student behavior, the building schedule, and building safety. Currently, they still are, however, we have also added behavior coaches at Holton and a dean of students at Ellis to help with student behavior. This allows our assistant principals to be instructional leaders. We meet weekly to align our behavior practices, scheduling events, and course alignment. The Packer Profile has a significant influence on the course pathways at both Holton and Ellis. Making sure the curricula are systematic through grades five-eight takes regular tweaking. However, our largest administrative change this year has been the implementation of our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). This is the process we are using district-wide to ensure each student is getting the supports they need to succeed in the classroom. Having a consistent approach in grades five-eight is essential.

Starting this school year, our counselors will move with one class until they leave eighth grade. The counselors help build the building schedule in addition to working directly with students. Their knowledge of students individually is essential in our MTSS process. As our students transition from Holton to Ellis, having the counselor move with them gives parents one primary contact who knows their child. As the rotation continues over the next few years, each counselor will help build each building schedule and will have a good grasp of the different class offerings to best meet student needs.

The final major adjustment for this school year is moving from two building leadership teams to one. Our leadership team is made up of department chairs and team leaders. This team is responsible for ensuring a unified approach to our MTSS work and for integrating academic and behavioral practices. They provide guidance in ensuring evidence-based interventions are used across academic and behavioral practices. We look at behavioral and academic data which helps us design practices that are consistent between both buildings. This team also assists with the implementation of our Site Improvement Plan, the building budgets, and approves staff development.

In addition to the above, we will continue to refine our transition from the elementary schools to Holton and from Ellis to the high school. Mr. Malo and I visit each elementary school and give presentations to each individual fourth  grade classroom. Each school visits Holton in May where students have lunch with us and experiment with music options. At Ellis, we complete the Academic Planner with each eighth grader. This is a four-year plan based on student interests and potential course selection at Austin High School. We also get each eighth grader signed up with a Get Connected account so students can start earning hours toward qualification for the Assurance Scholarship to Riverland Community College.

Change is hard. Yet, at the middle level, we are making major adjustments to make sure that each child’s transition to I.J. Holton Intermediate School and Ellis Middle School is smooth and predictable. With consistent practices and systems in place, we expect every student to be ready to maximize their experience at Austin High School and beyond.