School closings and inclement weather - Black Hills Pioneer: Opinion

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School closings and inclement weather

Speaking of School

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Posted: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 12:00 am

As we approach winter and the likelihood of school closing, late starts or early dismissals due to weather emergencies, I wanted to remind everyone about our process for decision-making.  I work very closely with Dakota Trailways, our school bus contractor, to make those very difficult but critical decisions.  The Spearfish School District has partnered with Dakota Trailways for 55 years, and I'm very grateful for their incredible level of experience and expertise regarding winter weather driving conditions.  The safety of our students and school district staff are paramount in determining whether our schools should be open or closed, and that is the single overriding factor we consider.  Not only do we worry over our very young students being out in inclement weather, but also the relatively inexperienced driving skills of our older students in difficult conditions.

We attempt to make the call on late starts or school closings just after 5 a.m.  By that time, Travis Ladson of Dakota Trailways has been up and out on the bus routes to check snow and road conditions, and we have checked storm information on as many different media sites as possible.  No two storms are the same, and they don't impact everyone in our district or region the same way.  Once a decision is made to close or start late, administrative staff is notified so they can begin informing school staff members, and then all the media outlets that you depend on for school weather news receive an alert from us. The Black Hills Pioneer posts the information it receives regarding inclement weather on its Web site. Additionally, 10 other media outlets are contacted with our information each time a decision has been made that changes the regular school schedule.  They are KELO, KEVN, KNBN and KOTA television stations, most of which have automated systems for our reports.  We also attempt to call radio stations KDSJ (980 AM), KBHB (810 AM), KBFS (1450 AM) KSKY (95.2/92.1 FM), KKLS (93.1 FM).  Most of these do not have automated answering systems, so we are dependent on someone being at these stations when we call, which is not always the case.  And of course, we use our own Web site to share the information and also the School Reach automated calling system in an effort to contact every parent in our school district by telephone, and which takes just minutes to accomplish.

We rarely decide to close school early, out of concern that students will be sent home to empty houses because we were unable to communicate in a timely manner with parents, or parents simply are unable to be there when school is called off.   When we are forced to make that decision, school staff members begin immediate attempts to communicate with parents, or with other adults here in town that parents have asked us to contact under these circumstances.

We do understand that all our lives are very much dependent on schedules, and that a disruption of the regular school schedule is difficult for many people.  When I've called off school because of what conditions and predictions were at 5 a.m., and the wind and snow suddenly disappear by noon and it's more like golf weather outside than winter, I am very much aware of how that appears and how it has impacted our families. 

And finally, no amount of technology, experience or weather information analysis we do at the school district level can take the place of the judgment of parents.  If parents wish to keep their child home, or to have their child dismissed early because of inclement weather, it is their prerogative.  Under these circumstances, the child will be excused from school attendance.

Facilities Issues:  Creekside Elementary School — Our new elementary school at the north end of Spearfish continues to be on schedule or better for completion in August of 2011.  It will be enclosed to accommodate winter weather construction in the near future, and of course our incredibly mild fall weather has been an enormous benefit to those efforts.  Our East Elementary staff members, who will be making the move to Creekside next summer, have had a chance to tour the new building and the excitement for the change continues to build.  We plan to request assistance from interested and able parents and community members who would like to participate in the move to the new building, and will do so as sections of the building become accessible for that purpose.  We also plan to have our opening in-service sessions with our staff members there next August to provide everyone an opportunity to tour the new facility, and will have a grand opening ceremony near the onset of the new school year as well.  All will be advertised in the local media.

West Elementary Crowding: Due to relatively large kindergarten classes over the past two years we've begun to bulge at the seams in West Elementary School.  The school is home to nearly 550 pre-school through second grade students, and the past two years have seen our art, occupational and physical therapy programs shoved out of classrooms and into migrant status to make room for additional sections of kindergarten and first grades.  If the growth from the bottom up is an ongoing trend, we'll need to be ready to accommodate the additional space that results in.  One idea is to use the 1961 portion of East Elementary to manage any new enrollment surges, or to add modular classrooms at the West Elementary site for the purpose.  Both have their challenges for us to overcome before the 2011-12 school year.

East Elementary School: The school board will act to stop using the existing East Elementary 1924 (old high school) building at the conclusion of the current school year, and also to surplus that facility, preparing it for sale.  We have done a title search and survey on the property, and hope to change its zoning to accommodate that sale as well.  We've heard from a couple of sources who are interested in future ownership and development of the building.

Strategic Plan:  The District's AdvancEd/NCA Committee is working on an initial draft of a change in our Strategic Plan and will be ready to present it for input and feedback from our stakeholders following the holiday break.  AdvanceEd/NCA is the accreditation model we use in Spearfish, and is the umbrella organization we use for improving our schools to meet the ongoing needs of our students, staff, parents and community members. 

Look for announcements and information on the review from your local media and school communications modes.

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