LAS Board of Education Recap: District Withdraws from OK Conference

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education convened Monday night for their regularly scheduled meeting. All board members were present except Jared Blough.

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Student Council Report

Student council president Antonio Casarez began the meeting with his monthly report concerning the current happenings at Lowell High School, saying that there was a lot of excitement leading up to Homecoming on Friday, October 13. Casarez said that “spirit week” was happening now, and that the Homecoming dance is slated for this Saturday at 8 pm.

Casarez added that there has been a lot going on with fall games, including a successful Pink Arrow game, concerts and the fall play. He said students were looking forward to a day off school on October 23 and a half day on Halloween.

Continuity of Learning Plan

LAS has released a “continuity of learning plan” that will be posted in the business office section of the school’s website. It spells out some of the ways that ESSER funding has been spent to help improve student learning. The ESSER funding is federal dollars received by schools after the pandemic to help mitigate learning loss, and the funding will expire in September 2024.

The posted plan will include reports on progress for academic benchmarks, such as standardized testing scores.  It also assures that LAS is providing in-person instruction and that as the school becomes aware of new COVID cases, they are reported to the health department. Finally, the plan will demonstrate, in general, how the funding has supported school improvement goals in the areas of math, literacy and behavior.

The board voted unanimously to approve the continuity of learning plan as presented.

OK Conference Resolution

At the June Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Nate Fowler spoke about how LAS had voted “no” on the proposed Ottawa-Kent (OK) athletic conference realignment. The change moves Lowell from the OK White to the OK Black where some of the league opponents, such as Mona Shores and Muskegon, are roughly 50 miles away. There were concerns about travel time and expense, especially given the current bus driver shortage. There were also concerns about the impact on participation in athletic programs.

Shortly after the “no” vote, the realignment happened as proposed, and Fowler said LAS was invited to have a conversation with some other schools that were considering leaving the OK Conference to form their own league. A total of seven schools, including LAS, are now expected to submit formal letters expressing their intent to withdraw from the OK Conference.

On the withdrawal from the OK conference, Fowler stated:

“This recommendation comes after much thought, much deliberation. We have great respect for the OK Conference and the history of the OK Conference and our time participating in that division. But (it) just feels like it’s time to go into this area and form a smaller conference that’s best for our student athletes and their families based off of less travel and the stability that that conference would provide…We hope that through this process we’re able to maintain positive relationships and maintain opportunities with some of those schools that we do have traditional rivalries with but that we were not seeing in the OK Conference based off of this new realignment.”

Fowler added that submitting a withdrawal letter was just the first step in the process of forming a new division, and that many additional steps would need to be taken. These include the formation of bylaws, scheduling, the hiring of officials and many other agenda items.

Before the vote on whether to approve submission of the withdrawal letter to the OK Conference, some of the board members expressed their approval of the decision, including Vice President Laurie Kuna who said that she had spoken to the parents of middle school volleyball players who were concerned about travel time should LAS stay in the OK Conference. She said that many of the matches took place right after school and getting the students there for a 4 pm match would be “very difficult”.

Board Secretary Pat Nugent voiced his support of the administration’s recommendation, saying, “…it’s been proven, I think, over not just this past year’s cycle, but the previous year’s cycle that it’s possible that the OK Conference has become too big and unmanageable in some ways…so this is an opportunity for us to move forward with something that truly does serve us as a school and is able to put our interests much more at the forefront…”

Board member Jen Dougherty commented that, “Geographically, we couldn’t get any further from Muskegon if we tried…we’ve got students from Ionia County. We’re at the far edge…the eastern edge of Kent County and we’re going all the way to the lakeshore for three different teams. That seems excessive to me.”

The action item before the board was the recommendation to approve the submission of the withdrawal letter to the OK conference. The board unanimously voted to approve.

Human Resources Update

There are three new hires at LAS that will be getting settled in soon, Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki said. These are the new Director of Special Education, an accountant for the financial team and a curriculum assistant. He said that there were a few more open positions that will continue to be advertised, including for paraprofessionals and bus drivers. Three new bus drivers have recently completed training and joined the team.

Cichocki also spoke about a recent mentor meeting for all new LAS teachers. The meeting was the first of five that will happen this school year, and the new staff will have presentations about various topics including curriculum, retirement accounts and other financial matters and restorative practices, as well as an opportunity to ask questions and get support.

Budget Update

Chief financial officer Sonia Hodge presented the board with a letter from auditors who had completed their review of LAS financials and had no findings, which means the audit was very good. The audit report will be available on the LAS website for the public to view. Hodge said she was excited to have the new accountant join her team.

Curriculum Update

Dan VanderMeulen, Director of Curriculum for LAS, said that K-5 professional learning team leads from each building and each grade level in the district will meet soon to work on district reading goals, such as essential standards, learning targets, common assessments and to work on consistency. Each elementary school in the district has also been meeting to go over grade-level assessments and to look at areas of strength and challenges as well as interventions if needed.

A #MichME (Michigan Mathematics Educators) training also recently took place with representatives from LAS K-12 math teachers. The training, facilitated by district Math Coordinator Carmen Tawney, included discussion of math research and an exchange of ideas.

Of adult learning, VanderMeulen said, “…I don’t know that the public always understands…all the work that goes into the continuous learning of adults in our system. We often say that adults and kids have to learn at high rates together or we don’t learn at all.”

Public Comments

First up to make a public statement at Monday’s meeting was 2023 Lowell graduate Emma Sage.

Sage, who served as Student Council President and representative at last year’s board of education meetings, started out by saying thank you to the board and the community “…for everything that they do. I am now thriving as a student collegiate athlete and I couldn’t be more happy about the way Lowell has set me up for success in my future. I’d say one of the most important aspects of my education through Lowell has been the positive and inclusive environment…our community is so supportive and open, which is essential to a student’s overall well-being and success. All students should feel welcome and supported no matter what.”

Sage continued, saying:

“There are a variety of minority groups in our community… it’s important when our (LAS) staff can acknowledge and give support to these minority groups who may have more struggles that are more serious compared to the majority group. Those in the majority group with more privilege should not be offended by minority struggles and the support being given to them… if it wasn’t for the support and acceptance that I’ve been given by those around me here in Lowell, I would never have felt comfortable enough with myself to have achieved everything that I have.”

She concluded by again thanking LAS staff and the community for the support she’d been given throughout her LAS student experience.

Next up was Stefanie Boone, who heads the “Lowell Kids 1st” group and has children enrolled in LAS through the Schools of Choice program.

Boone said her son, an eighth grader at Lowell Middle School, was recently reprimanded for “dropping the ‘f-bomb’ in gym class.” Boone said that she was informed by the gym teacher that it was a “major offense,” and her son served a lunchtime detention as a result. Boone said that afterward she reached out to Fowler, saying, “…I’m just confused, you know? We have these books in our schools that they have – some of these books say the f-bomb 80-90 times in them – that I’ve brought to the attention of the schools and I’ve asked, ‘Can we please clean this up? This can’t be acceptable.”

Boone went on, saying, “And we’ve got this double standard going on in our schools right now: either we’re going to let our kids drop f-bombs freely in the schools or we’re going to have to clean up our libraries that are pushing the same material in front of them.” Boone mentioned that some of the books she had asked be taken out of LAS libraries have been removed, but that there were still many more there.

Kim Lum, a Lowell resident and retired teacher of 40 years with LAS,  also stood to speak during the meeting.

She said that she remembered when, at the end of the school year, she and her fellow teachers would try to help by separating the kids who “didn’t really get along” into different classrooms for the following year. She said that eventually, though, they would run out of classrooms. She remarked that she began to realize that as the kids went on to higher grades, eventually, they would all be stuck together, and they’d have to learn to get along. Lum went on to say, “And that’s really what a classroom teacher’s job is: to keep their kids safe and to help them learn how to be with each other, and to help them want to learn; want to be curious about new ideas.”

Lum encouraged the audience to attend one of the community forums where Lowell residents are invited to share their input for the future learning environments at LAS. The next and final forum will be Tuesday, November 7, at 6:30pm at Lowell High School.

Longtime Lowell resident Gary Blough, who retired from the LAS Board of Education in 2023 after 12 years of service, took to the podium to say that he had recently completed the 7-week training to become a bus driver for the district. Blough said the drivers who helped him with training did a great job, and people could have the training tailored to their schedule. Blough added that his experience had been a good one, and he was proud to join the LAS bus driving team.

Superintendent’s Report

Fowler said that he wanted to address the earlier public comments regarding books, saying:

“…we do have high expectations for our students and we understand our students make mistakes with those expectations, and we have consequences with that to help reinforce those lessons…we also have literature that reflects the kids’ culture in our libraries as well…it’s a balance, and it’s something that we work…on everyday…to try to find that balance, to find meaningful literature that reflects student experiences to help prepare them for the world once they leave our schools, as well as maintaining high standards for their behavior…”.

Regarding the assertion that books were being removed from the libraries, he said that yes, books were regularly removed from LAS libraries when they hadn’t been checked out for a period of time.

Fowler mentioned that at last month’s board meeting, he had spoken of the large area storm and tornado warning that occurred during a football game and how he was impressed by the way the community came together to help families find safety in the inclement weather. He added:

“…and I bring that up tonight because that was the last time I saw Kyle Dedonado, who was an employee that we lost in a car accident two weeks ago. (During the storm) The lights were off in the basement and Kyle kind of showed up out of the dark and he just asked what he could do to help… he was part of that spirit of looking out for each other and part of that spirit of just taking care of our kids who were down in the basement and (their) families…I just wanted to share that memory that I had of Kyle and how grateful I am for that…we’re going to miss our teammate and our friend, and we extend our condolences to his family.”

Fowler thanked board members Jessica Curtis and Tom Kaywood for taking part in interviews at Cherry Creek Elementary for their fifth grade leadership program.

He concluded by reminding everyone that October is National Principals Month and announced that he wanted to recognize LAS principals, saying:

“Principals lead our buildings with integrity and wisdom and empathy. They work to create the school culture that Emma mentioned in her comments…that every student and every staff member feels valued and supported… thank you to our principals for your work as leaders and role models in our schools and our community.”

Board Communications

Nugent thanked Hodge and staff for the positive audit report.

He also said that he wanted to mention “…another member of our school family who passed away was a mentor of mine: Mr. Jack Ogle…we’ll remember his impact that he had on many generations of Lowell students and families.”

Both Curtis and Kaywood thanked Cherry Creek Principal Veldman for the invitation to participate in the fifth grade leadership program.

Kuna thanked Blough, saying, “Gary, so glad you’re driving bus for us…just the fact that you’ve put yourself out there and are now behind the wheel for Lowell Area Schools is really cool.”

Board Brian Krajewski thanked the former and current athletic directors “…and all of the work they’ve done to…help us get to a good place with our student athletes in the OK Conference. I know there’s a lot of work that’s gone into where we’ve landed today and I appreciate all of their work, along with the coaches, the administration…”.

The meeting was adjourned at 7:50 pm. The next Board of Education meeting will be a work session that the public is invited to attend on Monday, October 23 at 6 pm in the administrative building.

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