LAS Board of Education Recap: LHS Musical, Exploratory Classes and Comments on Criminal Charges

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met this past Monday in the administration building for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Board President Brian Krajewski was absent, and Vice President Laurie Kuna presided over the meeting. All other board members were present.

The school board meeting kicked off with a rare treat: a short performance by some of the cast of the upcoming Lowell High School musical, Beauty and the Beast. Students Ania Fleszar, Hayden Gough, Harper Postma, Max Wasilew and Faith VanDuinen sang snippets of several songs from the upcoming musical while the delighted board and audience looked on. Beauty and the Beast is coming up next month, and tickets are on sale now.

Student Council Report

Student Council President Antonio Casarez reported that Monday marked the first day of Be Nice Week at the high school, which he described as, “…all about spreading positivity and advocating kindness…” He added, “It’s so easy to focus on what’s going wrong, but hopefully a week of optimism helps us focus on what’s going right.” For Be Nice Week, there will be special treats for students like donuts and ice cream, karaoke, trivia, spirit days and even therapy dogs brought in to visit.

Casarez congratulated the freshman and sophomore student leaders on a successful “Winter Wonderland” dance last week as well as the varsity wrestling team for winning their 30th consecutive district title.

Food Service Report

LAS Food Service Director Brad Stinson relayed some numbers and provided an update as to the state of the food service program in the district.

Stinson said that, overall, the volume of students receiving school lunch and breakfast at LAS has increased dramatically this year. That’s largely due to the Michigan School Meals program, which provides breakfast and lunch to students at no cost. He said that district cafeterias were doling out 557 more lunches and 318 more breakfasts daily as compared to last year.

Stinson said he was thankful for the food service workers who have had to revamp school lunch lines, cold and hot food storage, navigate supply chain issues and work longer hours some days with all of the additional prep work and cleanup required. He also thanked the board for approving the purchase of new ovens for the district, saying reliable ovens have been a huge help with the increased demand.

Lowell Middle School Report

Lowell Middle School Principal Abby Wiseman and a few other LMS staff were at the board meeting to give a status report from their building. Wiseman said that in their standardized testing scores, students have excelled. Compared to other schools statewide with similar demographics, Wiseman said that the PSAT scores of LMS students are “at the very top.” Students have performed similarly in their M-STEP scores, consistently outranking all of the schools in the Kent Intermediate School District and surpassing the state average as well.

Wiseman said that though academic success is wonderful, part of the job of LMS staff is to help students develop socially, and one of the ways they accomplish that is in offering exploratory courses that complement the core curriculum. Wiseman said that she wanted to highlight three exploratory classes for the board: 8th grade drama and public speaking, STEAM and career readiness.

LAS educator Andrea Struckmeyer — who was unable to attend the meeting — heads up the middle school’s performing arts program. Wiseman said that in public speaking and drama classes, kids learn skills like visual storytelling, communication and problem-solving, teamwork and leadership. These classes can also help students build confidence.

Sharon MacDermaid, who taught math at LMS for 21 years, is now teaching STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) and said that her course teaches kids perseverance, teamwork and problem solving. Students have the opportunity to do things like build a rollercoaster using only paper and tape, play with handheld robots, use a 3D printer, and learn about careers in fields such as software design or video game engineering.

LMS teacher Wendy Crace teaches a career readiness course in which students get to hear from guest speakers every Wednesday who come to talk about their jobs. Past guest speakers have included someone who works for LEGO, a student resource officer, a US Marshall, a biologist and an interior decorator. Students learn about employability skills, writing a resume and filling out a job application. They also have a chance to explore what career they might be interested in for their own futures.

Action Items

The board unanimously voted for a special election to take place May 7, 2024, to vote on bonds for construction projects in the district. The bond would extend the current 7-mil levy, with no increase in taxes for residents.

The board also voted to purchase a new software program for LAS as the old program they’ve been using for the past 25 years is being phased out. The software program will handle all payroll, accounting and budgeting for the district.

Human Resources Update

The Human Resources Department has been working on clarifying which staff members might take advantage of an early retirement incentive being offered through March 15. Knowing which teachers are planning to retire before the end of the school year helps the HR staff to be able to post jobs earlier than other districts. The district is still actively searching for full time school bus drivers.

Budget Update

Per state requirements, a plan for use of funds is being put together to spell out exactly how the district plans to allocate the remainder of its ESSER funding. The plan will be posted on the district’s website, and input from the public is encouraged.

The district has submitted a grant to the LCTV Endowment Fund for $35,000 to help offset the cost of new speakers for the high school auditorium. The total expected cost is about $70,000 to replace the current speakers which have been in use for the past 25 years.

Curriculum Update

An upcoming workshop for parents of students in grades 6-12 will focus on brain development in adolescents. The district is partnering with Joe Martino Counseling for the three-part workshop, which will focus on adolescent behavior, how to help kids have positive peer relationships and what to do about “red flag behavior.” The workshop will be held March 6, 13 and 20 at the middle school, and information about the workshop will go out soon to district parents.

Public Comment

Schools of choice parent Stefanie Boone said that she appreciated the presentation by middle school staff but noted that, “…we don’t see our teachers pushing their sexualized agendas up at the board here…we’re not seeing the rainbow lanyards…that the kids are reporting they’re seeing at school…”.

Boone went on to say that she was “extremely concerned” to hear of the recent arrest of two LAS employees (one current and one former employee). She suggested that she had spoken with another parent who said that, “…there are four teachers that need to be arrested.” Boone said that she sent an email to the board with possible suggestions for dealing with this issue and how to be proactive and not reactive.

The arrests referenced by Boone include Jamie Christians, a LHS English teacher, and Matt Hare, who previously worked for LAS as a bus driver and paraprofessional. Christians was arrested earlier this month and charged with two counts of 1st degree criminal sexual misconduct. The charges date back to 1998 when he was a teacher at Northview Public Schools, and he is accused of sexually assaulting a middle school student. There is no indication any of these crimes were committed at LAS, and Christians is currently on leave from his position.

Hare previously worked for LAS but resigned from his job with the district last summer. He has been charged in Indiana with seven counts of child molestation. The crimes allegedly began in 2013 and involved a minor who lived in the same house as Hare.

The second public comment of the evening came from retired LAS teacher Kim Lum. She shared how she noticed the whole room’s delight when the high school students performed bits of their musical for everyone. She said that it was “a breath of fresh air” after the arrest incidents of the past week. Lum said of the news, “I hope that if anybody else had their heart hurt, their body touched, their mental health affected by this, that they find help.” Lum said that, as teachers, “Our first job in the classroom is to offer a safe place. And we do it by making relationships with our students and their families.”

“And yes…rainbows are a part of that safe place,” she added, seemingly in response to Boone’s earlier comment.

Superintendent’s Report

Superintendent Nate Fowler said that the recent stretch of winter weather and icy road conditions made him even more appreciative of the skill and training of district bus drivers. He thanked them for how they, “…handle those big buses and keep our kids safe.”

Of the recent arrests brought up in public comment, Fowler said the district’s reaction to the news included, “…feelings of shock and confusion, sadness and anger…I want to acknowledge and validate all of the emotions that people have felt as we’ve gone through this.”

He said that he wanted to specify that the current allegations don’t involve relationships at LAS, but that, “…we do remain committed to the wellbeing and the safety of our students.”

Fowler added that the district takes allegations of this kind very seriously, and that there are measures in place to attempt to prevent these situations, including extensive background checks on all LAS employees and volunteers. He said that though these methods aren’t always foolproof, the district would continue using these measures to try to keep students safe.

Fowler mentioned the Children’s Advocacy Center in Grand Rapids as an excellent resource for anyone with questions, wanting more information or needing help with this type of situation.

Board Comments

Of the exploratory classes available at the middle school, board member Jen Dougherty said, “Those teachers are amazing at sneaking in core curriculum activities that are fun and exciting and engage students. So, kudos for reaching those kids that don’t always fit in the box and realize that there are careers out there for them, even if they don’t love school.”

Jared Blough said that he was excited about the upcoming musical after seeing the preview at the beginning of the meeting.

Kuna praised the middle school and staff for their academic accomplishments and added of the board, “Know if you’re a parent, if you’re just a community member, if you’re a member of the staff that we are here to support you.”

The meeting was adjourned at 8:25 pm. The next meeting is a work session for the board that the public is invited to attend and will be held on February 26 at 6 pm in the administration building.

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