11 things to know as Wichita students head back to class

Braxton Law holds his textbook in his kindergarten class at Peterson Elementary in December 2017. His teacher, Holly Morgan, piloted a new reading program that Wichita elementary schools will launch this year. The program is aimed at helping teachers tailor lessons to a wider variety of students.
Braxton Law holds his textbook in his kindergarten class at Peterson Elementary in December 2017. His teacher, Holly Morgan, piloted a new reading program that Wichita elementary schools will launch this year. The program is aimed at helping teachers tailor lessons to a wider variety of students. The Wichita Eagle

When about 50,000 students head back to class in Wichita next week, they’ll see colorful banners promoting the district’s new slogan: “Dream. Believe. Achieve.”

“People are really excited about the new strategic plan that the board has adopted,” said Superintendent Alicia Thompson, who is starting her second year at the helm of the state’s largest school district. “We’re excited to be able to welcome our students back and our families and our community.”

Before the buses roll and the school bells ring, here are 11 things to know:

Additional funding

A boost in state aid to public schools means the Wichita district’s budget is going up in most areas.

The proposed $686 million budget is about $43 million higher than last year’s. Much of that — about $25 million — is earmarked for employee retirement, bond and interest payments and other areas that district leaders don’t directly control.

The rest of the additional funding — about $18 million — will go toward a proposed pay raise for teachers, more preschool classrooms, higher pay for substitute teachers and other programs.

“There was some shifting (in the budget) to make sure we could stretch the new money as far as we could related to salaries,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools. “We knew that was a huge priority for the board.”

The proposed budget, which school board members are expected to approve Aug. 27, would lower the district’s property tax mill levy by .118 mills, or $1.36 a year for the owner of a home valued at $100,000.

Longer year

Wichita schools will go back to shorter school days and a longer school year, following the increase in state funding.

The district altered its academic calendar two years ago as part of a $3 million budget cut, trimming 15 days from the year and adding 30 minutes to each school day. Many families said the transition was more challenging than expected, particularly for young children.

Superintendent Alicia Thompson said recess time for elementary school children — including a second break added in 2016 after parents lobbied for the change — will not be cut.

USD 259 announced Wednesday that Wichita teachers would get a 3.65 percent raise under a tentative contract agreement. Teachers will vote on the contract during in-service days later this month. (Aug. 1, 2018)

Teacher contract

For the first time in recent history, Wichita teachers started their year with a tentative contract agreement.

The deal, valued at about $12.5 million, includes a base salary increase of 3.65 percent, movement on the salary schedule for additional experience or education, longevity bonuses and no increase to health insurance premiums.

Teachers will vote on the contract during in-service days this month. If they ratify it, it would go to the Wichita school board for final approval.

Mental health pilot project

Children and families facing mental health issues will get additional help from Wichita schools this year, thanks to a $1 million program funded by the state.

The Wichita district will partner with Comcare of Sedgwick County on a pilot project to embed “behavioral health intervention teams” — clinical therapists, social workers and case managers — at 22 schools.

The program will allow students to get therapy at school during the school day and will coordinate treatment plans for students and their families.

Bryant Opportunity Academy

Starting this fall, the Wichita district will have a new option for young students struggling with behavior problems.

Bryant Opportunity Academy — located at the former Bryant Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary near Ninth and West — will serve about 100 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students who need a highly structured environment.

The school will have smaller classes with flexible seating and will focus more attention on character development. It will employ additional counselors and social workers, and will feature the district’s first Lu Interactive Playground, a projector system that combines physical education with 3D video gaming.

Bryant also will house a new intake center for students moving to the district through foster care or judicial placements. They’ll report to Bryant and attend class in one of three “transitional rooms” while social workers, psychologists and others determine whether they’re ready for a comprehensive school setting.

Credit recovery

High school students struggling to earn enough credits to graduate will have another option to get back on track.

Wichita is expanding its credit-recovery programs this fall, establishing learning centers for ninth- through 12th-grade students at each of its seven comprehensive high schools.

Students will be able to use the centers during the school day to make up credits by taking a credit-recovery course instead of an elective. Previously the courses were available only at certain schools, online, or during summer break.

The district also has added a new math course option for ninth-graders, “Foundations of Algebra” — an introductory course for students not yet ready for Algebra 1 — which could count as one of three math credits required for graduation.

Social and emotional skills

Beginning this fall, all Wichita middle school students will get lessons on social and emotional skills as part of an expansion of the Second Step curriculum.

The program, which launched at Wichita elementary schools last fall, teaches students how to understand and manage their emotions, be aware of others’ feelings, resolve conflicts and make responsible decisions.

Each school will decide how and when to deliver the lessons — most likely during social studies or consortium classes, a school district spokeswoman said.

New reading curriculum

Wichita elementary schools will launch a new reading curriculum this fall aimed at helping teachers tailor lessons to a wider variety of students, including children with learning disabilities, those learning English and students reading above grade level.

The seven-year, $5.8 million deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt includes new student textbooks, teacher manuals, storybooks designed for different reading levels, dual-language materials and “consumable,” soft-cover workbooks that students can write in.

The new curriculum features an app and online resources. An extensive handwriting component teaches both manuscript and cursive writing.

Early Saturday, playground equipment at Adams Elementary was set on fire by vandals. Terry Manning, principal, speaks about how the students are handling it. (Video by Brian Hayes / The Wichita Eagle/Jan. 9, 2017)

Playground fences

This summer, crews started installing fences around Wichita elementary school playgrounds as an added security measure, but so far there’s no plan to lock the gates or limit access after school hours.

The Wichita school board voted unanimously to spend $231,000 to add fencing around 41 elementary school playgrounds, citing security concerns and costly repairs after two playground fires.

Several residents who live near school playgrounds have urged district leaders to keep them open to surrounding neighborhoods. Board members said they may talk about accessibility after all the fencing is installed, likely by the end of the calendar year.

Principal shuffle

Half of Wichita’s eight high schools will have new principals this year, thanks to a retirement and administrative moves.

Sara Richardson takes the helm at East High School this year, succeeding longtime principal Ken Thiessen, who retired.

Bruce Deterding, formerly at Heights High School, has moved to Southeast High School. Former Southeast principal Lori Doyle moved to North High, and North principal Sherman Padgett moved to Heights.

Teacher shortage

Nearly 500 new teachers reported for their first day in Wichita schools last week, marking a notable reduction in the district’s number of teacher vacancies.

Like school districts nationwide, Wichita is experiencing a shortage of teachers, substitutes and para-educators, particularly for hard-to-fill spots such as math, science and special education. The district has 54 vacancies — about half as many as last year, officials said. Most of those are in special education.

Earlier this year the district launched a referral bonus program, offering employees up to $300 cash to help find teachers for hard-to-fill vacancies.

The district also has had trouble finding enough drivers to operate the fleet of buses it needs to transport students. Officials are exploring options to save money on transportation, including longer walks to bus stops, earlier start times at more schools, and new incentives to recruit and retain drivers.

The first day of school is Wednesday. Orientation for sixth- and ninth-grade students is Tuesday.