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Wisconsin Dells school board looks to up student engagement after dropoff during COVID-19 shutdown

Wisconsin Dells school board looks to up student engagement after dropoff during COVID-19 shutdown


The Wisconsin Dells school board analyzed student engagement reports from the school closure at its June 22 meeting, setting up a potential push for fewer instructional periods per day moving forward.

According to Wisconsin Dells High School principal Hugh Gaston, high school teachers’ data showed that just over 50% of students were fully engaged in coursework during the COVID-19 shutdown. Gaston said that some of that data is skewed by seniors, and that he and his staff have to look deeper into the data to identify any students who need help in the future.

“Those numbers include seniors and, in many cases, having been released from their elective offerings after the graduation requirement change, they went off the grid in those classes,” Gaston said. “We intend to review the data some more to focus on the underclassmen who will need the most support when we return.”

District administrator Terry Slack affirmed Gaston’s findings. He said the district’s move to a pass/fail grading system during the shutdown did not boost student engagement, particularly at the middle and high school levels. However, Slack did point out that lower engagement rates among older students was a common problem for other districts around the Dells area.

Slack commended the elementary school staff for fostering a high engagement rate, as well as adapting to a new teaching environment. According to Slack, the sharp focus on important topics in lessons helped keep students on track.

“The close-knit make-up of elementary classrooms supported a high degree of student engagement,” Slack said. “Our elementary staff adapted quickly and offered engaging lessons during the closure… Much of their instruction focused on delivering short, concise lessons focused on developing their literacy skills as well as their math skills.”

Looking at bringing up engagement at the high school level, Slack addressed the topic of cutting two high school periods, bringing the total from eight to six. Students would spend the same number of hours in school every day, but would now be taking six 60-minute courses rather than eight 40-minute ones.

Slack acknowledged this condensed schedule would cut into the electives Dells high school students can take, but pointed out that middle school students made the same transition and saw positive results.

“Because many of our middle-high students were overwhelmed and not engaging at a high level, it is worth a deep dive of reducing the number of instructional periods offered from eight to six,” Slack said. “While this would reduce the number of periods for electives, it would provide additional time to be really good at academic courses, of which many develop skills necessary for a lifetime.”

The board did not make a formal decision on condensing the high school schedule, but the discussion will continue going forward.

In other business, the school board officially announced two major donations to the new high school from the Waterman and Walsh families. Judy Waterman, widow of Noah’s Ark co-founder Turk Waterman, and her children have pledged a total of $350,000 to the district and the Wisconsin Dells Education Foundation, with the bulk of the donation going to the WDEF. That donation will found The Turk and Judy Waterman Family Scholarship, to be awarded every year to a graduating senior heading to technical college or trade school.

The David and Nancy Walsh Family Foundation also announced a donation to the district, committing $50,000 for naming rights to the technology, woodwork and metalwork classrooms. According to Slack, this donation will allow the district to purchase several advanced shop tools, including a digital plasma cutter.

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