TWIN FALLS — Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome — who next month is going into her first state legislative session — sat next to a fourth-grade girl Friday at Oregon Trail Elementary and watched as she worked on a reading intervention on a laptop computer.
“Which paragraph are you fixing?” Lickley asked. Then, she asked the girl to explain what the story was about.
Nearby, another girl was arranging letters in the word “mitten” to come up with the correct spelling and to form a sentence: “She lost her mitten in the snow.”
Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, talked with a boy as he worked.
“No wonder you’re better on the computer than I am,” Heider told him. “You started at an earlier age.” The 6-year-old boy chatted with Heider about his older brother, who’s 8.
A group of about 25 people — including state legislators, local business leaders, school district employees and school board members — participated Nov. 30 in the Twin Falls School District’s yearly legislative tour.
The aim was to give leaders an update about what’s happening in the school district and how legislators’ decisions from previous sessions are playing out in local classrooms. The 2019 legislative session begins in January.
The group started the day at Magic Valley High School for breakfast — which was prepared by students — and a “State of the District” address by the school superintendent. They traveled to a couple of other schools after that via school bus.
Breakfast and “State of the District” address at Magic Valley High School
At Magic Valley High, four culinary students introduced themselves, each wearing a purple apron and chef’s hat. They talked about their plans for after high school and things they appreciate about Magic Valley High, including a schedule that allows them to take one class at a time and one-on-one attention from their teachers.
Family consumer science teacher Sharman Januik told a few stories about students, including those who work full-time — such as overnight shifts at Chobani — and arrive at school on time in the morning.
“Work ethic is so much a part of what we do,” Januik said.
After breakfast, Twin Falls School District Superintendent Brady Dickinson presented the State of the District address, covering topics such as student achievement, how students are involved with civic engagement, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities in schools, school district finances, class sizes and school security.
Before going over “data high points” and areas for improvement, Dickinson said there are a lot of data points to look at to gauge how students are doing. “I feel like the education we receive in Idaho is certainly not 48th in the country.”
In the Twin Falls School District, 64 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Students who are living in poverty tend to have lower test scores, Dickinson said, and educators look at why. “What factors can we influence?”
By the time students graduate from high school, educators want to equip them to break the cycle of generational poverty, he said.
L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District, thanked legislators for allocating state funding to allow high schools to employ college and career advisers. “They’re making a huge impact on our seniors.”
On the topic of fund balance, Dickinson showed the group a graph showing how it has dropped over the years.
“Our fund balance is pretty low in terms of the percentage of our overall budget,” he said.
School districts want to spend the money on children, he said, but also needs cash flow in order to make payments and payroll — particularly, during the summer months.
“During the last economic downturn, our fund balance really saved us,” Dickinson said, and the district didn’t have to eliminate student programs.
Dickinson thanked state legislators for the five-year career ladder, which boosted teacher salaries amidst a statewide teacher shortage.
The group had a chance to ask questions. One topic that came up: When will Twin Falls need more new schools?
The school district is probably four or five years away from a new elementary school and 10 to 12 years from a high school, Dickinson said.
“It just depends on how fast growth occurs.” This year, there was a slight slowing in enrollment growth compared with past years.
Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, asked if Twin Falls schools have any full-day kindergarten classes.
There’s a half-day for everyone — the state pays for half-day kindergarten — and some students receive a full day for intervention, said Teresa Jones, elementary programs director for the school district.
Dickinson said he thinks the Twin Falls School District has the building space to be able to handle full-day kindergarten.
“Not every district in Idaho will be that way.”
Reading at Oregon Trail Elementary School
The group traveled to Oregon Trail Elementary School and paired up with students — ranging from first- through fifth-grades — in Larson’s Title I classroom, which was adorned with pineapple-themed decorations. Students showed visitors how they use Istation for reading interventions.
Across Idaho, kindergartners through third-graders are taking a new reading test this school year. The computer-based test — Istation’s Indicators of Progress, Early Reading — replaces the old Idaho Reading Indicator.
One of the main complaints among educators about the old IRI test was it tested only reading speed; the new test measures performance in six areas of literacy.
The Twin Falls School District purchased an Istation package the year before the state rolled out Istation for testing. It means the district has more tools through the program beyond what the state pays for, including for math instruction and testing.
For the most part, teachers are happy with the new reading test, Dickinson said, and data helps with targeting instruction.
Larson talked with visitors about the reports teachers can use via Istation.
“The information I’m getting from this testing is so much more powerful than how many words a child can read per minute,” she said.
New legislator Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said she would have appreciated a glossary to help explain some of the education terms used during the stop at Oregon Trail Elementary. There’s a lot of acronyms, she said.
College and career readiness at Canyon Ridge High School
At Canyon Ridge High School, visitors heard from a panel of three students — David Hernandez, Hisham Salhi and Cortni Griffith — and college and career adviser Barb Denney.
Hisham, a senior at Canyon Ridge, said he’s taking most of his classes now at the College of Southern Idaho. He wants to become a physician.
He’s looking into Idaho State University, College of Idaho and out-of-state schools for a pre-med program.
“It’s really up to whoever has the best financial situation for me,” Hisham said.
Cortni has taken many dual-credit classes — earning high school and college credits simultaneously — and is currently in a certified nursing assistant class. She wants to go into nursing.
“I really like to take advantage of the dual credit courses here,” she said, and to have them paid for by the state through the Advanced Opportunities program.
David plans to join the U.S. Army, focusing on mechanics.
When asked about whether their friends are going to college, the students talked about the cost barriers.
“The finances for college can be a struggle for many people,” Courtni said.