RENSSELAER — The finish line is coming into focus for Rensselaer Central High School officials.
Despite the threat of COVID lurking around every corner on a daily basis, RCHS principal AJ Jones said in-person learning at the high school was disrupted once just before Christmas.
Students were released a few days early for Christmas break due to a rise in COVID numbers in the county and contact tracing.
“I want to say how proud I am of our students and our staff for managing this school year,” Jones told the RCSC school board during a year in review session this month. “In conversations with a lot of my peers across the state, locally, building principals … we’ve been very fortunate.
“When we were planning this in the summer, I honestly didn’t expect this to go as well as it has. I think we were all waging bets on if we would make it to Labor Day.”
RCSC has reported just 15 cases of COVID since the start of the second semester, including 12 students. Four of those student cases were at the high school.
Overall, the corporation has reported 85 total cases, including 63 student cases. Thirty-three of those came at the high school since the beginning of the school year.
The low numbers allowed Rensselaer’s high school to remain open as others continued to struggle.
“By brother-in-law in Tipton, his kids have been hybrid (virtual mixed with in-person) three-fourths of the year,” Jones said. “They’ve had more days out that they’ve done virtually than they’ve been in.
“I was down in central Indiana, back home, and their schools are still not in full time. Westfield High School, Fishers High School, Anderson High School are still not in, and our kids have been in and our teachers have been in since day one.
“It’s been different, but we’ve done a phenomenal job managing this, what I call, crisis.”
Jones praised the work of high school counselors Elaine Parrish and Allison Strange for helping to keep students in school. They also facilitate information to distance learning students.
“What they’ve done to keep kids active, to keep kids in school, to meet with these kids to go virtually and to give them schedules and to get them in for testing … is pretty remarkable,” Jones said.
Jones also credited the counselors for the students’ 100% participation in ISTEP testing despite delays and uncertainties.
With athletics, RCHS was one of a few schools in the area that maintained full schedules with many of its sports. Jones said athletic director Ken Hickman and high school coaches, athletes and fans should be commended for keeping the sports seasons on track.
“To think of the amount of rescheduling and shuffling to give our kids opportunities that we did, our coaches, Mr. Hickman, we got full schedules,” Jones said. “There are a lot of schools that didn’t have that same opportunity. We did a great job providing our kids the opportunity to compete. Just look across the border 50 miles (into Illinois). They’re still not competing.”
Jones was particularly impressed with the conduct of Bomber Nation.
“We encountered some unruly fans from other schools,” he said. “There are some fans from other schools who are not as kind or aren’t as abiding as our fans. Local schools near us are not as accepting of the rules.”
As for Jones’s role in RCHS’s ability to stay open, he said he left it to the professionals. He summed it up with a quote from one of his favorite authors, Jim Collins, who wrote a business preparedness book titled, “Good to Great.”
“He said, ‘You surround yourself with great people and then you get out of the way.’ That’s been my philosophy and my approach at the high school,” Jones said. “I’ve got great people and I just get out of the way and let them do great things. Without all of these people, this year wouldn’t have gone the way it has.
“I’m looking forward to saying we made it to the end then have a nice little break.”
While many teachers will take a well-deserved break this summer, a handful will help prepare for next year.
The high school math department will develop and implement a plan for a new assessment tool called USA Test Prep.
USATestprep, LLC is recognized as a nationwide leader in curriculum resources and test preparation for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools.
It has been helping students with high-stakes tests since 1998 and offers a multitude of review products for subject area end-of-grade, end-of-course, graduation level, career readiness and college entrance assessments. Programs are tailored to both individual state and/or Common Core standards.
“At the high school level, assessing has been challenging because they’ve had years and years of standardized testing and it gets to the point for a lot of them that they don’t see the validity of a standardized test,” Jones said.
The state of Indiana decided this year that the SAT will be the new accountability test for the junior class in 2021-22. Jones believes the SAT wasn’t designed to be used that way, but the corporation will look at ways to help students ease into this new form of standardized testing.
“We reviewed some programs and Test Prep looks like a tool we can use more than one time,” he said. “We can incorporate it into our curriculum as an ongoing tool for us … to make sure our kids are ready for the SAT, but also to make sure they’re ready to advance on to other math curriculums.”
The school will also become more sensitive to a students’ social and emotional needs as it relates to learning, Jones said.
Lori Desautels, assistant professor at Butler University, will meet with teachers and school officials June 7 to discuss ways to address the needs of these type of students.
“Prior to the pandemic, this was becoming a hot topic,” Jones said. “We have a lot of kids walk in — not just in Rensselaer but across the state — that experience trauma at home. Trauma on different levels: whether it’s single-parent homes, living in poverty, the struggle for food. Whether they’ve seen violence, whether they’ve seen drug use, you can name numerous experiences that our kids have experienced. And we’re seeing more and more of that. Now throw a pandemic into this and it’s caused a major need for us to sit back and look at the social and emotional needs of our students.”
Jones invited members of the school board to attend Desautels’s presentation as well.
“It’s just a lot of great information that we can use to springboard us into this social and emotional component. That can then, in turn, improve student achievement as well,” he said.
Jones also took a moment to recognize two members of the 2021 senior class: Will Messman and Aidan Geleott.
Messman was recently named a National Merit finalist and is an academic all-star as voted on by the Indiana State Principals Association.
Geleott, meanwhile, is a 2021 Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship winner.
“Just to brag here a bit, I’ve been principal for six years now and that’s six out of six that we’ve had a first or second,” Jones said. “The last four out of six Lilly winners have been Rensselaer graduates.
“That just speaks volumes for the type of kids we have here at Rensselaer.”