Back to School

How much do you know about what’s going on in your school district? Unless you have children in school, more than likely your only connection is paying school taxes.

If you fall into the clueless category, all I can say is that you have a lot to learn. I’m sure if you returned to the high school you attended, you wouldn’t recognize the place, as most schools have grown tremendously over the past 40 to 50 years. And, you’ll discover the curriculum is radically different – schools in Lancaster County have moved far beyond the 3 R’s and have incorporated technology, innovation, ingenuity and humanity into the learning process. Trapper Keepers have been replaced by iPads.

Before the 2017-18 school year came to a close, we asked four public school districts and one private school to share a unique aspect of their curriculums with our readers. They included Penn Manor, Manheim Township, Conestoga Valley, Cocalico and Lancaster Mennonite. If you fear for the future, fear not. The students we met were focused, involved, talented, creative, polite, friendly and the list goes on.

Those attributes have resulted in recognition from U.S. News & World Report, which has conducted a Best High Schools in the United States survey since 2007. This year more than 28,800 schools were assessed; a record 10 Lancaster County schools made the national ranking and national recognition lists, with Penn Manor leading the way. The rankings are as follows:

The rankings are based on college readiness and take into consideration such factors as reading and mathematics scores, graduation rates, and participation in advanced placement and international baccalaureate exams, as well as other criteria.

Lancaster Mennonite School … Fine Arts

Stats: Lancaster Mennonite, which is a private, Christian-based school, consists of several campuses, including Lancaster Mennonite School (grades 6-12), Locust Grove (grades PreK-8), New Danville (grades PreK-5), Kraybill (grades PreK-8) and Hershey (grades PreK-12). This year, 146 members of the Class of 2018 – representing 18 countries – graduated from LMS.

Many believe the ability to express oneself through any art form is a God-given talent. Lancaster Mennonite fully embraces that belief, and in an age when the arts are victims of budget cuts, its students and faculty are grateful that the fine arts are deemed important to the educational process.

Dean Sauder, who has taught theatre and Bible classes at Lancaster Mennonite for the past 17 years, explains that the arts have always been an integral part of the Mennonite community. “A cappella is at the core of Mennonite music,” he says, explaining that those seeking religious freedom centuries ago often conveyed their stories through a style of music that is choral based and sung without instrumental accompaniment. That tradition continues today through the school’s nationally recognized Campus Chorale group, which performs both locally and internationally. “We also incorporate music from many cultures,” explains Marcella Hostetler, who serves as the Fine Arts department chair.

Dean and other faculty members are grateful that the administration has taken steps to ensure the arts will always be a vital part of Lancaster Mennonite. He maintains that because the arts are thriving in Lancaster, students are viewing them in all-new light. “Here, you can be cool and involved in the arts,” he says. “It’s now at the point where kids are coming to me and asking to be involved in our drama productions.”

Lancaster Mennonite has its own arts center, the Calvin and Janet High Fine Arts Center, which was built in 1994 and features a 1,300-seat auditorium, music-practice rooms and art studios. “It’s a beautiful space; we’re very proud of it,” Dean says.

How important are the arts to Lancaster Mennonite students? During our visit to the Lancaster campus, we met several students who are actively involved in various facets of the arts.

Willa Beidler, who will be a senior, is involved in voice and drama and starred as Dorothy in last year’s production of The Wizard of Oz. She’s also a member of the school’s choir and took piano lessons for a period of time. She traces her interests back to childhood, explaining, “I knew all the songs from Oklahoma by the time I was 3. I’m a huge fan of musical theater.” She says enrolling at Lancaster Mennonite was a family decision that was based on several criteria: It’s a smaller school that offers a faith-based curriculum, with teachers providing students with individualized attention. She plans to further her arts education on the college level.

Noah Schnabel, who will be a junior, followed his older siblings to Lancaster Mennonite as an eighth grader. He loves the school because it allows him to explore “so many elements” of his interests in both the arts and science. He began taking singing lessons in seventh grade and is now working on his acting talents as a result of the positive experience he had performing in the school’s production of Into the Woods.

Then, there’s Javon Thomas, a rising senior who is originally from New Jersey. After completing sixth grade, his family was of the opinion that a smaller school would best suit his academic needs. “We had this talk, and when Lancaster Mennonite came up in the conversation, I said, ‘Please don’t send me to a Mennonite school,’” he shares. Nevertheless, Lancaster Mennonite was his next stop. On a whim, he tried out for the choir and amazed everyone with his voice. Next, he auditioned for a role in The Wizard of Oz and won the role of the Scarecrow. “I regret not being involved in drama earlier,” he says, noting that he hopes to pursue the arts in college.

We also met Mengtao Jing, who hails from China and will be attending the University of the Arts in Philadelphia this fall. He has been at Lancaster Mennonite since his freshman year and lives with a host family. (There is a special dorm for foreign students who wish to live on campus.) “I like Lancaster a lot,” he says. “It’s totally different from China – I like how green it is and the fresh air.” He portrayed the Tinman in The Wizard of Oz and performed all of his lines in Chinese (subtitles were provided for the audience). Through a program offered by Millersville University, he took part in a pre-college music program and shares that his future as a vocal major can be attributed to his mother. “She was a singer, and I remember her singing to me all the time,” he explains.
Rein Wenger has been a musician since kindergarten, when he began taking piano lessons. At Lancaster Mennonite, where his mother is a teacher, he joined the band as a freshman and became an accomplished trumpet player, earning spots in both regional and district band competition. He is also a member of the school’s Brass Quintet. His next stop will be Thaddeus Stevens, where he plans to major in electrical engineering. “But, I’ll stay with music, as well,” he says.

Mica Nieves followed her brother to Lancaster Mennonite. She is multi-talented as she is a muralist, song writer, singer and pianist. For the Art in Action initiative, in which students were challenged to design a mural that would convey the theme that music has the ability to transform lives, Mica, who won the competition, brought her mural to life in one of the piano practice rooms. “Music gives you life,” she remarks. Her next stop is Messiah College, where she plans to study political science.

Bethany Bronkema was also in the practice room. Her family moved to Lancaster when she was in the sixth grade and liked the idea of her attending a smaller school. She became involved in the choir and the band and, together with Mica, Sydney Esch and Kate Kindelberger, formed the indie folk group, the Radiettes. They’ve performed at venues around the county and are working on their first CD. Now that they have graduated, they hope to continue performing together. “We’ll all be in Pennsylvania, so we’ll see what happens,” says Bethany, who will be off to Swarthmore College in the fall, where she plans to study environmental sciences and engineering.

Whether their students pursue a future in the arts on the college level or go in altogether different directions, Dean and his colleagues are proud of the talents that have emerged at Lancaster Mennonite. “Even if you don’t pursue it as a vocation, the arts can be a life-long interest,” he says.

Manheim Township High School … Cyber Seniors

Stats: The school district includes a high school, middle school, intermediate school and six elementary schools. In 2018, 448 seniors graduated.

No, the “Seniors” reference in the title does not apply to students in grade 12. It refers to the township’s senior citizens.

Cyber Seniors is a national program that began in Ohio and has spread nationwide. Its premise is simple: High school students mentor senior citizens as they learn how to connect to technology. Sharon Schaefer, who is the principal at Brecht Elementary School and helps to facilitate Manheim Township’s Cyber Seniors program, credits the district’s superintendent, Dr. Robin L. Felty, for bringing the program to the township and making it a district initiative. Cyber Seniors is also part of the student-community relationship that was the subject of the superintendent’s March online blog, “Students Serving Others & Making a Difference.” In the blog she wrote, “Student-community relationships help to build character, positive identity, self-esteem, resiliency, and an understanding that all voices matter.”

Giving back is an integral part of Manheim Township’s mission to “nurture and challenge” its students. Last session’s mini-Thons raised $151,060 for the Four Diamonds Fund. The school’s Key Club donated 4,029 hours to community endeavors, which was the second-highest in the state. Other student-led and student-supported activities have raised funding and awareness for an array of causes.

When a proposal for reaching out to senior citizens was discussed, the Cyber Seniors program was deemed a perfect fit. After all, today’s students are tech-savvy and have the ability to navigate computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones with ease. Many senior citizens, on the other hand, find technology to be both challenging and mystifying. (The reason why members of the Greatest and even Baby Boom generations are tech-challenged can more than likely be attributed to the fact that they left the workforce just as the computer age was dawning.) But, put students and seniors together, and magic happens.

In establishing the program, advisors speculated that there would be little difficulty in attracting senior-aged students, as five senior-living communities are located within the township. Relying on members of the high school’s Tech Team to step forward, the school invited its student body to volunteer as well. The program required yet another partner to supply a location and, because so many of the district’s senior residents are regular visitors to the Manheim Township Public Library, it made one of its multi-functional rooms available. “They’ve been an awesome partner,” says Sharon.

Yet, another component of making the program work centers on the support of parents. “This is an after-school extracurricular activity,” Sharon explains. “While the district transports students to and from the library, students who don’t drive need transportation to get home, and that falls to the parents.”
Training sessions are held prior to each of the four-week programs, and some unexpected volunteers have stepped up, including the football team whose members were onboard for the spring session. “When Coach Evans heard about it, he told the team, ‘You guys are signing up!’” district spokesperson Marcie Brody reports. “We hope to get the spring sports teams involved during our next session. It’s just a wonderful way for our students to give back to the community.”

And, the senior community has responded. As soon as the spring session was announced, residents enrolled. “We had a waiting list,” says Marcie. “Landis Homes even had a van transport their residents who enrolled in the class. And, Brethren Village has expressed interest in having us set up a class on their campus.”

Students are paired with seniors on a 1:1 basis. The seniors are welcome to bring technological devises – laptop, iPad, smartphone, etc. – they find to be a challenge. Ninety-two-year-old Dolores Stehman, who was paired with freshman Billal Gomaa, got an iPad last year, but she had no idea how to use it. “Part of my family moved to Georgia, and I wanted to stay in touch with them,” she explains of her attempt to do so through technology. She loved working with Billal. “He’s so patient – I really learned a lot!” she exclaims.

Computers were totally foreign to Addie Karl, until her husband shared information he had read about the class. Addie signed up for the class and immediately bought an iPad. She was especially interested in learning about email, so students tutored her. She was thrilled when she sent her first email to a friend and was excited to share the news with them that she received a response.

Other seniors have requested help with downloading forms, games and music. Some want to set up social media pages and learn about apps. They’re also curious about online shopping. At the end of each class, advisors share pertinent information with the seniors, notably how to protect themselves in cyberspace, how to detect spam, etc.

While the subject matter is high-tech, the students are learning some very elementary skills that will follow them through life. “The kids are learning so much,” says Sharon. Yes, they are learning the art of teaching, but they are also engaging in social skills such as conversing with an older generation and greeting a person with a handshake. They are also mastering patience. As one senior told me: “My grandchildren tried to teach me how to use a computer, but they talked too fast.”

Marcie marvels at how fast relationships develop. Because so many families move to other parts of the country (or world) for career opportunities, children often can’t establish relationships with their grandparents. This program provides the opportunity to bond with that elder generation. “I had so many seniors from the class ask if they could give their mentors thank-you gifts,” she notes. “I told them that is very generous of them, but this is a volunteer project.” However, volunteering does not go unnoticed. “Volunteer work is noted on a student’s transcript,” she explains.

The dedication and progress of the senior-aged students are also acknowledged. At the end of each session, participants receive certificates that congratulate them on their accomplishments.

Cocalico High School … Media Center

Stats: The Cocalico School District includes a high school, middle school and three elementary schools. This year, 276 seniors earned their diplomas.

Libraries are so old-school. At Cocalico High School, the Media Center combines print with cyber. It’s become a destination where students can learn, create, collaborate and relax.

Whoa! This place is cool! It definitely has all the bells and whistles to keep a generation that grew up with technology fully engaged. At Cocalico, that starts in kindergarten, when students learn to use iPads, and continues through high school, for which students are given their own laptops. Seniors can even take part in Service Learning, an elective that allows them to share their technological skills with students and personnel in the district’s other schools.

The Media Center even looks high-tech, thanks to its modern Jetsons-inspired furniture. According to Librarian (or perhaps that should read Mediator) Ginger Mickey, students love to come into the center during their Focus Period (Study Hall in old-school parlance) and do research, be creative in the Makerspace lab or simply sit and read a book or even leaf through a newspaper or magazine. Yes, you read that right! This new generation has gained an appreciation for the look and feel of paper! “It’s a place to relax, but it’s also one that nurtures independence,” she points out. “It’s the wave of the future – there’s something for everyone here.”

The Media Center made its debut in the fall of 2017, taking over space that was once dedicated to the library and computer labs. It was made possible in great part by the Cocalico Education Foundation, which funds a variety of educational and community programs each year. Areas of focus include Technology

Initiatives, notably the Media Center; Classroom Grants, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math); Books to Grow On, which encourages parents to read to their toddler through kindergarten-aged children; Cocalico Family Fund, which helps families facing financial, medical, school-related challenges; and Scholarships, through which seniors are given monetary awards/grants to further their education.

For the past 12 years, a large part of the foundation’s funding was raised through a culinary extravaganza called Iron Chef Cocalico – chef’s competition, People’s Choice contest, cooking demos, live/silent auction – which was held at the high school each March. To date, the foundation has raised more than $200,000 through the event. (What is being called a “bigger and better fundraiser” will replace Iron Chef in 2019.) Appropriately enough, the foundation’s impact on the district’s students and families was on view during Iron Chef Cocalico 2018, as the Media Center was open to the public. (District residents can use the library on Thursdays from 3-5 p.m. during the school year.)

Visitors were in awe by what they saw. In addition to the library (12,000 titles fill the shelves), the Media Center is home to a television studio (complete with a green screen), spaces in which classes can utilize technology for a special project or even where various classes can collaborate on a shared project, a teleconferencing room and the ultimate destination: a Makerspace lab that is equipped with computers, a 3-D printer, iPad and scanner, a vinyl cutter, virtual reality headsets, computer programming equipment and more. “We’d like to expand this space to include artistic creativity of all kinds,” explains Brad Kafferlin, whose teaching career began in music and evolved into him becoming an instructional tech specialist. He names sewing machines and looms as possible additions.

While technology can be used to create artful elements, Mr. Kafferlin remarks that only humans possess the ability to be makers. Humans also possess the ability to express their emotions through creative outlets such as writing, art and music. “Robots are emotionless,” he points out. However, when technology merges with the human touch, artistic expression can be taken to an all-new level.

The fact that Cocalico nurtures its students’ creativity is evidenced in the artwork that decorates the Media Center. “We want this center to be an outlet for all kinds of creativity,” he says, adding that parent support and student input are vital components of its ongoing success.

Students Dan Main, Jamie Zamrin and Skyra Heckman, all of whom graduated in May, became regular visitors to the Media Center during their senior year. They especially like the Makerspace, notably the 3-D printer they used to create everything from decorative water bottles to bookmarks and even art/logos for windows/doors. When asked if they were aware they possessed such talents and had the ability – or even desire – to execute designs and translate them to the high-tech printer, Jamie and Skyra emphatically answered (in unison) “No!” Jamie says she’s “learned a lot through trial and error.” Skyra echoes that sentiment, saying, “I learned the most from making mistakes.”

Dan says that prior to his senior year, he rarely used the library, pointing out the imposing furniture and rows of high bookshelves “were not welcoming. The chairs weighed a ton and were hard to move,” he says.

The good news, according to Ms. Mickey, is that usage has doubled. “The Media Center looks different throughout the week, depending on who’s using it and how they are using it,” she says. Demand requires that teachers must now reserve space for classes and special projects. Its popularity led to the launch of a Robotics Club whose members involve themselves in independent projects. The Media Center has also proved to be a hit with autistic students. “They grow and shine through working on collaborative projects,” she reports. Students have taken part in virtual-reality field trips through the Media Center.
Both students and faculty are excited by the prospect of more subject areas being introduced to the Media Center (as well as the new flooring that was being installed over the summer).

And, it seems that technology will be on the menu in the high school cafeteria thanks to the digital signage that is on the planning board (and will hopefully expand into the middle and elementary schools). This new initiative has gained the support of the Cocalico Education Foundation whose ultimate goal is for the district’s students to apply “academics to real world skills.”

Conestoga Valley School District … Volunteers in Action

Stats: The district is comprised of a high school, a middle school and four elementary schools. In 2018, 300 seniors graduated.

What makes a school district function efficiently? In the Conestoga Valley School District, volunteers are part of the equation.

Forty-three years ago, a parent in the district saw a need and devised a plan to solve it. The result was Volunteers in Action (VIA). Through the program, interested citizens can volunteer in Conestoga Valley’s various schools in a range of capacities. “Volunteers devote an average of 11,000 hours a year to the schools,” says the program’s district-wide coordinator, Amy Horst. Today, VIA boasts more than 200 volunteers (all of whom have the required security clearances). Of the 200, Amy estimates that 60 are active and engaged on a regular basis.

While the program does save the district money, the real beneficiaries are the teachers and students. Volunteers allow the teachers to concentrate on their jobs, as they help with behind-the-scenes tasks such photocopying, laminating, etc. They also provide students with the extra attention they may need. Amy adds that VIA does not involve fundraising.

We visited Brownstown Elementary, where volunteers Brenda Williams, Karen Alexander and Diane DeChristopher assist Librarian Karen Weimer with such tasks as checking out books, keeping the shelves organized and returning the books to their proper places. The threesome donates 60 hours a month to the school. Brenda, who is a retired teacher, has been volunteering off and on at Conestoga Valley for 37 years. “I did it for my kids and came back for my grandchildren,” she says, noting that her grandchildren now live in Florida, but she remains devoted to Brownstown. “Kids energize me, and I love children’s books, so the library is a good fit.”

Diane, who is Brownstown’s volunteer coordinator, has donated her time for the past nine years; she has been in the library for the past five years. “I just enjoy being helpful,” she says. “I’ll help wherever I’m needed.”

Karen, who has two children attending school in the district, has been a VIA volunteer for three years. “I love to see the kids grow,” she says. She also appreciates how “warm and friendly” Brownstown Elementary is.
Down the hall in a kindergarten room, volunteer Linda Nauman was helping Mrs. Ditzler’s class with a project. It was Grandparent’s Day, so excitement was in the air. “I get to see a lot of progress being made, as well as a lot of lost teeth,” she quips. She’s been on the job since the mid-70s, “always at Brownstown,” she notes.

According to Amy, volunteer opportunities are varied and can be as in-depth as being a classroom assistant or a once-and-done activity such as chaperoning a school event or class trip. Volunteers can also assist with clerical work or help with special events such as Health Screening days, Back-to-School night and Teacher Appreciation events. “Each school is different,” Amy notes. But, the outcome is always the same: Through volunteering, parents are afforded the opportunity to be a part of the education process.

Penn Manor High School … The Virtual Reality of Farming

Stats: The district is home to a high school, two middle schools and seven elementary schools. In June, 371 members of the Class of 2018 received their diplomas.

Travel through the Penn Manor School District, and you’ll notice two things: It’s far-reaching, and there are a lot of farms, some of which are among the oldest in the county and have been home to generations of families.

Penn Manor students who grew up on those farms are proud of the tradition they plan to carry on. In addition to gaining on-the-job experience, the 230 students who are enrolled in the district’s agricultural education program are learning how technology is impacting the industry via computerized tractors, hi-tech ID tags for cows and even drone surveillance of fields.

That pride is reflected in a project that can be seen worldwide – Farming for the Future in Lancaster County, PA – which students created through Google Tour Creator. For this “tour,” Google allowed a select number of schools in the country to test drive new technology – including the newest VR goggles and a Poly web interface – to create 360-degree tours of their chosen subjects.

Penn Manor students had previously participated in Google-sponsored Expedition Virtual Reality tours and, along with Diane Glock-Cornman, who teaches agricultural and veterinary sciences, noted that farming had never been showcased. When the Tour Creator project was announced, they took their idea of showcasing farming to Technology Specialists Judy Keller and Shelby Foster, who then prepared the application. Google liked the topic and designated Penn Manor as one of the 36 schools that would work with the new technology.

In order to create a polished and professional product, the extracurricular project required the input of writers and designers and, therefore, students with an interest in communications and graphic design were also invited to participate. The community also supported the project, as many family farms and other ag-related businesses opened their doors to the students.

The participants were excited to show the world what farming entails and chose to include such topics as dairy farming, landscaping, erosion control, greenhouses and family farming traditions. The panoramic photos are interspersed with pop-up explanations and in some cases, other photos. For example, Blake Rohrer, who lives on a dairy farm, took the lead on photographing farm equipment. Damian Krieder, whose family operates a mulch farm, oversaw the scenes of a mulching operation. Clara Hess, who lives on a dairy farm, helped formulate the dairy farm scenes, while Kyle Bushong, who also lives on a dairy farm, wrote the copy for the segment. Others who brought their agricultural know-how to the project included Emily Aukamp and Laurel Barley. Valentina Zamora represented the district’s English department and worked on text for the project. Elizabeth Broderick wrote the copy about water waste. Jadyn Coble, who is in middle school, took photos, with assistance from Max Bushong. Isaiah Stoltzfus, a commercial art student, also brought his talents to the project.

The collaboration created a camaraderie that seldom occurs. According to Judy, “Kids were involved who would never have had the opportunity to interact. I think the non-farm kids now have an appreciation of agriculture.” Diane, who was an advisor for the project, maintains that the students’ passion for the project brought focus to the fact that farming Lancaster-style is a family affair. “People often miss that fact,” she says. “What the students achieved through this project helps to drive that fact home.”

The finished project impressed Google for Education personnel. Students and advisors were amazed to learn that Google wanted to send a film crew to Lancaster to create a video about the making of Farming for the Future in Lancaster County, PA. Over a three-day period in late April, the students showed the Google team “their Lancaster.” At some points, the crew deferred to the students’ guidance on how to properly videograph what they were being shown. “To have them ask Isaiah how they should be approaching something was incredible,” says Diane. Lisa Mayo, an advisor from the English Department, says, “To experience the film crew and visit from Google was beyond anything we expected.”

And, the students proved to be perfect hosts. “One day after school, they took the crew to Pine View Dairy for ice cream,” notes Judy.
The resulting video aired May 9 to coincide with the global release of Tour Creator. Kyle Bushong appreciates the opportunity the students and their school were given to not only work with new technology but to share an industry that is the backbone of Lancaster County with the world. “This land is highly valued,” he says, referring to not only the viewpoint of his generation of future farmers, but also by “the many generations that lived here before me. This is a great way to get the facts out there about what we do.”

To view the student’s project and the Google video, visit https://technology.pennmanor.net/awards.

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