The Man with the Plans

Mike Wells, the new superintendent in the Cedar Falls School District, draws upon a wide range of experience as he begins his new job, and he hopes to be able to translate some of his best experiences into opportunities for enriching students’ options here at Cedar Falls Schools.

First an overview of his experiences. He started his educational career at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he studied social studies, history, anatomy and physiology and physical education and received coaching endorsements in several sports. “The reason I got into teaching, I thought, was because I loved coaching,” Wells said.

After graduating in 1992, Wells was employed at Anselmo-Merna. “I took a job in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. I was a social studies teacher there, and I coached football, boys basketball and track,” Wells said. After working for three years, Wells decided to pursue a masters degree. Wells’ next job was at Elmwood-Murdock (between Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.). He was an anatomy and physiology teacher, a physical education teacher and coached girls basketball, girls track and assisted football. He taught and coached there for four years while receiving his masters from Doane College.

After this, Wells took the position at Niabrara, Neb., as a K-12 principal. There he also served as the athletic director and coached all of the sports, boys’ and girls’. Following that position, Wells took a job in Corning, Iowa, as a high school principal for three years, until a minor interruption occurred. “I got activated for the Iraqi war when I was a principal. When I came back from my tour of duty, the superintendent was leaving, and I had been working on getting my specialist through UNI and received my specialist degree. When I did come back they offered me the superintendency,” Wells said.

Wells was the superintendent at Corning for six years and at Winterset for three. “And now I’ve been superintendent here for six weeks and am hoping to hold the job more than three years,” Wells said with a laugh. Wells has some new ideas for the Cedar Falls school district. “First and foremost, I think that Cedar Falls has a really good educational system. There’s no need for a real change; there’s no massive changes that need to occur because we do well, so some of these things are more of enhancements, things that we can do additional to what we currently do,” Wells said.

One to One
One of Wells’ plans for change is about technology. He comes from a 1 to 1 school. “I’m not saying 1 to 1 is the answer to everything. We’ll be talking with students and with staff. We’re actually going to be having building meetings to talk about where our technology is and what the staff would like to see. It’d be interesting to have the perspective of students [as well],” Wells said. “Currently the district’s philosophy is this Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). The high school would be able to bring their own devices and log onto the Internet, and that’s supposed to happen this quarter.” The problem with 1 to 1 is the cost. “Your looking about a million dollars a year to do that. So that’s one idea,” Wells said.

Creating Academies

Another idea is the concept of career academies, which both of Wells’ last two schools had. “I start out the conversation about career academies saying these are nothing like Waterloo’s academies. Waterloo’s academies are set up mostly for kids who aren’t going to college. Our tracks, in our academies, would be based on: if you’re going to go to college, these work for you, if you’re going to enter the workforce, they work for you,” Wells said. The district is only in the conversational stage of any academies being employed.

Language Academy

One of these academies is the language academy. A world language academy would offer Chinese, German, French and Spanish to students 7-12 grade.

 Construction Program

Construction trades would be another academy, in which students build houses for people of low to moderate income. In Wells’ last district, the bank worked with the program. “The person has to borrow money from the local bank at a really cheap rate so the banks are helping us. We [would] develop a part of town right now that maybe isn’t that nice. So everybody wins,” Wells said. Students in this academy would get hands on learning experience. “They’ll spend three or four days out of the whole year in a classroom. The rest of the learning is: your building a house, and this is how you do it. So kids would get their first year to Hawkeye’s construction trades program done and paid for completely free,” Wells said. This would be a half day program, starting at 7:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. and students would receive 15 college credits free of charge. When students graduate, they would keep their tools so that when they walk away from the program with skill sets, tools and can get a job. “ If nothing else, you want to go to college? Guess what? If you have this license, you’re going to make $15 an hour on a part time job. It’s a good opportunity,” Wells said.

Engineering

Another academy would be in engineering. Cedar Falls High School already has Project Lead the Way. “The only thing we would consider there is expanding the curriculum. There’s aerospace, which we don’t have, but we have very good engineering and robotics. Another academy ideal is electrical construction, where students would complete two of five levels and earn 12 college credits.

Marine Biology

Another popular academy is marine biology. “This is one at my prior school where it would fill up with just minutes of being open. You’ll probably be hearing about this one sooner rather than later,” Wells said. Careers that can come from this academy include marine biology, photography and underwater welding. “An underwater welder makes $500 an hour, and you can only work two hours a day because it is hard on your eyes. So you make $1,000 a day as an underwater welder, and you work two hours,” Wells said.

Tech Program

From the half-day technology academy, students have the opportunity of earning 27 college credits. “Kids would learn how to actually build computers. You walk in and ‘these are the components of the computer, build it,’” Wells said. This is an example of A Plus certification (students receive a certificate acknowledging they know how to build computers. Students would also receive software and operating systems training. “When they [students] get done with this program, if they pass all the requirements, they would have A Plus certification, CCNA certification and net plus certification. A person who has those three will make $70,000 right out of high school, and you won’t have a problem finding a job. What else does it do?” Wells asked. “It gives you 20 kids who can go through our system and fix things. These junior techies have to do practicum hours in the buildings, so they would report to the high school and the teachers would say these are the problems I’m having. These kids would immediately go to that room, fix it, teach the teacher what was wrong and move on. It’s a win, win. You have 20 new employees, and there are kids in this school that are smarter than any of us with technology.”

At Winterset there was a special education student who kept breaking into the school’s system to show he could do it, while the school couldn’t find out how he was doing it. “We finally caught him because we were able to track what computer he did it from, but he’s brilliant. And here’s a kid who is in special education and has had no success in school. This is his success; he is brilliant. He’ll make millions in his lifetime. If you don’t have these kinds of programs, those kids don’t get discovered,” Wells said. These academy specifics are all from Winterset. “People say well you’re not going to get all this stuff done. We can get it done. We are looking at phasing in these programs. We’re not going to do all 12 year one,” Wells said. “When we survey our kids, we’ll probably go three or four a year if that’s the direction we go.”

Bilingual Academy

Another change that Wells is proposing is bilingual education for K-6 and he said this is the most important of all of his ideas. “America is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t require kids to take two languages. What we’re discussing, emphasis on discussing, is starting kids in Spanish in kindergarten on up,” Wells said. This way, by the time junior high hits, students can pick a different language offered after having seven years of Spanish. “We are hoping to roll out some type of pilot this year. It will probably be some type of after school program, and then we will look at how we are going to fund a bilingual education,” Wells said. “I have meetings set up in each elementary building here in September, and if the teachers tell me that’s the direction they want to go, we’ll do it. If they say no, then I guess that kills it.” The biggest issue for the high school is the building. The cost of renovation is going to be looked at and how to solve other problems caused by the high school facilities.

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