New board members share priorities for CF Schools

This school year the Cedar Falls School District has experienced a lot of change, including three new school board members who are bringing new perspectives to discussions about curriculum revisions and plans for a new high school building.

Eric Giddens and Sasha Wohlpart are two of the new members of the board. They both have backgrounds in environmental science and teaching. Currently Giddens is a program manager at the Tallgrass Prairie Center and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

“I think that we are very fortunate to have all of the offerings that we have for our students in the Cedar Falls School District. One thing I would love to see more opportunity for is learning about energy issues. I work with the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at UNI, and I’d love to collaborate with the school district to provide more opportunities to educate our students about energy production and use and the associated environmental impacts,” Giddens said.

Wohlpart moved from Palm Beach, Fla., to Cedar Falls. She spent eight years as an instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University and seven years as a high school science teacher in Palm Beach County, Fla.

“My teaching experience in Palm Beach County Fla., was in environmental science magnet programs at two different high schools. This model could be used in Cedar Falls, particularly in the elementary and middle schools, to promote diversity, school choice and increased access to innovative curriculums,“ she said.

The biggest new change Cedar Falls Schools is making is the shift to standard based grading in the curriculum, both said.

“I think that the movement toward standards-based grading will make assessment more equitable. Ultimately, this addresses the central purpose of school. School is about learning,” Giddens said.

Although it is a new way of looking at grades, both said standard-based grading will help students better understand every subject they learn.

“Standards-based grading, in my view, is a more accurate measure of student learning than the traditional approach. It considers student understanding of concepts and allows for feedback that may help students work towards mastery of those concepts,” Wohlpart said.

In order to expand students’ participation in global culture, the option to start a foreign language in eighth grade rather than in ninth grade is now offered in Cedar Falls Schools. According to  longitudinal studies by Harvard, learning a second language at a young age increases critical thinking skills, creativity and that the overall benefit of starting a second language at a young age increases mind flexibility. Cedar Falls is starting to move in that direction, which is something that Giddens said is a good idea.

“All students should have an opportunity to learn a foreign language in our schools.  Learning a language gets harder with each year that passes in life. We need to integrate foreign languages into our curriculum as early as possible so that many of our students are functionally able to communicate in another language by the time they graduate from high school and some are fluent,” Giddens said.

Giddens experienced first hand how even earlier language instruction can benefit students.

“My son learned some Spanish when our family lived in Honduras during his second and third grade years, and, sadly, he has lost most of it to some degree because he now has to wait until he is in the eighth grade to resume his Spanish instruction in school,” he said.

Wohlpart agreed on the value of foreign language instruction, but she said the biggest challenge is funding.

“Supporting language programs can be expensive, especially when done well and when implemented throughout the entire K-12 system. The plan in Cedar Falls, as I understand it, is to expand language opportunities to the elementary grades over time.  The rate at which this occurs will likely depend on available resources,” Wohlpart said.

Another priority for Wohlpart is updating the school district’s facilities.

“My vision for the Cedar Falls School District is that every child in the district has equitable high quality educational opportunities. A major challenge that we face in meeting this goal is the need to upgrade our facilities, including our outdated high school.”

Giddens said he is ready to address the issue of a new high school to help the ongoing issue of increasing enrollment in Cedar Falls.

“We need to develop and plan and get going on it as soon as possible. What the finished product will look like will to some extent be determined by the process that we have to go through with the community, but I am a strong believer that this process has the potential to bring our community closer together around something that we can be proud of, aka a new high school, and I am excited about that,” Giddens said.

With many issues to tackle, both Giddens and Wohlpart are ready to implement their ideas and support into the district.

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