THREE OAKS — The River Valley Board of Education gained a new superintendent, a middle/high school assistant principal and athletic director, four teachers, and a bus driver during its Aug. 23 regular meeting.
The Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a superintendent’s contract with Dr. Steven Disney (the position was offered to Disney during the Aug. 9 board meeting).
“I just can’t say enough how excited and happy I am,” Disney said during the Aug. 23 meeting. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity and I look forward to serving the kids of River Valley and all of our parents and working with staff.”
Disney also introduced his wife, Carrie, a media speciaist who has been a teacher for 29 years.
Disney is the former Superintendent of the River Forest Community School Corp. in Indiana and current interim superintendent for the East Chicago district).
Following the meeting, Board President David Whitlow said the three-year rolling contract (under which the board, at its discretion, approves the contract yearly, for the next three years) includes a starting annual salary of $130,000. He said Disney is scheduled to start serving as River Valley superintendent on Oct. 18.
Board of Education members also approved a contract to hire Charles Richards as Middle/High School assistant principal and athletic director.
Middle/High School Principal Ryan Portenga called Richards “an amazing addition to our team.”
Richards said he has been a middle school English teacher and high school varsity track and cross country coach in the Berrien Springs District for the past six years (prior to that he spent two years in the South Haven district).
“I’m looking forward to meeting each and every student,” he said, adding that being there as students in the sixth through 12th grades successfully move along on their educational journey “is a remarkable opportunity.”
And the school board on Aug. 23 (all by 7-0 tallies) agreed to hire: Middle School science teacher Nicholas Payne; Middle/High School Spanish teacher Melissa Smith; Middle/High School social studies teacher Jessica Pugsley; and Middle/High School English teacher Stephanie Stedman. The consent agenda portion of the meeting included the hiring of bus driver Penny Sanders.
Portenga said three of the new teachers are from Indiana, one is moving up from the teachers aide level, and another is from Virginia.
“All but two of our staff members volunteered to be a part of all the different hiring processes this year,” he said.
During his report to the board, Portenga introduced a Helping Hands Project designed to connect upper-class high school students with sixth- and seventh-graders as peer mentors.
He said data on sixth-graders at one point during the pandemic showed 60 percent were failing or had D grades in two or more classes.
“The majority of it was because we asked 11-year-olds to be virtual, in-person, virtual, in-person, I forgot my laptop at home, I forgot my laptop at school … it’s clunky, it’s a mess,” he said.
Portenga said during an exploratory visit to the Camden-Frontier schools (sparked by the River Valley district’s plans to combine all grades in one facility) officials learned that Camden-Frontier has 50 peer mentors working with their younger students in a program that shows a positive aspect of having different age levels in the same facility.
“We’ve got to have inherent leadership being developed from a younger level,” he said.
Portenga said the Helping Hands Project was presented to the staff earlier on Aug. 23.
“I would say it was warmly received, they knew it’s needed,” he said, adding that the biggest hurdle involves many of the student leaders at the high school level being out of the building in the morning for CTE, early college and Math/Science Center.
Portenga said so far 22 students (including some ninth-graders) have begun training for the program, which ideally will have a one-to-three ratio.
“I’m excited to see it off the ground, a lot of people on staff a compete buy-in today. And hopefully we have some positive things to report to you in December or January,” he said.
Interim Superintendent Andrea van Der Laan provided an update on plans to transform the current middle/high school building into a facility that also can house elementary students, pointing out features of a map showing the latest plans to create an elementary wing developed by a steering committee.
“Now the Skillman Corporation is going to go back and put together an estimate to make sure that we’re still within budget before we start the design and development phase,” she said.
She said the tentative schedule is to break ground in the spring of 2022 and have the facility “ready to move in” by Christmas of that year.
In another Aug. 23 matter, the Board of Education supported a Return to Learn Plan for 2021-22 and also approved a resolution authorizing the superintendent to adjust the plan throughout the upcoming school year (which begins Aug. 30 for River Valley) to comply with Berrien County Health Department and CDC guidelines (van Der Laan noted that the Health Department updates its guidelines every Friday).
Earlier in the meeting van Der Laan said at this point wearing masks would be “strongly recommended” under the plan at the start of the school year, adding if masks are mandated by the Health Department the district would have no choice but to comply due to district policies. She also said that there appears to be evidence that masks can be a positive force in limiting the spread of COVID, but they also may also have negative impacts on reducing oxygen and affecting concentration if they are worn for long periods of time.
van Der Laan said rules regarding athletic competitions will be aligned with MHSAA recommendations, and the number of visitors to district buildings may be limited.
She said although the Health Department currently shows the Berrien County in the “red” high-transmission level, the schools are expected to open in-person.
“What they’re also going to be looking at is the strain on the health-care system,” she said, adding that it is not currently considered overloaded in Berrien County.
A series of audience members commented on the face mask issue during the meeting, calling for parents to be given the choice as to whether their children wear masks in school. Other opinions voiced on the subject ranged from “I want everyone to have their own choice if they would like to wear masks or not” to “The science is telling us that, mask or no mask, it’s inevitable that every child at some point is going to have to have COVID, and they’re all but guaranteed to survive it.”
Also on Aug. 23, the Board of Education OK’d a bylaw to allow for a student representative to the board.