Principal offers views on academies, new high school ballot issues

‘A very exciting time for us as educators’

Jefferson City High School principal Jeff Dodson visits with Kezia Martin, left, and Tayler LePage after school Tuesday and finds out the details of their recent basketball activity.

Jefferson City High School principal Jeff Dodson visits with Kezia Martin, left, and Tayler LePage after school Tuesday and finds out the details of their recent basketball activity. Photo by Julie Smith.

As principal at Jefferson City High School, Jeff Dodson has one of the best vantage points for understanding the challenges facing teachers, students and the larger community, whose future success depends on a well-educated, skilled workforce.

On Monday, Dodson sat down with the News Tribune to explain how he envisions the seven new career academies will function. He also chatted about the issues local voters may want to consider as they head to the ballot box on April 2.

On that day, voters will be asked if they want to issue general obligation bonds — which would increase local taxes an additional 30 cents — and raise the operating tax levy by 25 cents.

The 30-cent increase would generate a revenue stream that would allow the district to issue $79 million in bonds, money that would be used to finance a new high school east of Missouri 179 and a new elementary school on the city’s eastern end.

The 25-cent increase in the operating tax levy would generate an additional $2.5 million for the district, funding that would be used for transportation, security, technology and professional development.

Q. What do you feel are the three biggest advantages to creating the seven academies?

DODSON: The biggest advantage — from our perspective — to the academy concept is a concept that will allow us to create small learning communities, and it will also personalize the learning experience for all students. Maybe the most important piece is it will allow each student to have the benefits of attending a high school that has a small-school feel, while still having the benefits of all that a large high school has to offer. We feel like it’s the best of both.

Q. Why do we need to build a new high school?

DODSON: We need additional physical space and facilities to provide the best experience for students and staff.

Q. When seniors graduate from high school, what challenges do you see them facing as they head to college, the workforce or the military? Are they prepared to enter this tough economy?

DODSON: High school graduates have to be college and career ready. It’s really a combination of their learned experience, coupled with good soft skills, or communication skills. I think, for us, we want to make sure they can master the content material in each subject area, and they need to learn how to collaborate with others and how to communicate. And also, to be able to be provide customer service as they present themselves.

In short, they need to learn how to be valuable employees and colleagues.

Q. What are the biggest challenges you face managing the high school every day?

DODSON: Collectively, all educators are faced with working to maintain traditional practices that work and transitioning to some current practices that are much needed to better prepare high school graduates. The thing I’m most concerned about with our current facilities is it’s more difficult, from a safety standpoint, because there are a lot of entrances in and out of the high school. And those multiple entries and exit points are more difficult to secure and monitor carefully.

Q. Do you favor one high school or two?

DODSON: This will ultimately be left up to our voters. On a more personal level, my family supports the committee campaign to maintain a single high school that is divided into seven equal parts, or seven academies.

Q. Regarding the planning of the academies, what kinds of tasks are you working on this month? How far along in the planning process is your team?

DODSON: We continue to meet with our business partners, teachers and parents to put together a more viable plan. Although these plans began nearly three years ago, the plans at the building and district level have evolved into almost daily tasks. The administrative team is working hard to assist with the committees at several levels to make this a smooth transition. It’s become more of a daily ritual for our administrative team to plan accordingly.

Q. Regarding academies, I often hear people say: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at age 15. Ninth grade is too young to select a career-oriented course of study.” I also hear people say: “There’s value in a generalist, liberal arts education. I’m worried we’re losing that.” When you hear people express these concerns, how do you address them?

DODSON: The administrative team continues to remind our parents of the flexibility that is necessary to ensure that students are successful, despite what model is used to educate our children. In addition, I don’t think at any point we are asking our students to commit to a career at an early age. We are only asking that students choose an academy that seems more in line with their interests. And regardless of which academy a student attends, he or she will still have a high school diploma and can enter the work force or pursue any course of study at a college, university or technical school.

And so we continue to remind our parents that there is some flexibility involved.

Q. Regarding the construction of a single high school, many people feel the new school will be too populous. They worry it means too many students will no longer have the opportunity to participate in traditional high school experiences, like band, football and drama. How do you address those concerns?

DODSON: The site visits have assisted many of us with how this transition worked for similar districts across the country. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to being a large comprehensive high school. Our goal is to learn both from the positive experiences at those schools and find ways to avoid some of the pitfalls they’ve experienced. There are also advantages and disadvantages to attending a small high school, as well.

With the academy model, we have the opportunity to capitalize on the advantages of both small and large high schools.

Q. Do you think the new high school will improve the district’s ability to focus on science, technology, engineering and math? And is that a worthwhile goal?

DODSON: Yes! I do feel that this particular academy will provide students with a specific pathway that is more rigorous and relevant.

Q. If our community doesn’t build a new high school now, what repercussions do you believe will result from that choice?

DODSON: Well, obviously we’re at capacity as we speak. To think of future growth ... I’m concerned about that as well.

We will have to begin working on Plan B to implement the academy concept into our existing campus.

Q. How will a new high school advance the quality of education for the students? Can you compare and contrast what it will be like to establish academies in the current high school, as compared with a new campus? Will you be able to build academies here, in the old building, as easily as you will in the new building?

DODSON: Despite whatever the bricks and mortar look like, we know we need more space to accommodate the needs of our learners. And I do believe the best plan is to start with a new campus. There are many advantages to making certain that the instruction specific to the classrooms is the driving force behind how that physical space is constructed. I know our current facilities are certainly dated and lend themselves to a more traditional educational model.

And I would hope, with new facilities, too, that we can — from a technology standpoint — not only be more innovative, but also ensure all seven academies are equipped with the necessary technology to provide our students some 21st century skills to be more prepared for college and career readiness.

Q. If the new school is built, and the academies are organized, what will the new principal management structure be like? Will you assign an assistant principal to each academy? What will happen to the department chair positions?

DODSON: We’ve already begun to work on how we’re going to assign administrators, teachers and support staff. There will be an associate principal in each of those seven academies. This does not depend on the bond issue. The associate principals are currently working with central office staff to assist with the planning process. They’re leading the academy planning meetings, specific to each of the seven academies. As we transition, we’ll have a great deal of time to properly plan and make those decisions at the appropriate time.

Again, we’ve already assigned administrators as associate principals. In addition, the teachers have already been assigned to a given academy. There will be changes made in the future to best place students and staff. But the planning will be an ongoing process.

It’s a very exciting time for us as educators.

Q. In our current system, students are somewhat segregated by age, especially the freshmen. In the academy system, it’s possible that those age distinctions might be blurred to a greater degree. Is that a good learning environment for students?

DODSON: Yes it is. Our goal is to work to better mentor younger students. The best-case scenario is to have our seniors working with our younger students. We plan to develop a strong senior mentoring program and peer mediators to assist as the freshmen and sophomores transition from one grade level to the next.

Accompanying photo: Jeff Dodson

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