Anson Elementary showcase

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS - BrieAnn Nielsen’s fourth grade class show their perfect attendance flag proudly at Anson Elementary School.

Running a school building means adapting to new information and to students’ needs.

That’s how Anson Elementary School Principal Ronnie Manis and his team have approached improving student attendance and wellbeing at his building.

“Every year, we continue look at ways we can serve all kids and this year we’re looking through the lens of reaching the whole child,” Manis said.

So far this year, new efforts have managed to increase overall attendance at the school compared to this time last year.

“Last year, our attendance dropped to just under 94 percent for the year, and our chronic absenteeism last year was just north of 11 percent,” he said.

Manis, school counselor Ashley Chyma and building social worker Jayden Sellers brainstormed ways to get students to the school on time every day.

“Our attendance team met every two weeks,” Manis said. “We felt we needed to change some of the processes and work on not only getting the kids there but making the kids want to be there. Some of them were changes going back to things we had done before.”

One solution was to bring breakfast back to the classroom. The students had been eating breakfast every day in the gymnasium last year, but Manis said teachers reported many students skipping breakfast to go play outside.

Manis spoke with district Director of Food Service Lynn Large and got good feedback from teachers about returning to the classroom breakfast model. Now, students are allowed to play from 8-8:10 a.m. before coming to their classroom for breakfast.

“They have a very valuable 15 minutes with their teacher,” Manis said.

He said teachers can use the time to build a positive relationship with their class and the students are able to get a meal before their class day starts.

The students are able to spend a total of 30 minutes of informal time with classmates and teachers before the day starts thanks to the class breakfasts and designated class meeting time before school.

Another way Anson students have been incentivized to come to class is with rewards.

“Every morning, we’ll go through and we’ll check attendance. If they’re there and they’re there on time, we hang these flags in their rooms in the morning,” Manis said.

The flags are red and embroidered with a Marshalltown Bobcat and the words “Perfect Attendance.” The classes also get a star for every day they have perfect attendance.

“The kids count the stars, they want to see who’s in the lead, who’s got the most each time,” Manis said. “It’s a huge motivator for kids. So far, we’re seeing positive results.”

Anson fourth-grader Alexander Cadena said he likes helping his class earn attendance stars. He and the rest of BrieAnn Nielsen’s fourth grade class tied as winners of the first quarter’s best attendance award.

“I get to learn and meet other people,” said Alexander’s classmate Thzar Lay, who said she likes the class breakfasts.

Manis said attendance stands at 97 percent, 1 percent higher than at this point last year. He said winter typically brings lower attendance across the district.

“We want to have that attendance up so we can counteract that piece,” he said.

Additionally, chronic absenteeism is currently down to 3.13 percent compared to the district’s 5.4 percent average. A student is chronically absent if they miss 18 or more days of school in a year.

Finding peace

Another recent change at Anson has been to convert former “seclusion rooms” for students experiencing behavioral challenges to “peace rooms.” The seclusion rooms were used to give students a place to calm down and talk to staff about how they feel and their behavior, and the peace rooms add comforting elements to the spaces.

“It’s very simple things, but they are things that are calming. It is an area where a student can feel safe and feel comfortable and find a way to calm down,” Chyma said.

The peace rooms are kept at low light and students can find items like weighted blankets, coloring pages, bean bag chairs, yoga mats, fidget toys and more.

“There is a timer in there. The kids have a choice of setting the timer for 10 or 15 minutes, it gives the kid at least 15 minutes to calm down and get to a point where they’re able to discuss what happened,” Chyma said.

Manis said he researched peace rooms being used in Illinois and said those schools had positive results from their use.

“We know it’s not going to be successful with every child, but our goal is to try to help as many as we can in as many different ways as we can,” he said.

STEM focus

“Anson Elementary was awarded a Making STEM Connections program from the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council,” said Anson Extended Learning Program (XLP) teacher Nicole Holman. “That’s allowed us to start our own makers’ space at the school.”

Tools and gadgets like 3D pens, small motors, alligator clips, electric tape for paper circuits, robotic blocks and other building kits are some of the STEM program items. Sewing machines, hot glue guns and other items were also included, and students are encouraged to both build freely and through guided instruction.

“I use this a lot with my XLP students, but the great thing about this is it’s available for all students at Anson, not just the XLP kids,” Holman said.

For more on Anson Elementary School, visit https://www.marshalltown.k12.ia.us/schools/anson-elementary/

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com