New year brings new changes to Lewistown School District

Jenny Gessaman
A group of well dressed school staff stand on the rows of cement steps leading into a red brick building.

From left to right, the new staff include (front row) Pamela Roberts and Sue Nefzger; (second row) Tace Patten, Emily Burk and Shelby Giannini; (third row) Tim Nefzger, Jodi Henderson, Angela Archuleta and Nycole Devers; (back row) Banner Hecht, Brittany Summerhays, Ciera Rash and Jayme Roberts. Curtis Cauffman, Alex Lamb, Jennifer Tolzien and Danny Wirtzberger are not pictured.

Photo courtesy of Lewistown School District

A district snapshot
While both new staff and new room arrangements are changing up what name goes where, Lewistown School District Superintendent Jason Butcher is confident everyone is ready for school to begin.

He clarified the moves between rooms, and between buildings, only affected elementary grades.

“Kindergarten and first-graders will all be in one building for the first time, and that will be at Garfield,” he said. “Grades two, three and four will be at Highland Park.”

While some of the grades will see new buildings, all of Garfield Elementary saw a new way to start the school year this week. Butcher reported the school’s teachers held goal-setting meetings Thursday and Friday, with actual classes starting Monday.

“The meetings are to talk about what kind of goals you would like to see for your students and open those lines of communication,” he explained.

Changes are not limited to just elementary grades, though: District-wide, schools will be welcoming new staff members at all levels, including administrators and teachers.

”We have 11 new teachers this year, and a couple of paraprofessionals,” Butcher said. “That’s kind of average for us, 8-10 each year.”

There will also be three student teachers gaining experience in Lewistown.

Musical chairs
Matthew Ventresca knows the history of grade school switches goes back farther than this summer. The Highland Park Elementary Principal pointed back to 2009, when Lewistown adopted full-time kindergarten.

The move meant all kindergarteners had to be present at once, increasing the need for space and creating a kindergarten class at Garfield. From there, growing enrollment led to two and then three kindergarten classes there, in addition to the original three at Highland Park.

The continued rise in student numbers pushed the matter to a head.

“Some teachers had suggested having the kindergartens together in previous years, but it wasn’t something we were ready to tackle,” Ventresca said. “Last year, with the addition of another kindergarten, really stretched us.”

He explained both space and supplemental services were at their limits. So the district decided to house all kindergartens under one roof, and to make student transition easier by putting kindergarten and first in one building, and second, third and fourth grades together in another location.

Ventresca saw staff members putting in extra time to prepare after the switch. So did Garfield Elementary Principal Matthew Lewis.

“The reality is every kindergarten through fourth grade classroom got moved over the summer,” Lewis said.

Garfield and Highland Park opened their doors to teachers July 25, two weeks early, to give extra time for classroom setup.

Lewis added teachers were not the only ones with extra work: He explained that while instructors boxed up their classrooms, custodians and maintenance staff actually moved the materials and the furniture. He said, considering most of Garfield’s teachers were new to the building, the summer brought a lot of work.

Despite the extra effort required, Lewis has already seen improvements from the moves. Lewis pointed to the ability of same-grade teachers to collaborate.

“I think even just the conversations that have happened in the past couple days have been nice,” he said.

Although the move has helped, Lewis reported the increasing enrollment trend is keeping teachers on their toes.

“We’re busting at the seams,” he said. “We currently have five and a half kindergarten classes and five and a half first grade classes: We had to create a combination K-1 class.”

Garfield Elementary reported a kindergarten enrollment of 112, and a first grade enrollment of 100.

Moving In
While the two other elementary principals are moving around, new Lewis and Clark Elementary Principal Danny Wirtzberger is just moving into his role.

The educator sports a wide background of experience. Wirtzberger started his career as a fourth grade teacher in Havre before moving on to coach at the high school varsity and college level. He earned a master’s in education administration from MSU in 2011, and spent the last two years as Laurel High School’s athletic director.

 So why Lewistown, and why elementary?

“I missed working with elementary kids,” he said.

Wirtzberger called his time as a fourth grade teacher his favorite job, and was excited to return to working with younger students. The town itself was also a draw for the new principal, his wife and his children.

“There’s a lot similarities with the types of towns my family has had its target on,” he said. “It has the small classrooms that you like in rural Montana, and Lewistown’s big enough to have the amenities of larger places.”

Wirtzberger added Central Montana was also an ideal location for someone with family all over the state.

Lewis and Clark Elementary has been welcoming, he said, and he was happy to start working with what research has shown him were some of the best educators in the state. Part of Wirtzberger’s work so far has been to look ahead.

“My goals for this year would be to build relationships with all the teachers students, staff and community,” he said.



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