A year ago, Hillcrest Academy announced it would move forward on long-discussed, never acted on plans to add middle school grades to what has been a high school since its founding as Iowa Mennonite …
A year ago, Hillcrest Academy announced it would move forward on long-discussed, never acted on plans to add middle school grades to what has been a high school since its founding as Iowa Mennonite School in 1945. On August 23, those plans became reality as 24 sixth-grade students entered the school’s doors for the first time.
To prepare for that moment, two 6th grade teachers were hired: Beth Swantz, a veteran elementary school teacher as well as Hillcrest board president, and Megan Walsh, a recent college graduate.
Three additional staff members were added as well: a para educator for the 6th grade, and two half-time learning supporters, one of which will also teach family/consumer science half-time.
Use of school space had to be reconfigured. The high school math classroom was relocated so that the 6th grade could have its own wing, which is comprised of two classrooms and a new bank of lockers. For the most part, 6th graders will have their own space and their own lunch hour, separate from the high school students.
Outdoors, new facilities manager Ledru Miller built a gaga ball pit (a variant of dodgeball) from old bleachers salvaged from a gym upgrade two years ago.
“A lot of work has gone into preparing for this,” Principal Dwight Gingerich said, noting the contributions of those who serve on the middle school committee who made this year’s class of 6th graders a reality. “It’s been really great working with this outstanding group of people.”
Swantz was one of those people.
“I’ve been really involved in this whole process,” she said. “To see it actually become reality is incredibly humbling and also incredibly exciting.”
The 6th grade will function as a single class with two teachers, Swantz and Walsh.
“Our plan is that I will be the primary teacher for reading and for science, and Megan will be the primary teacher for social studies and for math,” Swantz said.
The two of them have spent the last few weeks preparing for their new students.
“We’ve been working in our rooms pretty much full time,” Swantz said. “We’re trying to make it as welcoming and as cozy as possible,” she said, explaining that rather than create typical high school classrooms filled with rows of desks, they’ve created spaces filled with flexible seating and fun colors “that the students can take ownership of.”
“One of our real goals is to have them feel like they belong,” Swantz continued. “We really are going to work hard to build a community. These students are coming from four or five different school districts, so some of them know one another, and others don’t. We’re going to really work on those community-building skills that will help them as they go through the next several years.”
Swantz hopes that the community will want to be involved in their classrooms this year.
“I think one of my other goals this year is to see how many community people we can involve in our classrooms in a variety of ways,” she said. “We really are open to the community, and we hope to share through the students’ eyes what’s going on through social media.”
So far, the community has turned out to help Hillcrest prepare for the new 6th graders. Volunteers helped Miller build the new lockers, which was “a major project,” Gingerich said, as each locker required some 60 screws/hardware to install. People also contributed books so that the new students could have their own grade-appropriate library.
Gingerich is excited that the school will have a new Family and Consumer Science (FCS) teacher this year, Joanna Gonzales, who is relocating from the Philippines.
“We’ve not had a program for the last couple years,” he noted, explaining that FCS teachers are hard to find, especially since locally only Iowa State University has a program to prepare teachers in that area.
In addition, Gonzales is the school’s “first crack at an international teacher,” which has required considerable time and effort to make happen.
She isn’t, however, the only teacher relocating from abroad to teach at Hillcrest; Sara Brenneman, who is originally from this area, will be returning from Malaysia to provide half-time learning support. She has been running a school in Malaysia and will continue to do so remotely.
As Hillcrest enters the 2023-2024 school year, it’s enjoying a boost in enrollment: in addition to the 24 sixth-graders, 20 freshmen, 26 sophomores, 25 juniors, and five seniors will attend classes this year. The total number of Hillcrest students is a neat 100, up from 59 students last year.
“It feels like there’s some momentum,” Gingerich acknowledged. “People are excited to jump in and work together to see what we can do.”
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