The Jackson R-2 School District is looking ahead to the future, as both the school district and the Jackson community continue to grow. The district has more than 5,700 students this year, with enrollment projected to continue to increase in the coming years.
“We are continuing to grow, which is awesome,” Superintendent Scott Smith, who joined the district this school year, said. “We are known for providing a good, quality education to our students, and I would much rather have a district that is growing than a district that is declining, but it also creates some issues.”
The district is currently in the process of creating a new strategic plan, which will cover the next five or six years. The district’s last strategic plan, which was approved in 2016, led to realigning building grade levels, the “One 4 One” technology initiative, service learning across the district and the “Prop J” facility improvement projects.
“Even though we have recently had some building projects and added classrooms, we are already starting to see our buildings getting full,” Smith said. “As we look towards the future, we can see that our buildings are going to be maxed out once again in the near future.”
Smith said the two buildings that are currently seeing the most growth and larger class sizes due to space concerns are the middle school and high school – despite both receiving expansions in 2018 that added classrooms as part of the “Prop J” projects.
“Those facilities are already full because of the number of students,” Smith said. “As we look at our projections, it looks like our growth is going to continue, so we are going to prepare for that.”
Smith said Jackson Junior High School is currently not maxed out because of the recent $6.1 million project that was completed last summer. The project included a 11,754 square foot addition to the junior high, which added a new library media center and a new band room last school year. Other renovations at the junior high completed in 2020 included a new entrance vestibule and new offices for school counselors.
The project was completed in summer 2021, when the renovation of the previous library and band room led to an expanded choir room, new special education area, added classrooms and an expanded cafeteria.
“At this point we have wrapped that project up,” Smith said. “We used some more of our space that we had at the school, and it truly is a great learning space now for all of our students,” Smith said. “We hope to have a celebration and show the renovations off sometime this summer or in the near future.”
Smith said the district is currently on track to approve a new strategic plan by the beginning of next school year. The district administration is currently meeting with staff members to receive input before meeting with families and other community members through April.
“Throughout this process, we want to get goals that are supported by all stakeholders,” Smith said, adding that student input will also factor into the strategic planning process. “They are our business,” he said. “Students are who we work with and who we want to serve, so the student’s voices will be a key component that we’re going to be listening to.”
By the end of April, the district plans to form a representative group of around 50 individuals who will finalize action plans for the district. The plan is then scheduled to be presented to the school board in July for final approval.
Meredith Pobst, Jackson R-2’s chief marketing and communications director, added that a clear direction and themes were able to emerge from the 2016 strategic planning process that helped the district grow through the implementation of the plan. “We achieved all of the goals that were set out six years ago,” Pobst said. “We were able to mark every single one of them off, which is amazing.”
“I really feel like the strategic plan is going to be one of our guiding principles that we follow,” Smith said. “We want to get our stakeholder’s input so we can have goals that truly represent our community. I feel like the district is a good representative of the community, so we want to make sure we value that in what we do.”
As COVID-19 numbers have decreased substantially in the district in recent months, Smith said it had been a challenge to educate students during a pandemic, but ultimately has been a success.
“As we spoke with professionals and looked at the rates of our COVID numbers, we feel confident that what we were doing was successful and kept students safe,” Smith said.
As of the latest school board meeting on March 8, only six students were COVID-19 positive or were taking precautions due to COVID-19 exposures. No staff members were affected by COVID-19 at the time.
“One of the huge accomplishments of the past year was being able to stay in school this year with COVID-19,” Smith said. “We have worked very hard throughout the process to deal with COVID and to be able to deal with the different situations as they came our way.”
Smith added that the district has been able to lean on the technology improvements they have made in the past few years, including the use of individual tablets for each student. “Being able to utilize our technology to the capacity that we are currently is phenomenal,” he said.
Smith said it has become apparent that virtual learning is not as good of a tool as in-person classes, but it can help students stay engaged in their education and not fall behind. The Jackson school district used six virtual AMI (alternate method of instruction) days this school year due to illnesses and weather.
“As bad as COVID was, I think as an educational institution, it has taught us all so much about flexibility,” Smith said. “We’ve had a pivot; we’ve learned that we can do things differently and have students be successful, so I think we’ll always carry that with us.”
Though the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has not released annual performance reviews on school district’s academic performance for the past two years due to COVID-19, Smith said the district has still been able to identify
“We feel like we’re still doing very well,” Smith said. “As we looked at our state test scores, we did extremely well in most subjects and content areas. There are a few areas that we’ve had to hone our skills in this year, and we’ve taken a deep look at what we are doing and what we can do better.”
Smith said one area the district has tried to improve this year is math at the middle school level, making sure standards were being met and support structures were in place for the students who needed it.
“As a district, we made sure that our math standards throughout the grade levels were being taught and being mastered, because it’s an accumulation of learning throughout the years,” Smith said.
The district added a new math and reading curriculum two years ago at the elementary level. Smith said they have already seen improvements in student’s reading skills and he expects to see improvements in math as well. “It takes a few years to start seeing the impact that a new program has,” Smith said.
Smith added that the negative academic impacts of COVID-19 are still being felt in classrooms across the country. “I feel like we have put certain things in place to try to combat that effect and get our kids back to the position that they need to be, but we’re continuing to reevaluate those impacts and effects,” Smith said.
Seniors at Jackson High School are the first class to go through all four of their high school years at the high school. “We’re excited to get their feedback on entering high school through new eyes as freshmen,” Pobst said. Previously, freshmen were located at the junior high school.
DESE reported that the high school’s graduation rate, which measures how many students graduate within four years of becoming a freshman, has remained steadily above the state average – with Jackson having a 95% rate in 2021 compared to the state average of 89%.
Smith said the high school currently has programs to help students graduate with 42 college credits – covering most general education courses needed for a four-year degree. In addition, the district is looking into expanding its technical school program, with the hope to prepare students to join the workforce soon after graduation.
“We want to offer opportunities for students to gain the skills they need to be successful, but we want to start that early in life,” Smith said. “We want to be able to start offering them opportunities to see different careers all the way through their education, and that’s something we will continue to work on.”
Smith credits the district’s strong extracurricular and sport programs for helping students be engaged in their education. “I call it their hook,” he said. “The number of students that we have participating in extracurricular programs is just remarkable, as well as the quality of the programs we are able to offer. I think when we say excellence, that’s what Jackson represents.”
With a $4 million lawsuit payment earlier this year and anticipated increased costs as the district grows, Smith said the district is doing everything they can to keep a balanced budget and make sure the needs of students are met.
“I think we are still solid financially,” Smith said. “We are still able to provide good learning opportunities for our students, but the continued growth that we are having does provide challenges to our budget.”
Smith said it is difficult to keep their salaries competitive for its 900 staff members, replace older school buses and keep the district’s fund balance reserve at a healthy level.
“I anticipate we will probably end the year with about a 12% reserve in our fund balance,” Smith said. “We’d like to have a reserve of around 18-20%, so we are lower than we would like to be.”
Smith, who has 24 years of education experience and most recently was the superintendent for Gasconade County R-1 School District in Hermann joined the district in July as its new superintendent. He replaced former superintendent John Link, who retired after six years at the district.
“I feel very blessed to be here, in what I consider to be the best district in the state,” Smith said. “We have excellence here, that’s our motto for the year, and I feel like our staff members truly live up to that. They show excellence in everything they do, and they go above and beyond.”
Smith said one of his major goals this year has been to listen and learn from staff members and community members to gain feedback on the district and learn more about the perception of the district.
“I started the ball rolling with coffee conversations with staff members at all of the buildings and having informal conversations about what is going on in the schools,” Smith said. “Now the strategic planning process has given me the opportunity to ask more questions and get true feedback on what they feel like we’re doing really well and what issues exist.”
Smith said the district has been able to address many of the smaller problems that have come up, while larger problems will be considered in the strategic planning process.
Another priority of Smith’s was to increase internal communication across the district. Smith writes an internal newsletter every month, informing staff members of recent hires, retirements, school board meetings and other district news.
“This has been a great year and a great transition,” Smith said. “We have a great team here that we want to continue to build on.”
The district recently announced that Janelle Pope will join the district’s administrative team as the new associate superintendent of secondary education and human resources next school year and Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy will move over to the finance director role for the district.
Pope is currently the principal at Jackson Middle School, a role Lacy also held before joining the district’s administration team in 2013.
“Mrs. Pope brings to the table her love of kids, her experience and an understanding of the hiring process,” Smith said, adding that he is excited to see Pope implement the district’s improved hiring practices – including a screening process for teachers and forming hiring committees.
“When hiring a new principal or another administrator, we want staff representation on the hiring committee because they know their building and they know its needs,” Smith said. “I’m excited to be able to see those transpire.”
In addition, the upcoming school year will see a restructuring of the assistant principal roles at the elementary level. Historically, Orchard Drive Elementary School and South Elementary School have shared one assistant principal who would split their time between the two schools.
“We are adding an assistant principal this year, so one will be at Orchard and one will be at South,” Smith explained. “The assistant principal at South will also cover Gordonville Elementary School part-time, which will allow East Elementary School to have a full-time assistant principal.”
The district is also adding five new counselor and behavioral support positions in the coming year to address student’s social and emotional learning needs.
“That’s a huge step for our district to be able to provide those resources to our students,” Smith said. “I’m excited to see these changes take place and these little changes can have a huge impact for our students.”
The Jackson R-2 School District Foundation raises funds for Power Packs, the Hope 4 Christmas event, special project like sending students to Boys and Girls State, scholarships and teacher grants.
Pobst, who also serves as the foundation director, said the foundation was able to give out $40,000 worth of teaching and learning grants to Jackson teachers this year. The grants cover extra educational oppertunities for students like field trips or classroom supplies that are not covered by the school.
“We normally give the grants away around Christmas, but this year we changed it to be at the back-to-school breakfast in August,” Pobst said. “We had a lot of great feedback from our teachers and business leaders at the breakfast because they were able to see what teachers from all the different schools received. We will continue to do that this upcoming year.”
Due to not having the Red and Black Affair in 2021, there was less funding for the teacher grants, but Pobst said she is hopeful to see that amount rise in August. The foundation also gives away around $30,000 in scholarships each year.
The foundation’s Power Pack program provides weekend meals and snacks to students at home. Pobst said the foundation is continually fundraising for the Power Pack program and need $19,000 in donations to fully fund the program through the end of the year. “We continue to need help and are always seeking business support, since it’s outside of the district’s budget.”
Smith said the foundation helps the district in its focused on caring for the whole child and making sure their needs are met – whether it be through academics or making sure they have enough food
“Our number one job is to care for kids and everything we do and that’s what I feel like we do so well as a district,” Smith said. “In every decision we make, we ask what is best for the students. I’m very pleased with how things are going and I appreciate all the community support.”