State: VASD ‘exceeds expectations’

The Verona Area School District once again received good reviews from the state Department of Public Instruction.

DPI released the 2013-14 District Report Cards Sept. 16, and VASD received a 73.4 out of a possible 100. That put the district just above the 73 minimum for the “Exceeds Expectations” category, the second-highest rating possible.

Last year, the district scored 74.4.

Statewide, 159 of the 424 school districts reached the “Exceeds Expectations” level, with only nine reaching the highest mark, “Significantly Exceeds Expectations.” Milwaukee Public Schools was the only district that “Fails to Meet Expectations,” according to a DPI news release.

The overall scores are based on student achievement, student growth, closing gaps and on-track and postsecondary readiness.

This year, VASD scored lower than last year in all four of the “priority areas,” though it was still above the state average in three of the four.


Eskrich named SOMS acting principal

A Savanna Oaks Middle School associate principal took over for the school’s principal in August due to the principal’s health concerns.

Sandy Eskrich, who has been at SOMS for four years, took over Aug. 18, according to a letter sent home to parents from principal Steve Penne and superintendent Dean Gorrell.

In the letter, Penne said he was taking a medical leave effective immediately, and that no return date had been established.

The school also appointed SOMS teacher Pete Christofferson as acting associate principal to fill Eskrich’s position.

Gorrell said he could not elaborate any further.

“That letter is about the extent of the detail that I can offer at this point,” he said in an email to the Press.


Enrollment well below projections

While the number of students in the Verona Area School District will likely grow once again in 2014-15, it might not be by much.

A preliminary count Sept. 4 showed only six students more than last year’s 5,433, listed on the state Department of Instruction (DPI) website. The district had projected total enrollment to grow to 5,500.

The number did not differentiate between open enrollees and resident students, however, a distinction that is key for budgetary purposes, as the number of resident students determines a district’s revenue cap.

Because of space concerns, the district had capped open enrollment at 55 students this spring, much lower than the nearly 100 students who are usually allowed to enter from other districts. Not all of those 55 spots are filled, either, though the district had initially received hundreds of applications.


Back to School photos

Students returned to school Tuesday around Verona. For some, it was more significant than the typical first day of school, as Country View Elementary students returned for the first time to the building and classrooms that were partially destroyed by a tornado June 17.


High school’s ACT scores reach new high

Verona Area High School’s class of 2014 graduates set a new high for average ACT scores for the school in 17 years of data.

According to figures released last week by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2014 graduates averaged a composite score of 24.5 out of a possible 36 points on the college entrance exam, up from the class of 2013 score of 23.6 and the highest since the 2011 score of 24.

Along with the score increase, district participation on the exam rose from 67 percent for the class of 2013 to 74.7 percent, the highest among the last seven years of data available on WISEdash, DPI’s information portal.

Among 19 non-alternative Dane County high schools, Verona had the fourth-highest average score, trailing Middleton-Cross Plains (25.4), Waunakee (25.3) and Oregon (24.7).


VASD: Five things to watch in 2014-15

1. Country View reopens

A 14-year-old school opening to students for another school year would not normally be a highlight.

But part of that school was decimated by a tornado less than three months earlier, leaving holes in walls and debris all around. So the prospect of children entering the building Sept. 2 has become a momentous occasion for the community.

The June 17 tornado, which also damaged nearby homes, left the district scrambling to replace the gym floor, rebuild three classrooms and sort through what items were salvageable. But VASD superintendent Dean Gorrell has been adamant from the first day that the school would be ready for students.

His optimism proved true, mostly because of general contractor Findorff’s dedication to the project, Gorrell has said, with only a short list of small finishing touches left before school begins.


Drake brings high school experience to VAIS

Photo by Scott Girard. New Verona Area International School director Barbara Drake stands in front of a map of China in one of the school’s classrooms.

For years before she retired in 2009, Barbara Drake worked to bring a Chinese program to her high school in Illinois.

She couldn’t get it mostly because of tight budgets. Instead, she’ll help bring the language to Verona students as the new director at Verona Area International School.

“If we’re going to offer French and German and Spanish, we should be able to offer Chinese,” she said of her efforts in Illinois. “When there’s 1.3 billion people speaking it, if not more, it’s just important to our country.”

Now a Fitchburg resident, she began volunteering at Glacier Edge Elementary School last school year, where she had a chance to observe the district’s new Two-Way Immersion Spanish program, more commonly called TWI.

“That’s one of the reasons I thought, ‘Wow, Chinese is even a bit more intense,’” she said.


Admin trio gets fresh start at VAHS

Photo by Scott Girard. Pheng Lee, Dan Kigeya and Tamara Sutor were all hired since May, as all three of last year’s associate principals at Verona Area High School left. They hope to bring fresh ideas to the school, and all report enjoying their short time in the district thus far.

Pheng Lee was “very hesitant to come to Verona” when he was offered an associate principal job at Verona Area High School in the spring.

In fact, he turned down the first job the district offered him in May, calling VAHS principal Pam Hammen two days before the school board was set to approve his contract.

“I knew that being an admin was going to take a lot of time, so I was like, ‘I want to spend time with my kid’ and I knew that wasn’t going to be the only opportunity I was going to get,” said Lee, whose daughter was born in June.

The position went to Dan Kigeya two weeks later, and Kigeya joined Tamara Sutor as a second new associate principal. But when another associate principal job opened up at the end of June, Hammen once again reached out to Lee, who had come to recognize it was an opportunity he wanted to take.

As Lee and Kigeya said, some things simply “happen for a reason.”


VAHS: AP enrollment demographics improving

After presenting a set of troubling statistics on Advanced Placement enrollment to the school board in December, Hammen returned to the school board with good news Monday night.

In December, she had outlined the lack of underrepresented and low-income students signing up for the college preparation classes, despite a survey that found 94 percent of VAHS students had college aspirations.

In 2013-14, 60 percent of 11th- and 12th-grade white students at a medium or high income level were enrolled in at least one AP course, while only 18 percent of underrepresented students were.

The school made it a goal to reach equity, or get each underrepresented group up to 60 percent participation.

Enrollment figures for the 2014-15 school year, following a number of outreach initiatives helped by the Equal Opportunity Schools organization, saw an increase among all of the groups, though only a few reached the 60 percent number.


Tax rate dips lower

While no non-school district employees attended the Verona Area School District’s annual meeting Monday, the updated budget brought good news for district taxpayers.

In June, when the district first proposed its preliminary budget, it anticipated a mill rate of $12.10 per $1,000 of equalized assessed value. Monday’s presentation from district business manager Chris Murphy showed that number expected to drop to $12.01.

He said that was a result of an even larger-than-anticipated increase in state aid, based on preliminary estimates from the state’s Department of Public Instruction released earlier this summer. The rate would be a more than 2 percent drop from last year’s $12.27, and would save the owner of a $250,000 home $65 on their property taxes.

However, because that number is based on equalized value, the true amount will vary from municipality to municipality within the school district.