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Principal sees Portage schools with ‘fresh set of eyes’

September 6, 2018

Change is good for Jason Meyer, even if it means correcting himself a little more than usual.

“Sometimes I say ‘John Muir’ instead of ‘Rusch,’” Meyer said on the second day of school in Portage on Wednesday. Meyer started teaching at John Muir Elementary School in 2006 and spent the past five years as its principal. Meyer, the new principal of Rusch Elementary and Lewiston Elementary, is getting used to what’s different.

“There were a few times I almost took the wrong exit off of Interstate 39,” Meyer said not long after greeting students at one of Rusch’s entrances.

Meyer and other school leaders asked students if they’d eaten breakfast that morning. If they had eaten already, they formed lines to their classrooms. If they hadn’t eaten, they formed lines to the cafeteria. It’s something schools in Portage have done for many years and is an important practice, Meyer said, since students won’t learn as well on empty stomachs.

“I’m learning lots of names today,” he said after introducing himself to new students in the school’s office.

“How many books do you have in your backpack today?” he asked a student he was leading upstairs to the right classroom. “We’ll send some books home with you to get you reading.”

Meyer’s new position is one in a series of internal moves made prior to the 2018-2019 school year. As principal of Rusch and Lewiston, Meyer replaced Nikki Schoenborn, who now serves as director of teaching and learning for grades PK-5. Jen Garrigan became the principal at John Muir after most recently serving as its dean of students.

Rusch staff seemed impressed with Meyer.

“His overall demeanor is calm and caring,” said speech and language therapist Jami Hebl, in her sixth year at Rusch and 20th in the district. “He wants what’s best for kids, and that comes across loud and clear. We were lucky to have Nikki (Schoenborn) and now we’re lucky to have him.”

“He’s a very good listener,” said Katie Egan, who’s in her fourth year as kindergarten teacher at Rusch.

One of the first things Meyer did as principal, Egan said, was ask all of the staff members what their goals would be for the new school year and whether or not they’d like to see any changes. Those early conversations with staff resulted in at least one major change: No longer is the school holding its school-wide “Rusch Rallies” in the gym each morning.

Instead, the school of about 220 students will focus on building community in their respective classrooms. The practice is officially dubbed “Responsive Classrooms,” and other than its name this was already in place at Lewiston, which holds about 100 students, Meyer said.

“Responsive Classrooms” are essentially half-hour meetings that help students settle into the school day. Meyer also records video announcements that are played during “Responsive Classrooms,” which, later in the school year, will feature the students themselves, he said.

One thing that isn’t changing at Rusch is “Buddy Families” — a group of about eight students who meet with the same classroom leader for about 45 minutes once per quarter, Egan said. Leaders enjoyed the activity, she said, which provides students with continuity, and so they’ll keep it.

Keeping what already works well is an important part of his transition, said Meyer, who embraces the chance to look at the two schools “with a fresh set of eyes.” He’s leaning on new Dean of Students NaQuisha Mann, who leads Rusch when Meyer is at Lewiston.

And when Meyer is at Rusch, he relies on fifth-grade teacher Laurie Considine and administrative assistant Bobbie Greiner to lead Lewiston.

“Empowering others in leadership roles is a big part of what I do. I’m excited to bring that to the table,” Meyer said.

Three primary goals are in place for the school district in 2018-19, Meyer said. The first is differentiating curriculum to make sure all students grow at least one grade level in all areas by the end of the school year, the second is focusing on positive and respectful behavior and the third is getting all of the staff on the same page in order to meet those first two goals.

“Every building looks at their data and hones in on what they need to work on,” said Meyer, who later that day would meet with staff at Rusch to work on those very same things.

This year Rusch sees no changes in terms of classroom leadership, which bodes well for an easy transition, Meyer said.

“Essentially I’m trying to carry on all of the great work Nikki did here. I’m not trying to upset the fruit basket,” Meyer said of his new role. “Consistency gives kids stability and makes them more apt to thrive.”

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