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Jackson R-2 Board approves counseling and early childhood program evaluations

The Jackson R-2 School Board approved an evaluation of the district-wide comprehensive counseling program during their meeting on March 9. School counselors from various schools presented at the meeting about their counseling curriculum and other duties.

Sara Pylate, one of the counselors at the junior high, talked about how the District has moved to becoming “trauma informed” over the past five years – where the schools focus on being proactive in preventing and responding to student’s trauma.

“Being a trauma-informed school and a trauma-informed team has made us really look at all of the pieces of trauma that shapes everybody,” Pylate said. “We’ve had an increase of children in foster care and there’s been a lot of things that have obviously shaped the way that students learn.”

At the elementary level, one of the ways the counselors have helped protect students in need is through the Green Bear Project, funded by SEMO-NASV. Green Bear Project is a sexual abuse prevention program that provides developmentally appropriate education on abuse.

“These kids need to hear what abuse is, so they can understand if something isn’t right,” West Lane counselor Kayleen Shaw said. “We can protect our children by educating them on how to protect themselves.”

Parents can opt out of the program, but it is strongly encouraged that students participate. “The kids love it,” Shaw said. “They can’t wait for Green Bear to come back, so it’s definitely not something that’s embarrassing for them to participate in.”

Shaw said there have been times that counselors have been able to help students that ask “red flag” questions during the program.

Sexual abuse education continues at the secondary level, with the middle school and junior high counselors talking with students about what that looks like as they enter their first relationships. “We are able to build on the program with each building that our students go to,” Pylate said.

Middle school and junior high counselors also worked with students on learning how to interact with others online safely. Students in the junior high school and high school also receive education on suicide prevention.

Charon Shy, a counselor at the high school, said they have trained the entire high school faculty on suicide awareness, and this is the second year when teachers give the presentation to their advisory classes.

“We have been able to get a lot of students the help that they may have eventually received, but we are getting it to them earlier in their life so that they don’t go through some of those traumas as an adult,” Shy said.

Shy said part of the presentation is to tell students the risk factors for suicide and what to look for in others who may be in need of help. She also said the program also helps teach students to let others know when they see these warning signs in their friends.

Pylate said their role is to empower their students and give common language to all of the “hard to talk about things” that are “the most important things to talk about.”

In other action:

• The Board approved an evaluation of the District’s early childhood program. The early childhood program services around 600 families in the district – through the Parents as Teachers program and the integrated preschool program located at East Elementary School.

“I think we have quite an amazing program,” Early Childhood Director Brooke Uchtman said. “We service a lot of the ‘littles’ in our school district to prepare them for their K-12 experience.”

About 300 students are enrolled in the integrated preschool program – which includes tuition-based “Little Indians,” Title I Preschool students and Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) students.

Uchtman said the Title I students are identified in screenings as having a slight delay or discrepancy in development, while ECSE students have more significant delays. Last year, 221 children were screened.

“Our program is growing,” Uchtman said. “Anytime we have ECSE students to serve, we do it. That means that our class sizes grow.” She added that last year they had enough students to add an additional class, but did not have the space to add one.

“We are kind of maxed in the space that we are at,” Uchtman said. “We have an amazing facility and I love that we have such a collaborative team because we are all in the building together, however we are outgrowing our space.”

Around 700 children are currently on the wait list for the Little Indians program, though Uchtman pointed out that many of those on the wait list are not yet 3 years old and therefore don’t currently qualify for the program.

She said there are about 200 3-year-olds and 200 4-year-olds currently on the list. “It’s about 200 students that are on the list and we have about 50 spaces that we can truly offer kids, and some of those are going to be a half-day space,” Uchtman said.

Superintendent John Link said he and incoming superintendent Scott Smith have spoken about possible additions to the early childhood program. Link added that Smith, who is currently superintendent of the Gasconade County R-1 School District, is a big advocate for early childhood education.

“It’s hard to build an early childhood center because there is no state funding,” Link said. “You’re spending millions of dollars on something you’re not going to get any funding for.”

Link said an option for the District to take is to build a new West Lane Elementary School and use the existing building as an early childhood center. “It would probably double your capacity by doing that,” he said.

• Two Ignite Online teachers housed in North Elementary presented to the Board about their experience with distance learning this school year. First grade teacher Jessi Cenatiempo and second grade teacher Makayla Bader both said this year has been challenging but rewarding.

“Part of our philosophy of being a teacher is building relationships with our students, and my biggest fear at the beginning was how that was going to look through a screen,” Cenatiempo said. “Now with where we are, it has been amazing to see the relationships that we have built.”

Bader, who started the year with 31 students, had the highest Ignite Online class size. She said it was tough when she started, but they have come a long way. After some changes, they have more structure to the class schedule and add reading time to their Zoom meeting.

“I know that if I don’t give them reading time at the end of the day, they’re not going to read, so I sit there and I watch them read,” Bader said.

Both teachers have implemented a rewards program where students receive points for completing assignments and participating in class. If students earn 125 points, they receive a surprise in-person visit from their teacher.

“The relationships that we have with out students and the relationships that they have with each other has been really wonderful to see,” Cenatiempo said. “I get pictures every week of the kids meeting up. They are masked and social distancing, but they are still getting to see each other.”

The teachers showed videos from some of their Ignite Online students, where the students told the Board what they liked most about going to school online.

• Director of Finance Terry Gibson said the District’s financial situation is improving, with the state releasing some of the funding they had previously withheld from the District last July. “We haven’t gotten an exact number, but we should very soon,” Gibson said.

Gibson said the District has also been allocated $2 million from the American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package that was recently signed by U.S. Pres. Joe Biden.

“It is going to improve our situation coming into the end of the year, which is great news,” Gibson said. “I think, given the circumstance that we’ve had to endure, financially the District will be in great shape.”

• Associate Superintendent of Safety and District Operations Keenan Kinder thanked the Cape Girardeau County commissioners for helping the District get their school buses out after the snow and ice last month with the use of a road grader.

“They brought the grader to the bus lot and that helped us get our buses out and get ready,” Kinder said. He added that the school used some buses that Friday evening to get students to extracurricular activities.

Kinder said they would not have been able to do that without the county’s support. “If you see a county commissioner, tell them thank you,” he said.

• Link thanked the Board for its support during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they neared the one-year anniversary of schools shutting down for in-person learning last spring.

“It’s been a long year, but we have done some amazing things for kids,” Link said. “There’s not another school in Missouri that has done a better job of dealing with COVID-19 than we have.”

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at

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