As the year begins, Johnson County school districts welcome new technology, buildings and principals

08/12/2014 3:04 PM

08/12/2014 3:04 PM

Returning to school after summer break may be an old routine for most students, but this year there will be plenty of “new” in Johnson County’s schools to liven things up. New construction is beginning in several districts, along with the completion of more secure entrances. Some schools will begin a new focus on learning through technology.

In some schools districts, the newness will extend to principals and administrators.

The Shawnee Mission School District, for example, will have new principals and associate principals at 18 of its 43 schools this month.

In Blue Valley School District, four principals and associate principals will change posts; in Olathe schools, eight will change.

While Shawnee Mission’s numbers may look high, the changeover this year is actually not far from normal, said Leigh Anne Neal, district spokesperson. Turnover seems to come in waves as some administrators reach retirement age, she said.

The number of new principals is not all due to turnover, she said. In many cases, the administrators are moving from one Shawnee Mission school to another, starting a domino effect of replacements.

But sometimes a new principal comes from outside the district. Such is the case with Mike Brewer, the new principal at Broken Arrow Elementary School in Shawnee. Brewer comes to Broken Arrow from Liberty schools, where he was executive director of elementary services.

Brewer said one of the reasons he applied in Shawnee Mission is the new technology program starting this year that will put laptops and tablets in the hands of every student.

“I have seen how technology can equip teachers to teach effectively,” Brewer said. Computer-aided teaching allows more students to get the right level of instruction, he said. For instance, a third-grader struggling with reading may be too embarrassed to carry around a first-grade book. Computers and tablets take that embarrassment away, Brewer said.

Wallace Smith, president of the Broken Arrow Parent Teachers Association, said most parents are excited about both the new technology and the new principal.

Broken Arrow’s former principal, Michael Weiler, was popular with parents and kids, so Wallace said it helps that both men were on hand to talk over the change last spring. “It’s been a pretty positive transition,” he said. Weiler is now the principal at Roesland Elementary in Roeland Park.

New administrators will not be the only changes students may notice this year. Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe schools districts are all wrapping up construction to make schools more secure. After the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, police and school officials began to look for ways to make entrances more secure.

For the past year and a half, districts have been updating entrances to provide “pinch point” access, meaning that when school is in session, anyone entering will have to be buzzed in and enter through the front offices. Security work also included new cameras and enhanced fencing at many schools.

Most of that construction is now complete, say officials in the county’s three largest districts. But there will be no shortage of jackhammers and heavy equipment in most districts, just the same.

Work starts this month on a new building for Shawanoe Elementary in Shawnee. For the next two years, students there will be able to watch the progress of their new building as it goes up nearby. The new school, set to open in 2016, will be slightly larger, with a capacity of 500 to 550, and will have a gym separate from its cafeteria, said Neal.

In the Olathe district, ground was recently broken for a new high school scheduled to open in 2017. The school, at the intersection of Santa Fe Street and Hedge Lane, does not yet have a name. It will be the district’s fifth high school, said spokesperson Ann Kohn.

In the meantime, the district’s 35th elementary school, Mill Brooke Elementary at 11751 S. Sunnybrook Boulevard, opens this week.

In Blue Valley, construction is starting on new sports fields at Blue Valley High School that will limit parking for underclassmen for the time being, officials say. Heavy equipment will be parked in an area usually used by sophomores.

Blue Valley also recently opened a redone Hilltop Learning and Conference Center in Overland Park. The center is in the former First Family Church.

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