Watch now: Olympia Middle School earns unique recognition | Local Education

STANFORD – Olympia Middle School teachers credit the district’s willingness to adopt up-to-date instructional techniques and technology as key reasons why it is considered a Horizon School to Watch.

“Despite being a rural school, it’s always been on the cutting edge of learning practices and technology,” said math and English teacher Heather Schwarting.

Olympia Community Unit School District sprawls over 377 square miles in parts of DeWitt, Logan, McLean, Tazewell and Woodford counties. The middle school in the McLean County village of Stanford was first designated a School to Watch in 2018, and its status was renewed this year.

Having a centrally located middle and high school in the district makes it easier to see his friends, said Noah Walsh, an eighth-grade student at OMS. His father, Assistant Superintendent Andy Walsh, was the school’s principal when it first earned the designation.

The school district has become a hub for small towns in the area, Schwarting said.Eighth-grade math teacher Jenn Love agreed. “It’s really an extended family to me,” she said.

Lilly Eller, 13, a sixth grader at Olympia Middle School, talks with teacher Lexi Wiegand, during her advisory class, Wednesday, April 13, 2022. The class is designed to help students learn to talk with each other and be able to express feelings.


Science teacher Jake Steve has been involved in a mentoring program that pairs new and experienced educators. Besides additional advice on teaching, the mentors also help their colleagues with the odd little things employees need to learn when they start a new job, Steve said.

The curriculum the teachers use has also evolved, Love said. Working with the regional office of education, the school has implemented a new curriculum that helps students think about math in more abstract terms through the increased use of manipulatives – objects that help students understand concepts .

Noah also pointed toward some of the same curriculum-based initiatives at OMS that the teachers said helped the school teach students.

“My favorite thing though is probably the standards-based grading,” he said.

The grading model gives students grades on a scale for specific standards within a subject, with the grades ranging from low scores for showing little understanding of the topic to the highest, showing full mastery. The breakdown of the individual standards helps students know what is expected, Noah said.

He’d like more flexibility in choosing elective classes, though, partly so he could take the same classes as friends. This year, he took a business class, which taught him about common tools like Microsoft Office. Students in the class also got to do a “Shark Tank” -style business pitch.


Sixth grader Addy Tackett, 11, center, talks about what she does during snow days as classmates Kama Kashner, 12, Phoenix Shelton, 12, and Ellie Cook, 12, listen during their adivsory class at Olympia Middle School, Wednesday, April 13, 2022


English is his favorite core class, “just because I love reading so much,” he said. He hopes to attend the University of Notre Dame and become a lawyer working with engineering firms.

The School to Watch designation is managed by The National Forum for Middle-Grades Reform, which has given it to schools in 18 states.

Olympia is the only middle school in McLean County to receive the designation, which must be renewed every three years. A group from the school will be going to Washington, DC, in June to be recognized and to lead a workshop.

Around 30 other middle schools in the state have received the designation at some point. At least three new schools were added to the list in 2022, along with five other schools being re-designated as Schools to Watch, including Olympia, according to the Association of Illinois Middle-Grade Schools.

When Principal Mike Jones started as principal last fall, he learned the school would need to reapply for the designation to continue.

“I felt a huge responsibility to carry that torch forward,” he said.

The process includes a written application in the fall and then a site visit early next year for schools that move on to the next round of consideration, Jones said.

“It’s a daylong visit where they get to see pretty much every inch of your building,” he said.


Olympia Middle School teacher Natalie Springer talks with Briannah Stine, 13, during the seventh grade advisory class, Wednesday, April 13, 2022.


The re-designation also looks for ways the school has grown and areas targeted for improvement. One focus for OMS has been social emotional learning for students, Jones said. That has included hiring a family coordinator, who helps families with everything from corresponding with the district to transportation to even dropping off groceries.

Jones attributed the school’s success to its teachers and other staff. The recognition speaks to the work the school district has done to bring together the eight towns it covers.

“I’m just grateful to get to be their principal,” Jones said of the school’s staff.


Olympia Middle School teacher Lexi Wiegand, left, talks with students Evan Janis, 12, and Brody Stork, 11, during their advisory class, Wednesday, April 13, 2022.


Olympia District 16 Superintendent Laura O’Donnell said the district is also proud of the school’s success.

“This staff has historically worked collaboratively to provide meaningful and authentic opportunities to students,” she said in an email. “In his first year of being the OMS Principal, Mr. Jones has continued to support the staff in encouraging the use of creative and engaging instructional strategies.”

Contact Connor Wood at (309) 820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood


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