Firelands preps for first day of school

Firelands superintendent Mike Von Gunten

Firelands superintendent Mike Von Gunten

Firelands superintendent Mike Von Gunten superintendent Mike Von Gunten

Mike Von Gunten isn’t daunted by the job ahead.

With the Firelands Schools set to open their doors for classes Sept. 1, the new district superintendent was all smiles Monday as he sat down to talk about what the year will bring.

“We have a lot of new faces, a lot of new energy in the district right now. Some of the initiatives with professional development we’ve offered, new electives, new resources – it’s a great school district,” he said. “We’re sort of a hidden gem.”

Von Gunten, 38, has the advantage of familiarity as the year kicks off: Not only is he a 1995 graduate of Firelands High but he’s spent the past three years as the district’s curriculum director.

Understanding the mindset and traditions of the community makes the transition easier, he said.

Students will find other new leaders this fall.

South Amherst Middle School has a new principal in Cara Gomez, who spent the past decade-and-a-half working at Lorain middle schools.

Colleen Mudore has been hired away from Westlake to serve as the new assistant principal at Firelands Elementary.

Also, Bryan Drost will take on Von Gunten’s former role as director of curriculum development at the central office. A former Shaker Heights Schools administrator, he holds a doctorate in the field.

Where instruction is concerned, the major change this year will be in the realm of testing.

Gone is the PARCC exam. So hated was the new Ohio standardized test that scores upon scores of Firelands parents withdrew their children from taking it this past winter and spring.

PARCC’s replacement, the American Institutes for Research test, promises to be shorter and less stressful for young learners. Von Gunten said AIR won’t cut into February instructional time to the huge degree its predecessor did.

The new test looks much like the Ohio Achievement Exams kids took just a few years ago.

“No doubt kids are still going to be assessed. But it does look like the same time frame we had two or three years ago, where the length of the test is concerned,” Von Gunten said.

There are any number of new resources this year at Firelands.

Students can expect to see a balance in fiction and non-fiction offerings in classrooms and school libraries. Von Gunten said there had been some criticism that instruction had moved away from literature and he wants to make sure it is still offered in spades.

Teachers will also experiment with more differentiated instruction.

That entails breaking students into groups based on their needs, so that if some learners need more time or help with a given lesson they can get it.

“This is about less ‘cookie-cutter’ instruction,” Von Gunten said. “The goal is to make sure we’re doing a better job personalizing learning to better meet the needs of kids.”

At Firelands High, students will have the opportunity to by spring earn up to 35 semester hours of college credit, which is a drastic increase over prior years’ offerings. The aim is to increase credit-earning opportunities to 45 in the 2016-2017 school year.

Sixth- to eighth-graders will have a new science, technology, engineering, and math elective through Project Lead the Way (a Lorain County JVS tie-in) and Von Gunten said about 150 more Chromebook computers have been purchased for use throughout the district.

Firelands is also gearing up this fall for a big push on the November ballot to fund construction of a new school.

Educators need to raise $26.6 million through a levy — which amounts to roughly a $17 per month tax increase for every $100,000 worth of property district residents own.

If Issue 22 passes, the district will get $6.2 million from the state for a new sixth-through-12th grade building on Vermilion Road.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.