By Cindy Larson

COLUMBIA CITY — It may have been the first day of school for Whitley County Consolidated Schools, but this year will also include a series of “lasts.”

This is the last first day of school at the old high school at 600 N. Whitley St.

Next year, the high school and Eagle Tech Academy move into a new building in a new location south of town on SR 9. The new school will be about 250,000 square feet with another 18,000 square feet in outbuildings. The total cost of construction is estimated to be $68.1 million.

The old building is going to be demolished, said WCCS Superintendent Dr. Patricia O’Connor, who sat down recently to talk about the new school year. Realizing that many former students may have a sentimental attachment to the old school, a “Goodbye Party” is planned for April 18 for the nearly 60-year-old school. Plaques also will be sold with pieces of the old gym floor.

Construction is on a 2.5-year schedule, and is slated to be finished in early spring of 2020, although it probably will be later spring, O’Connor said. “I go out every week. I really like to see the progress.”

But as she keeps an eye on progress at the new school, O’Connor is also focused on the present. Safety is a top priority for the 2019-20 school year. Entrances at Indian Springs Middle School and Northern Heights Elementary School have been reconfigured so visitors must stop by the office before going into the school. They’ve also added a school resource officer, so there will be two to service the four elementary schools, middle school and two high school buildings.

All teachers will now have a way to summon emergency help immediately in their classrooms, thanks to new technology. More security cameras have been added in all buildings.

In addition, WCCS staff can now do immediate background checks.

Security features also have been added to buses. When a student gets on a bus, attendance is automatically taken. And substitute drivers will be able to turn on software that shows them during routes and stops.

Every building has a safety plan, and each school has safety drills. But “you have to be careful,” O’Connor said. Kids need to know what to do in an emergency without causing fear and anxiety. “There’s a real fine line there,” O’Connor said. “I think it does have an impact on the kids.”

O’Connor also talked about the new state-standardized test, called ILEARN, designed to measure student achievement and growth against new state standards. A writing team of WCCS teachers is developing new guides for teachers to teach to the new standards. “This is a big project,” O’Connor said. “So much rides on it. It’s a high-stakes test, tied to teacher performance.”

Students’ mental health issues are a concern, but O’Connor said funding for additional staff is an issue. The school system has three counselors for 1,100 high-schoolers and two counselors for 800 middle-schoolers. She said the best approach to identifying and helping students with mental health issues is for teachers and kids to forge strong relationships.

Another initiative she is excited about is a collaboration between WCCS, Smith-Green Community Schools and Whitko Community Schools. Whitley Works is a big project funded with a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment. The program introduces high school students to local business leaders who introduce students to different vocations and careers. In turn, local businesses can help shape the workforce they will need for the future.

O’Connor first noticed a problem when she asked graduating seniors what their plans were for after high school. Many said they didn’t know.

“That bothered me,” she said. She became aware of a gap between what schools are doing and what businesses want schools to do.

Last year was the first year. Participants came into ninth-grade classrooms to teach soft skills. This year, the now 10th graders will go on tours of local businesses. In subsequent years, juniors and seniors will be placed in internships.

Hopefully, the outcome will be a local workforce better matched to local businesses’ needs.