FARMINGTON -- Farmington Junior High is finishing up two years with its administrative staff and will open the 2023-24 school year with two new expansions to the campus.
Teri Morris has led as principal since 2021-22, with Cassy Story, a Farmington graduate, as her assistant principal. Next year, Story will move across town and be the new principal at Williams Elementary School.
Morris is in her 32nd year of education. She started as a teacher in 1992 and moved into administration 14 years later.
Story graduated from Farmington in 2003 and attended the University of Arkansas on a softball scholarship. She graduated in December 2006 with a degree in communication and business. She took a coaching job and was a long-term substitute teacher in Greenland, loved it and decided to return to college for a teaching degree. She has about 14 years of education experience.
The two leaders point to many good things that have gone on the past two years at Farmington Junior High.
"We love it here," Morris said. "We have such community support. Our staff comes up with great ways to help our students."
The junior high, along with other schools in the district, has used a curriculum called "Capture Kids Hearts" this year to pull everyone together and find ways to help students. The program focuses on social skills, being kind, being able to get along and coming back together, especially after the covid-19 pandemic.
"It creates a more positive tone for the class," Morris said, noting teachers are talking to students about showing respect to others, communicating with their teachers and each other and making the focus on learning and education.
In many ways, Story said, the school had to restart some of its programs in the 2021-22 school year after buildings were closed for remote learning and social distancing and masks were in place for a while.
"For teachers, it was trying to motivate and support them. We've been very intentional with that, to listen to them and meet their needs," Story said.
Morris said one of Story's responsibilities has been to support a cultural shift to support teachers with fun actions and prizes. She started a community newsletter and revised the PTSO.
For students, the staff made changes to the advisory time, using some of the same features and adding new ones.
Advisory or enrichment is 30 minutes set aside each day where students can read or work on study skills, work one-on-one with teachers or receive enrichment in reading and math. The advisory groups also give students time to work on homework and talk about social skills, such as shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye.
The school started a silent, sustained reading time, called Cards Reading, for students and teachers. Having students read for a sustained period of time is similar to physical training, Morris said.
"It's like a muscle. We have to keep working on it," she said. "Teachers are reading along with them and they say they love it."
All these programs and changes are there as one more part to help students feel safe and building a culture that's self-sustaining at the school.
"Kids need to be involved in their schools," Story said.
Post covid, the two leaders have worked to get parents involved in the school again. Because of covid, visitors had limited access to be inside schools.
"It's been amazing what the parents want to do," Story said. "They've supported us in everything we've wanted to do."
To meet student needs, the school has two counselors on campus and has held assemblies with the students to provide information to help them. Ozark Guidance School Based Mental Health and Methodist Family Health School Based Mental Health professionals also have been at the school to assist staff with students.
During Morris' first year as principal, staff dealt with vaping problems among students. To address those the second year, the school added vape detectors in the bathrooms and tightened up the time between classes so students would not have opportunities to vape. These measures helped, along with providing education to students and parents on reasons why vaping is not good for someone's health.
The school has hosted programs on other dangers as well, such as drug issues and the dangers of fentanyl.
School staff also talked to students about enforcing the cellphone policy and did not receive a "huge pushback" from the students, Morris said.
Students are allowed to use their phones before and after lunch and at lunch but not during instructional time or in the hallways. Morris said she believes the policy has been helpful to the learning atmosphere at the school.
Similar to many schools across the country, the junior high did see reading scores fall from pre-pandemic to post pandemic but it has former and new programs in place to help students who are struggling. These include a learning lab and after-school tutoring.
Teachers have a spreadsheet on all students and their test scores and are able to see how their students are doing. The school also is providing more classes academically to support students for what they may want to do in the future, whether it is robotics, computer coding or technical education.
"I can see the growth," Morris said. "We do internal testing and have seen huge growth in deficit areas. We're excited about that."
The school is one-to-one on Chromebooks so students have their own laptops to take home. They are being given reward days and incentive days and being recognized through social media.
"We want to make sure kids know that we see them and we see how hard they are working," Story said.
Next year, Morris said she hopes to add even more reward days, such as honor assemblies that parents can attend, as well as recognizing teachers who are working hard every day in the classroom.
"We're working very hard to make it the best school we can," Morris said. "We've done surveys with the students and they are really happy and they feel safe."
Morris said she and Story have worked well together for two years.
"We come in every day with a positive outlook and we have a great time," Morris said. "It's fun. It's a hard job, make no mistake about it, but we laugh."
Last week, Morris said she hates to think about losing Story to Williams Elementary but knows she will do a great job in the principal's role. The school district already had received more than 30 applications for the assistant principal position at the junior high.
Morris gives an example of how she believes the junior high is impacting its students in a poem written by one student. The student's mom said her daughter had been struggling at a previous school but Farmington changed her life and she wrote a poem about how she now loves school and feels good about herself.
"That's what we do here," Morris said.