Teacher faces new year, tough demands
By the numbers
Adams Elementary School, by the numbers in 2011-12, according to the Department of Public Instruction:
September 2011 enrollment. Adams is the largest of the Janesville School District's 12 elementary schools.
Percent of students considered low-income, based on families that qualify for free or reduced-price meals, slightly higher than the district average. This compares with 23 percent 10 years ago.
Percent of students who are members of racial or ethnic minorities, up from 8.6 percent 10 years ago.
Percent of students considered proficient in English, compared with 100 percent 10 years ago.
Attendance percentage, which has changed little in 10 years and is close to the district average.
Percentage of students in grades 3-5 who scored as "proficient" or "advanced" in math on state tests.
Percentage of students in grades 3-5 who scored as "proficient" or "advanced" in reading on state tests.
Editor's note: This is the first in a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Today, we introduce Amanda Werner, a fifth-grade teacher at Janesville's Adams Elementary School. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Werner's classroom throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
The students in this class are the faces of a changing Janesville. In 20 years, they will be caring for our sick, working in our factories, running our businesses or running for city council. How well they learn will affect Janesville for decades.
Teacher Amanda Werner was explaining the meaning of "characteristics" Wednesday.
"Can you think of one characteristic of mine?" she asked.
Fifth-grader Rayshon Heredia raised his hand.
"Happy," he said.
Werner was indeed cheerful most of the time Wednesday, the first day of classes at Adams Elementary School and the rest of Janesville's elementary schools.
Tuesday was devoted to orientation for parents and students.
Wednesday, Werner and other teachers greeted students by blowing bubbles at them as they lined up on the playground. A girl who is new to the school had tears in her eyes. Werner comforted her, and the girl seemed to adjust as the day progressed.
Werner and teachers like her are charged with taking care of the community's children but also preparing them for the demands of living and working in the 21st century.
The Gazette today begins a yearlong series of articles on Werner's class and how the school is doing its job.
Part of that job is improving test scores at a time when poverty locally has risen to levels not imagined a decade ago.
Teachers also must contend with differences of culture, which are much more pronounced today than at the turn of the century.
Werner told the students she was excited that they would be the example to show the community how kids are learning.
"I'm a little nervous on the first day of school, too," she told the kids. "But we're going to have a great day."
Werner started teaching three years ago. She walked into a situation where the school board and administration were pushing for higher test scores while facing constraints on spending.
District officials point to success stories, but they have a long way to go before reaching their goal of being the best school district in the state.
Poverty is a fact, district leaders say, but it is not an excuse for poor performance.
"I see all changes as being a step in the right direction. I don't think the district is changing just for change's sake," Werner said.
"I think it probably does add a little pressure because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and want to make sure I'm doing all I can do, but it's a good thing," Werner said.
Wednesday looked nothing like Werner's original career. The Janesville native graduated with a business degree from UW-Madison in 1995 and worked at advertising agencies in Indianapolis and Madison for four years.
She got married in 1996 to a classmate from Craig High School, Greg Werner. They had three children. She stayed at home for several years. When her youngest entered kindergarten, Werner went back to school to get her teaching license.
She enjoyed advertising but wanted a more family-friendly schedule.
"I work just as hard now as I did then, but the payoff—there's a much greater sense of purpose for me, so the hours are worth it," she said.
Werner spends a couple hours each night preparing for the days ahead, working past the hours she is required to be in school.
"I don't think I could do this job in my contracted hours, but I think that's pretty normal," she said.
She had planned to be a high school business teacher, but she worked part-time as an aide at Madison Elementary School while getting her license. That changed her heart.
"I fell in love with the kids in elementary school. That's where I want to be," she said.
Thirteen girls and eight boys entered Werner's classroom Wednesday. Werner spent most of the day getting them acquainted with each other.
She pointed to two signs at the front of the classroom, which spelled out the goals of the day: "Build a community" and "Learn classroom procedures."
The only academics Wednesday were the start of a writing project and a tutorial in a Facebook-like writing software called Edmodo.
Educational technology and discipline are two of the topics The Gazette will address in this series.
Werner had very few and very minor discipline problems Wednesday. All it took was a stern look, and kids settled down.
"It's what we call the honeymoon period," veteran teacher Karen Biege said at lunchtime.
Most of the day revolved around Werner's rules for her classroom and getting-to-know-you exercises.
"I can't wait to dig into the curriculum, but we have to do this stuff first," Werner said.
Werner said teaching will be much more efficient after the kids know what's expected and what the rules are and are comfortable with each other.
Business leaders have been telling educators that the modern workplace requires collaboration, and educators are responding, teaching students to work in groups. That was evident in Werner's classroom Wednesday.
Werner learned about her students, and they learned about each other as they worked in groups of three, four or five.
Werner knew about the kids before they arrived. The school collects information on each student and passes it from grade to grade.
Thinking about them gave Werner restless sleep Tuesday night.
"You just think, 'How am I going to meet the needs of all these kids?' But when they get in front of you, they become people, and they're not on a spreadsheet. I think they're going to be great. I'm very excited for the year."