By AMY RICKER
Great Bend Post
In gratitude to USD 428 School Board members, January has been designated as School Board Recognition Month. In honor of the critical role school board members play in serving the district's students and community, Eagle radio will be featuring school board members during January.
Deanna Essmiller began her term on the USD 428 school board in January of 2019, but she wasn't new to the school district's inner workings. She started and ended her teaching career at Eisenhower Elementary School, where she taught 6th grade for all but one year.
"My first year was in 5th grade, and it was a split class. I then moved up to 6th grade with that large class because there was an opening in the building. I just became the permanent 6th-grade teacher," explained Essmiller.
After retiring, she took a break from schooling and settled into her new lifestyle until it occurred to her that she was needed back in the district.
"I loved teaching and working with kids. I just really enjoy kids. My own children were educated in USD 428, and they had a wonderful education. After several years of being out of education and dealing with some things in my family, I had a calling in my heart that the board was the best place to serve. I just want the district to be the best it can be for our students," says Essmiller.
The first two years on the board have not been boring ones for Essmiller. The first year, she worked on the bond issue, which came to a vote by mail-in ballot in September, which ultimately failed to pass. In her second year, the bond was reworked and scheduled to be on the April 28, 2020, ballot. But once the pandemic hit, the school board unanimously voted to postpone the bond election for the time being.
With the exception of COVID and the bond issue, another critical issue that Essmiller says the district is facing is the hiring and retaining of good teachers.
"It's a challenge. Several years ago, many students went to college to become teachers, and that has changed. There just isn't the pool to select from out there, and it's become pretty competitive to recruit teachers. Now we have to offer things to get them to come whereas before, you had all kinds of applicants, and you had to choose the very best of the best."
Essmiller feels that the top reason that fewer students are pursuing a teaching degree is because of the lower salary, despite needing a degree to lead a classroom. The second reason is that over the years, the profession has simply become a challenging one for a variety of reasons.
One of USD 428's most outstanding achievements, in Essmiller's opinion, was keeping the school district operating during the 20-21 school year during the pandemic.
"It has taken a lot to work with the number of differing opinions about what the right thing is to do. Whether we are remote, in-person, wear masks, not wearing masks, how far apart the social distancing should be. There have been a lot of differing opinions about what our parents want. I am very proud of our district, administration, staff, and especially our teachers. They have stepped up and done whatever was asked of them and worked hard and taught with all the restrictions put in place. I'm just so proud of them."
Another district topic that has been explored recently by the school board is a virtual school.
"I am not against a virtual school. I have had concerns and spoke about that at the last board meeting. It isn't the virtual school in itself that I'm concerned about. I favor that for those who need it and where it is the only choice for their student. My concern is to monitor that those students are using it for the purpose intended and not because a student just doesn't want to sit in the classroom. As a parent and a grandparent, I see the huge value of learning how to adapt to doing the things you may not like, and being in school provides that important social and emotional wellness. School is where they learn how to interact and compromise. I just don't want to leave anyone out that doesn't want to be left out. Again, I am in favor of a virtual school as long as it has guidelines and it's monitored to make sure it's being used under the right conditions. For example, if a child has a health condition," explained Essmiller.
When it comes to being on the school board, Essmiller says an essential skill is the ability to listen. She says it's imperative to listen to all sides and remember that it's not just your own opinion that matters. Board members must be able to represent all sides of an issue in the community.
So, what gives Essmiller the most joy being back in the education system?
"I love watching my former students as teachers here in the district. When they come to board meetings or present something, it makes me so proud. I am just so proud of our own and my own former students. When you are a teacher, you see your students as "your kids." I really enjoy seeing them step up and being the leaders in our district. It's really cool."