CLARK FORK — Following a visit from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter last week, Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School got a second visit from Boise when Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra toured the school Monday.
The students were a bit shy at first as Ybarra went from classroom to classroom, but once one student broke the ice with a question, the rest followed suit.
"What do you do?" was the first question asked a young man in Rebecca Palmer's English class, after some prompting from Ybarra.
Ybarra explained that she writes the budget for Idaho public schools and has to get it approved by legislators, works with the governor on education issues, and, among other things, travels to different school districts to discuss laws that have been passed by the Legislature that might affect how business is done in schools.
Some students asked more questions about her job, others asked her more personal questions, like if she was born in Idaho. She actually grew up in West Virginia as a coal miner's daughter, she said, and ended up in Mountain Home when her husband was in the military.
"What do you think about the track program we have here?" asked another student, referring to the school's experiential learning track program, which was actually the crux of her visit.
"I have seen a lot of schools and a lot of programs," Ybarra said. "The thing that really struck me was how much time the adults put into thinking about how they could keep kids in school. It was my understanding that your enrollment was dropping and there was some fear that your school might close."
Mike Turnlund, social studies instructor and experiential learning track coordinator at CFHS, sent Ybarra the invitation, and she was coming to North Idaho anyway to speak at the college and career advising training at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene Monday morning.
"It actually was perfect timing as it ties right into college and career advising — keeping kids on track, keeping kids interested, connecting kids to careers," Ybarra told the Daily Bee. "... Anytime a teacher emails me who is excited about a program and wants me to come see it, I try to honor that."
Since the learning track program was implemented last year, Clark Fork has seen an increase in enrollment, grades and variety in learning.
"It's amazing how much time the dedicated staff put into thinking outside the box," Ybarra said. "The new national administration realizes that the best ideas come from the ground up, and this is just a great example."
Turnlund said there will be a few changes next year in the program. The art track, for example, will be replaced with a wellness track, and the culinary arts track will add a "community supported agriculture" component.
Ybarra said it is "great" that the kids are getting to try things like culinary arts, as well as the other tracks, including the outdoors track, tech track and independent track. She said it gives them an opportunity to try things and maybe find something they like, or even to discover what they are not interested in.
"It teaches them responsibility, gives them real-life connections," Ybarra said. "It's an opportunity to keep kids engaged ... kids are coming in now wanting to be engaged; they want a relationship with their teacher, they want to be connected to real-life situations."
Turnlund said it was "wonderful" that Ybarra was willing to accept his invitation and take the time to head out to Clark Fork.
"She is very interested in what we are doing here and we're glad of that," Turnlund said. "It's a real affirmation for her to visit with the teachers, to talk with them and, of course, making herself available to the students, that's very valuable."
While she was there, Ybarra not only toured the classrooms occupied by students, she convinced principal Phil Kemink to show her the old section of the school where the unused classrooms still have the old, green chalkboards and hardwood floors. She also got to see the school's new golf course, Wampus Park, which was built through hundreds of volunteer hours. The park is nearly complete, with a few final touches, such as signage, to come.
"This community really gives to our school, this is our way of giving back to the community," Kemink said.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.