This story appears in the Wednesday, July 10 newspaper on Page A5.

Note: The Courier is featuring each principal throughout the Vinton County Local School District this summer to hear about the past school year and report updates for the year ahead.

McARTHUR — For Vinton County Middle School Principal Jeremy Ward, one of the greatest goals of an administrator and educator is to offer opportunities to students — particularly opportunities to grow.

Ward has served as principal of the county’s middle school since 2014, and since his start, he’s seen a lot of growth.

Last year, for example, VCMS received an “A” grade for the Gap Closing section of the Ohio Department of Education statewide report card. In 2016 and 2017, the school received an “F” grade. This component looks to see how school districts serve the educational needs of “vulnerable” populations of students — minorities, the economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.

Achievement during the 2018-2019 school year went far beyond test scores and report cards, though. Ward explained many students at VCMS learn through application.

For example, a major highlight of the school year for students at VCMS was the introduction and development of a robotics team. Ward noted that some students became interested in this opportunity through their participation in Junior Beta Club competitions. Through a partnership with the Learning Lab at Ohio University, students learned coding for robots and drones. Staff members were also trained to help guide students in the programming.

At the March school board meeting, several students held a robotics presentation to demonstrate the different “missions” their robots went on during the FIRST LEGO League competition in Columbus earlier that school year. The team had different objectives their robots needed to complete. These objectives ranged from going from Point A to Point B and picking up objects. The team also had to program their robots to fulfill different commands.

STEM opportunities for middle school students in Vinton County are growing, but so are chances to deepen their understanding of language in the arts.

Eighth grade students can enroll into lower-level agricultural science courses provided by Vinton County High School. In addition, for the past few years, VCMS has offered foreign language courses like Spanish and French to students in the eighth grade.

The middle school’s drama club performed the play “Fearsome Pirate Frank,” featuring notable actors and actresses such as Lily Jayjohn, Miryiah Russ, Elijah Mayers and Easton Canode. One of their performances included a dinner, hosted by Project Feed-VC. “The Fearsome Pirate Frank” was directed by Kristin Thompson.

Ward said all of these opportunities wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of his staff. He pointed out many of the teachers at VCMS work with students during the day, then see them or their siblings at the community or extra-curricular activities they coach, lead or advise.

“Teachers here are willing to do what’s expected of them during the school day, and then step out into the community,” Ward said. He pointed to efforts that started at the middle school, such as Project Feed-VC, which organizes and stocks communal food pantries all throughout Vinton County.

“We’re trying to create a culture of leadership and involvement,” Ward said.

In middle school and in all of education, though, sometimes the social challenges outweigh the academic, and expectations for staff and students change constantly.

“Some things take time,” the principal said. “You’re only a sixth grader once, you’re only a seventh grader once. There’s a learning curve to it, and sometimes (students) don’t get to see what it looks like.”

And of course, the age group Ward works with renders its own challenges.

“This is the age of mistakes. Middle school is awkward; it’s difficult; it’s full of challenges. Lots of people are just excited to get through middle school. We’re all going to have moments where we think ‘this is the worst thing in the world,” he said. “But everyone thinks that way.”

Looking to next school year, Ward said there will be a few additions to the staff. Three new teachers — Brett Jones, Madison Ridout-Jones and Cassie Ridley — will join VCMS this fall.

Ward hopes to build upon existing opportunities, but also look for new ones to throw into the mix.

A few students who finished out the eighth grade at VCMS this year get to participate in a summer leadership workshop at Marietta College that focuses on youth development. Ward will attend with them, and he hopes to make connections and bring back ideas to use during the next school year.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of some of the things we offer,” Ward said. “And we’re always looking at ways to make things better, so feedback is welcome.”; @sydneydawes_95

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