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New school year in Oswego: busing snags, big promises from new superintendent

New Oswego Schools Superintendent Matthew Wendt meets parent Colene Forde family dog while riding bus through Fox Chase subdivisifirst morning

New Oswego Schools Superintendent Matthew Wendt meets parent Colene Forde and the family dog while riding the bus through the Fox Chase subdivision on the first morning of school on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 in Oswego. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:45AM

There are great things in store for the Oswego School District this year — just as soon as they can get the bus schedules worked out.

About 1,000 students, who last year would have ridden the bus, are walking to school after a cost-saving attempt to cut about 17 buses in favor of installing crosswalks and crossing guards.

But delays in those plans created headaches in a few spots around the district Wednesday as parents sent their kids off for the first day of school.

Students who were told they would be walking this year instead are on the bus headed to Prairie Point Elementary, as the district continues to petition the county for a 35 mph speed limit on Grove Road, which is now 45 mph.

Students walked to Wolf’s Crossing Elementary, though the district is still evaluating the volume of traffic in the area, and may later choose to bus students.

And a monitor is standing watch near an electrified fence along Middlebury Drive. Students walked to school Wednesday, but beginning Sept. 4, they will be bused to avoid the hazard. Meanwhile, the district is working with the property owner to modify the fence in the hopes that students will be able to walk the route in the future.

New year, big plans

But at least one bus route ran smoothly Wednesday, albeit with an extra passenger.

New Oswego School Superintendent Matthew Wendt hopped aboard Wednesday morning to talk with junior high students and hopped out at stops to shake hands with their parents.

Wendt, who took over as superintendent in June, has spent the first week of school shaking a lot of hands and making a lot of pledges.

Earlier in the week, before a crowd of more than 1,000 teachers packed into the bleachers of Oswego East High School, he pledged, for instance, to continue riding the bus once a month to get a feel for what’s on students’ minds.

More importantly, Wendt unveiled big plans for Oswego schools, from new course standards to online education.

Wendt began his greeting to the district’s instructors on a personal note, with photos of his family — his parents, wife Dawn, two children and two schnauzers — and he addressed the cloud that has hung over him since his arrival in Illinois, promising to “take a higher road” and quickly end the pending lawsuit stemming from his separation agreement with the Iowa school district he served before coming to Oswego.

But the talking points turned quickly to challenges facing Oswego schools.

This year, the district faces a $5 million budget shortfall, due in part to drop in general state aid estimated to come in from Springfield. The budget also took a hit after the district hired teachers to staff Murphy Junior High School, which opened to students for the first time Wednesday morning.

“You and I need to know when the next school facility will need to be constructed and where and when and be able to share that with our community. There should be no surprises about a staffing plan,” Wendt said. “Superintendents do not like surprises. Board members do not like surprises.”

Planning for future

Wendt announced that the district would be drafting an updated strategic plan to cover the next five years, which would help guide the district’s finances and how that money is used in the classroom.

“I don’t believe that we live in a time where we can do nothing and blame a lack of money,” said Wendt, acknowledging a local sentiment that taxes are too high. “Kids today did not sign up to be educated in a down economy.”

Curriculum would also get another look. While schools are rolling out curriculum updates this year to align to Common Core standards — two years ahead of the state-mandated deadline to adopt those standards — Wendt said he plans to go further and begin a curriculum review process for all grade levels in the district.

The district will be reviewing requirements for high school graduation, and he said he plans to roll out dual-credit courses with Waubonsee Community College and online classes that are not limited to high-achieving high school students.

“Within a few years, I will have failed if we have failed to provide online education for any student who wants to take an online class, not just for those who are struggling, not for those who are only at the highest end,” Wendt said. “We need to be immediate to address online education. We need a plan and we need to move it forward.

Wendt also called on teachers to adopt standards-based grading systems, which awards grades based on a student’s mastery of individual concepts, rather than on specific tests, quizzes, or homework assignments.

The new superintendent also advocated course waivers for students who have already mastered material in otherwise required classes.

“If an eighth-grader can do 10th-grade work, let her do it,” he said, to loud applause from teachers.

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