Council Bluffs Community School District
Shaping Student Success
Empowering the Future: A Glimpse into the Council Bluffs Community School District
In the heart of Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Council Bluffs Community School District embodies a forward-thinking educational mindset, dedicated to shaping the future of more than 9,000 students.
In the words of Superintendent Dr. Vickie Murillo, “Among our pillars are the innovative ‘Diploma Plus One’ opportunities we provide for students to graduate with their high school diploma and a second credential. No longer are students wondering what they will do after graduation, they already have a plan for where they’re going and set the plan in motion.”
She adds that another pillar emphasizes preschool opportunities with a specific focus on early literacy initiatives. The district also has a strong commitment to employee recruitment and retention, allowing them to maintain a dedicated and high-quality staff.
The key pillar among the strategic goals, though, is student achievement, which is realized by providing a safe and welcoming school environment, and individualized support and enrichment opportunities through academics, athletics, fine arts, and extracurricular activities.
Diverse Pathways: The “Diploma Plus One” Graduation Initiative
Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tracy Mathews, highlights the district’s commitment to the “diploma plus one” graduation initiative, which focuses on providing students with diverse pathways and future opportunities. She mentions the introduction of new pathways, such as aviation science, STEM concentrator pathways, and biomedical science, adding to the 24 other pathways available in high-demand career fields
Murillo shared that the focus on Diploma Plus begins in elementary school, with exposure to career areas and a Promise to Succeed ceremony for all fifth graders leaving elementary school. The goal at middle school is to then explore career fields and a Commitment to Graduate at the end of the school year for all 8th graders. At high school, students actually experience college and careers through concurrent enrollment, internships, pre-apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities.
To assist students in aligning their career interests with appropriate pathways, the district utilizes a platform called Xello. This tool helps students identify potential career choices that match their interests. “But we also believe in providing a wide variety of exploratory opportunities as students are matched with their interests,” Dr. Mathews shares.
“Employability skills are a part of our curriculum related to that, as well as providing a robust work-based learning offering through apprenticeships and internships. Council Bluffs teachers supervise those experiences, and work with the students on goal setting and the skills that are needed to be successful in any future college or career opportunity.”
Dr. Murillo maintains, “The pathways are very intentional and include options in various fields including the TradeWorks Academy in which students, even in 9th and 10th grade, can explore trades such as electrical, plumbing, construction, automotive, HVAC, and welding.”
Through these pathways, students can gain industry-recognized credentials in their chosen career area.
The district has also designed opportunities for its junior and senior students to attend school part of the school day or full-time on the Iowa Western Community College campus. Students have the option to graduate with a certificate, a college diploma, an associate degree, or an associate degree with an Applied Science designation, and receive college credits that could equate to the completion of one or two years of college while still in high school.
“We are intentional about these college credit opportunities for our students to achieve stackable credits either on the campus or in their high school classrooms,” she portrays. “On any given day, more than 260 high school students attend classes on the Iowa Western campus, and more than 300 when we count online courses through the college.”
The district’s Early College Academy is a competitive program that gives 50 students the opportunity to attend Iowa Western Community College full-time to earn an associate degree while remaining connected to their high schools for extracurricular opportunities.
“Expanding the Early College Academy to meet the demand is a goal Superintendent Murillo would like to accomplish if more funding was available. This unique opportunity, and so many other college experiences are provided to students at no cost to their families. The state of Iowa reimburses the school district approximately 50-70% of the concurrent enrollment cost for students taking college courses, varying by field of study,” explains Dr. Murillo.
Dr. Murillo points out the importance of removing financial obstacles, to ensure equity in education, stating “Our job here is to remove every barrier for students.”
While in this program, students apply to at least 10 universities or colleges, and every time they are accepted into one of those institutions, the college pennant is displayed on the student study room wall, creating a sense of achievement and motivation. Research says if students can get on campus and believe they can achieve it, they will then be college certificate, diploma, or degree completers. That has been proven over and over here in Council Bluffs, hearing stories of students saying, ‘I never believed I could go to college, but I can’. And they know they can achieve that.”
Safety, Well-Being, and Supports: The Holistic Approach
Along with academic success, the district prioritizes students’ social-emotional, behavioral, and mental wellness needs to enhance student achievement. All employees are trauma-informed and are trained to support and elevate students who may have experienced trauma, and they employ support personnel such as student and family advocates, graduation coaches, attendance teams, and on-site school-based therapists to identify and address students who require additional support.
“School teams have become proficient at analyzing their data, letting that data drive them to say, these are options available to us. We are matching students with the support they need,” says Dr. Mathews. She notes, “We also want to pay attention through the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) process, to the students who would benefit from enrichment opportunities in all areas so that they may excel.”
On the safety side, Council Bluffs Community School District has established a strong partnership with the local police department and has School Resource Officers in secondary schools to provide an extra layer of security and support. The district also acknowledges the importance of community collaboration in school safety efforts. They encourage open communication and the “see something, say something” approach, promoting vigilance and reporting of any potential concerns or threats. ESSER dollars have been allocated to add entrance door card readers at all buildings. In addition to physical security enhancements, the district has also focused on addressing digital literacy and the appropriate use of social media, which Dr. Murillo believes is a crucial part of maintaining a safe and respectful school environment.
Vital Collaboration and Partnerships to Meet Community Needs from Internet Access to Early Education
Collaboration is key for the district, and the Iowa West Foundation is one of the district’s major supporters, contributing significant funding to preschool and the Diploma Plus One program. Google is another partner that not only provides grants but helped establish the city-wide BLink network, ensuring that students have access to free Wi-Fi for learning, even outside of school. The city of Council Bluffs has also been instrumental in this effort.
At the state level, a Childcare and Early Learning Exploratory Project Innovation Grant was provided for the district’s new Anne E. Nelson Early Learning Center to serve as a model in providing early learning for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and expands the accessibility of affordable, high-quality preschool for our community. Murillo relays, “The generous investments in the $18 million, 38,000 sq. ft. center came from a combination of individual, foundation and corporate donors, leaving no outstanding debt for district taxpayers while building capacity for the area’s workforce.”
Nurturing Success: Teacher Support and Professional Development
Melissa Chalupnik, Director of Professional Learning, talks about the innovative Council Bluffs mentoring program, which she says plays a pivotal role in retaining new teachers. The program involves bringing mentors into the classrooms of teachers new to the profession or new to the district. The mentoring support is embedded in the teachers’ daily work, guiding them through various aspects of teaching, such as instructional decisions, management, assessment, and grading.
Chalupnik elaborates, “On average, we retain 80% of our first-year teachers. Even after the second year, we’re still at 70% retention. We want them to want to stay with us, because we know the time and energy it takes to train and to support new teachers to the profession. So, if we can keep them with us, and keep them invested in Council Bluffs, we know our students will achieve at high levels.”
For 16 years, Council Bluffs has offered professional development through a Summer Academy, providing weeklong professional learning opportunities for teachers. The academy brings in renowned speakers in the education field, such as Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Dr. Marcia Tate.
Each year, a key educational theme is chosen, and this focus continues throughout the school year. “We do small group sessions during that week, and those are led by our teacher leaders. So really, it is for teachers, by teachers. Our teachers are learning from their colleagues because they’re the experts, and they do the work every day. We find that that’s one of the best ways to impart that new learning and review of instructional practices from teacher to teacher,” describes Chalupnik.
Murillo boasts, “For the last two years when most school districts in the nation are struggling to be fully staffed, Council Bluffs was able to have a teacher in every classroom.”
Looking ahead, Council Bluffs Community School District remains steadfast in its efforts to ensure all students graduate with a high school diploma and a second credential. This begins with providing a solid foundation for learning, even for our youngest learners, and developing partnerships and programs that provide more choices, more opportunities and more ways for students to succeed.
“This is what our students deserve,” stresses Dr. Murillo.
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AT A GLANCE
Council Bluffs Community School District
What: An innovative school district with a commitment to future success for all students.
Where: Council Bluffs, Iowa
Google – www.google.com
Council Bluffs is much more than an address for Google – it’s a place our company and its employees truly call home. Since announcing the selection of Council Bluffs in 2007, Google has invested more than $5 billion, created hundreds of jobs and takes pride in engaging locally as a vested member of the community.
Google employees are devoted to their community, volunteering hundreds of hours to local organizations, boards, and committees to support Council Bluffs as a great place to live, work, and raise a family.
Since opening, Google has awarded more than $3 million in support to local schools and nonprofits in Iowa – including a decade-long commitment in time and resources to Council Bluffs’ free community wifi network, BLink.
The partnerships and passion that fuel Council Bluffs are incredibly special and we are humbled to be one small part of the community’s success. We are grateful for the world-class talent leading the City of Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Council Bluffs Community Schools, and so many other partners who work every day to ensure our community thrives.