Kirtland superintendent discusses student accomplishments, safety

Apr. 30—Kirtland Schools Superintendent Chad VanArnhem, during his State of the Schools address on April 25, informed residents of strong academic performance, district safety measures and recent facilities investments.

While speaking to an audience at the Kirtland Community Center, the superintendent highlighted how the school district is meeting the four "pillars" of its strategic plan: personalized learning, safe and secure schools, well-managed finances and an engaged community. He also touched on topics including science lab and stadium improvement projects, enrollment trends and a new district alumni association.

For personalized learning, VanArnhem highlighted the "unbelievable" academic accomplishments of the district's class of 2022, including 11 students with an ACT score of 30 or higher and 45 students who graduated with high honors.

The district's Advanced Placement students also achieved success last year, he noted, with student Bobby Whittaker named a National Merit Scholar. Results for other tests were close to pre-pandemic scores.

"I feel pretty confident we're going to be beyond where we were pre-pandemic now," VanArnhem said.

He noted that the 2022 state report card showed Kirtland as the "highest-rated district in Lake County" and among the top 9 percent of districts statewide. Kirtland High School was one of two schools in the county that received five stars in every category for which it was scored.

VanArnhem also spoke of the district's efforts to promote education in STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Students as young as elementary school engage in coding and building activities, while older students compete in the First Lego League and First Tech Challenge.

"This is the direction a lot of careers are going post-high school, and we want to make sure our kids are prepared as they leave," he said, adding, "If you expose kids at a young age, particularly girls, to those type of fields, there's much more likelihood that they'll stay with it."

Student achievements extend beyond academics, he said, with 78 percent of Kirtland High School students participating in at least one extracurricular activity. He noted that GPA is generally higher for students who are involved in more activities; two students who are involved in nine activities have an average GPA of 4.39.

In addition to learning, VanArnhem said that safety and security are also district priorities. School officials work to promote student wellness and physical safety.

"There's the emotional side, making sure kids are OK," he said, adding, "We want to get those kids help before they do something that is unfortunate."

VanArnhem said the district has a variety of student wellness initiatives in place, including a crisis intervention team of guidance counselors and administrators.

The Responsive Classroom program is used in elementary school to promote 15 minutes of conversation each morning. He noted that this is intended to help younger students who "are on devices all the time" and "don't talk to each other."

"A lot of the stuff that we're seeing with young kids that they're missing, we're putting at the forefront every day to build that sense of community," VanArnhem added.

For physical safety, he said the district employs a school resource officer, while other Kirtland police officers regularly visit the buildings to build relationships with students and gain familiarity with the school layout.

The district also makes use of frequent safety drills, training, bus cameras, holding areas at school entrances and alarms for doors that are propped open, VanArnhem said. It monitors for inappropriate or dangerous searches on school-issued devices, with school officials and police officers alerted as necessary.

While addressing the district's goal of managing finances well, he noted that Kirtland's tax rate is close to the middle for Lake County school districts, while it receives less federal and state funding than the average district in Ohio.

"We try to be extremely responsible with the money we have," VanArnhem said.

He noted that Kirtland also ranks in the top one-third of school districts in Ohio for the efficiency of spending per student relative to student performance.

The superintendent noted that the district has been running "bare bones" in recent years, with relatively flat revenue but increasing expenditures. The district is currently expected to run a $700,000 budget deficit next year, though he pointed out that the district was previously projected to run a $200,000 deficit this year and so far has avoided deficit spending.

VanArnhem also mentioned that the district has a renewal levy for operating expenses on the May 2 ballot. He noted that renewal levies do not increase taxes.

For community engagement, he said that the district has received support from the Kirtland Kiwanis and Kirtland Area Service Council, as well as parent booster groups and a "nationally-recognized PTA."

Kirtland students have also given back to the community, VanArnhem said, noting that the charitable spirit extends from elementary school students to the high school. The class of 2022 contributed more than 5,000 hours of community service hours despite the fact that some locations were still under pandemic restrictions.

He also said the elementary school holds an annual first responders parade on Sept. 11.

VanArnhem discussed two recent projects that have been funded by the district's permanent improvement levy. A new science lab was opened to high school biology and environmental science classes in January, replacing two smaller spaces.

The district is also working to renovate its stadium, moving the bleachers back to make the field wide enough for soccer games. It is also resurfacing the track and adding a new turf field that a doctor told VanArnhem is "safer than natural grass."

He added that Kirtland Schools was able to select "the safest turf out there" thanks to a $200,000 stadium naming deal with Aqua Doc owner and Kirtland alumnus John Wilson Jr. Under the terms of the deal, the facility will be called "Wilson Stadium" for 10 years.

VanArnhem currently expects the stadium to be ready by the start of the fall 2023 football and soccer seasons.

Other topics that he discussed included staffing shortages and enrollment trends. He noted that unlike other school districts, Kirtland's enrollment has remained steady, with the elementary school serving the most children he's seen in his nine years with the district.

VanArnhem also noted that the district recently started an alumni association. More information can be found at kirtlandschools.org/alumniassociation.aspx.