Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

It was a small thing, really, dropping off a box of doughnuts at the front desk of Wilson Elementary that first morning of the new school year.

It might have meant more to me than it did to them.

But I wanted to show the staff there, in that small, sweet way, how much we appreciate what they do for the children in our part of town, including a number of our grandkids.

One of those grandkids, Jackson, lived with us during his elementary years at Wilson. It was not an easy journey, either. But there were no quitters on the Wilson team, and plenty of goodhearted players.

So Jackson came to love Wilson. And he was among the kids who wept when the flag was lowered on the final day of school last spring. All of which was doughnut worthy.

But now it’s almost autumn, and Jackson is a sixth-grader facing a whole new world of wonders and worries, challenges and rewards at North Middle School. It’s a big place compared to that old brick neighborhood school four blocks from our home in the West Boulevard District.

Size can be scary, especially when mixed with the unknown. And Jackson was intimidated by the big school on the hill in North Rapid City with the unfamiliar — to him — interior.

There were 371 kids at Wilson when this school year began, which is on the small side in a district with elementary schools ranging from South Canyon at 250 to Valley View with about 600. North enrollment was at 566, although likely to grow a bit in the coming weeks. Even that is on the smallish side compared to district middle schools ranging from 600 to 700 kids.

And while smaller in population, North has ample space and extra services, which is good news for Jackson, and for us. Principal Jackie Talley is good news for us, too. A former special-ed teacher with 26 years in education, 14 of them in administration, the 50-year-old member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota grew up on a ranch on the Standing Rock Reservation.

So she has a natural connection with the many kids at North, including Jackson, who are tribal members. And she has classroom and administrative experience that will matter to kids who sometimes struggle with behavior and other challenges.

But tribal connections or not, special needs or not, Talley says all kids are equally part of the school family, and all are to be welcomed and supported by everyone on staff.

“I go through the classroom and let the kids see me every day. That’s important, that they know we’re available to them,” she says. “One kid this year said, ‘I’m so stressed out over my locker.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I’ll come down next period and help you out. It’ll be OK.’”

“I’ll help you out. It’ll be OK.” What’s more important to know than that for a jittery middle schooler?

The abbreviated first week of school was all about settling jitters and getting acquainted in meaningful ways.

“The first three days, we don’t even do academics,” Talley says. “We do team-building activities, work on collective commitments. It’s really getting to know the kids, finding out more about them, what they like and dislike, so we can create that classroom environment that’s conducive to learning.”

It’s conducive to growing, too, in ways that can be transformational.

“I always tell the parents and the grandparents, middle school is those crucial years,” Talley says. “And it’s amazing, how much those kids mature. Your grandson will mature a lot while he’s here. And he’ll love school.”

I’m getting pretty fond of the place already. I wonder what kind of doughnuts they like?

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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