Ulrich takes his place at FDCSD, but only after sending his own kids off to class
Some firsts were celebrated Wednesday across the Fort Dodge Community School District.
For starters, it was the first day back to school for thousands of students.
It was also Jesse Ulrich’s first day of school as superintendent. He was hired by the district in March and began his duties in June.
For Ulrich, the day began with a commute of nearly an hour. He traveled to Fort Dodge from his hometown of West Bend because his Fort Dodge home is under construction and won’t be ready until October.
Ulrich and his wife, Amy, have four kids. Two of them — Breckyn, 8, a second-grader, and Baylor, 6, a first-grader — started school at Feelhaver Elementary School on Wednesday.
After giving his daughters hugs, he said, “Let’s drop off your backpacks at your locker.”
Amy Ulrich snapped a first-day-of-school picture and the two were ready for class.
“Have a good day,” Ulrich said. “I love you.”
For Ulrich, it was on to the new Duncombe Elementary, where staff and students were getting acquainted with brand new surroundings.
One particular point of emphasis is the front of the school, located on the south side.
“We are trying to communicate the drop-off zones to parents,” Ulrich said. “What we want is for them to drop their kid off with a school employee to keep the vehicles moving in that area. There will be a learning curve.”
Ulrich greeted students with high-fives and fist bumps as parents said their goodbyes.
Conner Marvin, 7, a second-grader, was one student who got a fist-bump from the superintendent.
One girl came to school with a unicorn backpack.
“My daughter loves unicorns too,” Ulrich told her.
“Go Cubs,” he said to another student. “Have a good day, everybody.”
Kadence Jenson, a third-grade special education paraeducator, was busy welcoming students inside.
“We are very inspirational in this building,” she said.
Pat Reding, Duncombe principal, showed his enthusiasm.
Sometime after 8 a.m., fourth-graders took off up the steps to their second-floor classrooms.
“Go get ’em fourth-graders,” Reding shouted from the main floor.
Brandon Hansel, FDCSD director of financial services, was at Duncombe for his child’s first day.
“It looks like it’s going smooth,” he said.
“That wouldn’t be the word I would use,” Reding said. “But a week from now we will be in good shape.”
Ulrich said one challenge in particular the district faced this year was the number of parents who didn’t register on time.
“We had over 200 students who, as of yesterday, were not registered,” Ulrich said. “We have had some of those this morning.”
Ulrich continued to walk the halls, looking over the spacious facilities.
“The library is gorgeous,” he said. “I love the carpet — this turned out cool.”
At about 8:30 a.m., students and staff gathered outside of the front entrance for a flag-raising ceremony. Members of the Iowa Air National Guard were on hand.
“Lots of things have happened to make this possible for you all,” Reding said. “It kind of chokes me up a little bit.”
Reding acknowledged the sacrifices of those in uniform who serve our country.
“Without them, this wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “We are here today to pay our respects to our country.”
The flag was then lowered to half-staff to pay tribute to the late Sen. John McCain, who died Aug. 25.
Ulrich enjoyed the experience of welcoming students.
“This was phenomenal,” he said. “Our staff worked really hard to prepare for this day.”
One particular goal for Ulrich will be spending time in the buildings and classrooms he oversees.
“I want to spend about 50 percent of my time in buildings,” he said. “With the size of the district, that will be a challenge. Part of my job will also be working with business leaders and community partners.”
He wants the district to emulate the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance.
“It’s the same concept with our schools,” he said. “We need to work together, and we really have some great people in our community.”
As he drove past the old Hy-Vee building that the district purchased during the summer, Ulrich said he’s looking forward to seeing the space get used.
“Forty thousand square feet is a lot of space,” he said. “I’m excited about the opportunity it could provide our district.”
The FDCSD board will be discussing potential uses for that building in the weeks ahead.
At Fort Dodge Middle School, there is a focus on helping fifth-graders feel more comfortable.
“We are blocking fifth grade,” Ulrich said. “They will be seeing the same teacher more.”
Shawn Bennett, dean of students at FDMS, said fifth-graders used to have three blocks.
“To make the transition easier, we tried to make it more like fourth grade,” she said. “Now fifth grade has just two teachers — one teaches math and science and the other is language arts, reading and social studies.”
She added, “It’s almost like a fifth-grade academy.”
Elsewhere in the middle school, Ryan Flaherty, FDMS principal, was helping to answer any questions students had.
“Mr. Flaherty — he’s one of the best we got,” Ulrich said.
Some fifth-graders were figuring out their locker combinations.
“That’s the toughest part of middle school,” Ulrich said in jest.
The middle school features pods, which are used to partition the building. On each level the pods are virtually identical, with different colors in the walls and carpet so students know where they are.
“The pod system uses more tables,” Ulrich said. “It really allows for more collaboration.”
On the third floor of the building, it was Destiny Kizer’s first day as a teacher. She was already feeling comfortable.
“It’s been really good,” she said. “Today we talked about our vision as a class for the year.”
Kizer moved to Fort Dodge from Missouri.
“It’s been a full first day,” she said.
Ulrich said it will be key to keep talented teachers such as Kizer in the district.
“We are going to do what we can to keep her,” he said. “We are glad to have her.”
Another area of focus will be developing leaders in the district.
“A constant thought in my mind is preparing people to become leaders here,” Ulrich said. “We want to grow our own leaders.”
He also sees a need for more male and minority educators.
“We either need to do a better job of recruiting or start growing our own,” he said. “People who want to give back to Fort Dodge.”
At Fort Dodge Senior High, the enthusiasm continued.
“Dr. Ulrich, come see my classroom,” Andi Adams, 10th grade language arts teacher, said.
“This is neat,” Ulrich said as he entered the room.
“I’ve already checked out two books,” Adams said. “Kids are very excited to be here. There is such an energy this year.”
Ulrich made his way through the Freshman Academy, an area of the high school that was remodeled last year.
It looked quite different than the last time he was there.
“When I student taught here, my room was right there,” he said, pointing to an open space occupied by furniture. “That was before they tore this all out.”
The high school library is being redesigned this year. It will look similar to the Freshman Academy. That should be complete by Oct. 19, Ulrich said.
In the early 2000s, as a student teacher, Ulrich led students through a mock-graduation.
“Graduation is really important,” he said. “We need to make a difference there.”
Ulrich also student taught at Phillips Middle School, which is no longer owned or used by the district.