Performing arts programs soaring to success at Schuyler Central

Performing arts programs soaring to success at Schuyler Central

The following conversation took place on a Friday morning in early April in a Schuyler Central conference room, where NPSA was joined by Principal Dr. Joey Lefdal, Assistant Principal Samantha Ladwig and Activity Director/Assistant Principal Travis Steinhoff.

We reached out to chat about the district's soaring fine arts programs, and left with a conversation too good not to share.


Q: What makes the fine and performing arts so special here at Schuyler Central?

Dr. Joey Lefdal: Honestly, I think the support that we have from our superintendent (Dr. Dan Hoesing). He's a fine arts person. His wife was a state champion speech and one-act coach for years and years and years, and his support filters into our board. Our president is a big fine arts supporter. His son was a state speech champion. It's still in the infancy stage, but more and more attention is being given to those programs. We have these little spotlights that we host during the season where people can come and see these kids in action and see the talent that they actually have. It's amazing when you just start seeing that in the program you’re building. It's a slow process, but we have great coaches, we have great people, we have great kids, and we have a ton of support for them.

Samantha Ladwig: And the fine arts, with the one-act play production and speech and band and choir and all of that, it gives our kids that don't necessarily excel on the football field or excel on the basketball court a different way to be successful. It gives them a way to fill their bucket and to be a part of something bigger than just themselves. So while our speech team is successful, our one-act team made it to state this fall and received the technical award for Class B. We were district champions. We were able to host that in our beautiful auditorium that we have now, and that was really cool. We received a lot of great feedback from hosting districts. So I just think that it really gives a place for everyone.

Dr. Joey Lefdal: And I'll say even our band program under Mr. Paul Niedbalski, he's been here I think two years now, we have students who are not good students. We have one who just can't make it through school. We met with his parents, and he's like, "Whatever you do, please just don't take my guitar away from me." Just that piece is so important.

Samantha Ladwig: He offers the guitar classes, and that's one of my favorite classes to walk into because the second the kids walk in, they grab their guitar and they start playing. There's no, "You've got to do this" or “You’ve got to do that.” At the end of eighth period on Fridays, they'll walk out playing their guitar, and a kid's singing, and they have a little mini concert in the commons area. It really gives a positive vibe to our school and the energy that comes from it is just incredible. These kids are crazy talented.

Q: What do these programs add to your school’s culture and do high participation numbers have a way of binding the student body together?

Dr. Joey Lefdal: I think so. I really look at our school. It's like 1950 here. We have a ton of support from parents, and I say that in every interview I've had. We have the basketball team; we have all these other sporting activity types of pieces, and then you have that fine arts piece where those kids are really just accepted and they're celebrated. And when that student is out here playing his guitar and they do a little Mexican concert, and the kids are around it, we're videotaping him and singing along. It's just exciting to have that.

Q: Obviously there are challenges unique to Schuyler Community Schools. For those challenges, though, to out-shadow triumphs is ridiculous and unfortunate because there's a lot to celebrate here too, obviously. What makes this place so special? And why is it important to continue to shine a light on the successes that do happen within these walls every single day?

Samantha Ladwig: I think it's important for everyone to remember kids are kids, no matter where you go or where they come from. And for us, with our kids here, it's just such a rewarding experience to be able to see a kid that has only been in the United States for six months being successful in something in his own language while also learning English while he's here, and everyone is welcoming of that. Our staff is welcoming, our kids are welcoming. We just really give a place for everyone to find something they love, whether it's welding, or it's playing guitar, or it's acting on stage in the performing arts auditorium. We have something for everyone and I think that's important.

Dr. Joey Lefdal: And I'd say we look at education and we do have these challenges and we really do look at them. Our superintendent and our administration view those challenges as opportunities for us to grow as people, as a school. And we look at our education as operating off an 1800s model and we need to fit it into what we're trying to do today. And I believe that Schuyler does that better than probably any school. We look at student education independently. We create individual plans for kids. And the recovery model we have for attendance recovery is a piece that we're proud of.

How we treat kids here is just differently. We believe in them. We have a restorative justice model of discipline where we don't beat kids down; we try to build them up and figure out why they're struggling or why they're misbehaving, rather than just throwing them in an ISS room and thinking that's going to fix the problem. So when we look at that part, when we build those relationships, that feeds right over into everything we do; it feeds into our fine arts, it feeds into our sports. If you keep building those relationships, and those kids know you're here and they know that you love them, they're going to do better for you and they're going to do more for you.

And the level they're at, we are a full-priority school. And as we walk through that, whether we're a 14-ACT or a 22-ACT, I'm going to tell you we have some of the best kids coming out of this building. We're developing great humans. And we're going to have this conversation with the state board. Part of my presentation there is going to be, "Tell me why we're testing a kid in the Alpha test and the ACT when they can't speak English." Explain that to me. So I think as we question those things and try to push for better education and better programming for our kids, I think there'll be some changes in public education that should have taken place 40 years ago, and I love being on that front burner.

Travis Steinhoff: I think it's kind of funny. I just was talking about it with Mikey, our basketball coach. One of the things I told him was, these kids need people to believe in them and believe that they can do it, because we have a lot of success and we've seen it in our fine arts program. The adults that are running our fine arts program have been here long enough and have been in our system long enough to where they're building kids up; they're building those relationships with kids. So kids are buying into it. They're believing in themselves, and it's showing how great our kid's here in Schuyler are. It's cool to see that our kids and our system are working, and that is the visual of it. I think as it grows, it's building our school pride and bleeding through everything we do.

Q: Is there a correlation between participation in these performing arts and advanced life skills? Is that another caveat of joining one of these programs?

Dr. Joey Lefdal: My kids are two of the kids that are in all those things. I look at my son who, when he was a first, second, third, fourth grader, he couldn't talk to you without licking his lips or shuffling around or making weird movements, and watching him grow into the kid who is president of the Honors Society, and watching him present and give the speech he gave, it was like watching the president of the United States. I'm like, "man, that is amazing, from where he was to what he is doing now." And that is all about what we do here. It's building him up and supporting those kids. I think as that grows and those kids feel that success, it just spills into everything that they're doing. Personally, as a parent, that's what I see of my twins.

Travis Steinhoff: The culture of hard work, being on time, treating teammates or classmates as the right way, working with people that aren't always your best friend and things like that, are all life skills that are being acquired in there. They're building lifelong relationships as well.

Q: What’s the energy like in this building on concert night or performance night? Is there a buzz similar to what you feel before a big game?

Dr. Joey Lefdal: Yes, to a degree. But I'll tell you, I bet we had more parents at district speech for the awards than we did at the basketball game a month before. Our parents, they work; we have a lot of different shifts that go on with our parents here. So getting parents to games and activities can be a challenge for us, but I think they try to support as much as they can. And I think that the energy does build. Watching the parade that we had as they escorted the speech team out of town, even with our FFA and FCCLA that just got back, they are just great programs and the way they're celebrated is real exciting.

Travis Steinhoff: Our play production team made state, and our speech coach was a part of that team, and then she gave it up and she wasn't. Those coaches, the play production coaches and the speech coaches, have done amazing things. To see those kids that weren't very good about five years ago, not nearly as good as they are now, make the overall strides they’ve made has been really cool to see. We hosted districts, and then we made the announcement that we had made State. And that moment, it was like when we won a football game together. Kids were crying. They were going nuts when we announced it. The teachers were crying. It was cool. And again, that's that group of adults and kids that put all that time in seeing their hard work pay off.

Q: What drew you to Schuyler, and what's the most rewarding part about serving as an administrator in this school district?

Samantha Ladwig: I'm a Schuyler graduate, and I taught in two other districts before coming back to Schuyler. The main reason I came back is my husband is from here as well, and we just really believe in what Schuyler has to offer as far as what you learn from being immersed in a community that has such a wide variety of demographics. It's just a rewarding community because you see people that maybe have come from nothing, or they've had to travel across the desert to get here, or they come without their family and then they see success. And so for me, raising my own children in a community where they can learn about people and have an outlook on life different than if you were to go down the road to a community that's predominantly white, there's so much value in that.

And it's just rewarding. I love coming to work. I love the kids. We have some of the most respectful kids anywhere walking up and down the hallway saying "good morning, Mrs. Ladwig! How are you?" They beat me to it sometimes. Watching them grow and see success when they don't have support at home, or they're not even living with their parents, that to me is just huge.

Travis Steinhoff: For me, a lot of the same things ring true. I'll never forget when I interviewed here. I grew up in Crete. And so everybody has their perceptions of Schuyler, and my perception of Schuyler wasn't the same when I walked in there as when I walked out. The community of people here, the feeling, the way people treat each other, made me want to come here. The kids were great to each other. And I could feel that. Now, why I still want to be here? Number one, I think we have a huge influence on kids. I've been in jobs where those kids were straight-A students, whether some of those adults in the building were or not. I think here we have a bunch of adults that can really, really, truly impact the kids’ lives. And I think that's awesome and promising.

Dr. Hoesing does a great job of thinking outside the box. So we're doing things that you read about when you go to grad school and you say, "Man, that is great, but nobody actually tries to do it." We go out there and do it. For example, our discipline model, when kids get in trouble and have to come in, we want them to leave built up. We want them to learn from what they did, and come back and not do it again, not just punish them. And our teaching model, we coach people up, and we coach our teachers up. And it's just such a different philosophy than what a lot of places use. Like Joey said, a lot of people are doing the same thing they did 150 years ago, and I saw very clearly when I was here that we were going to try to do things that were best for kids. We're going to change, we're going to move the way education moves, and I think we're doing that.

Dr. Joey Lefdal: Even in 2008 when I got my first admin job, Dr. Hoesing hired me as the principal in Newcastle, Nebraska, and then I moved up into the superintendent role there. The years I got to spend with Dan were so valuable. We were drivers. We pushed. I mean, we were at the time selling more distance education than anybody in the country, in a school in a town of 200 people. When you have that movement and that excitement going on, you just want to be at school every day. And when I had the opportunity to come back, when Dan called me about this job, it was for the priority school stuff that we were going through, and he's like, “I just need somebody who can help this process along.”

So that was when I started. And I'm all about going against the crowd. I love being the guy who proves the point and the naysayers wrong. It's just what I like to be. I'm an alt Ed-minded person. The model of discipline that we use is one thing that I felt aligned with how I operate. And I have a counseling background, so working with kids and helping them get along is what I believe. This school, there is so much potential to help kids. These kids will fight, but if you build that relationship with them, and they know they have you, there’s nothing better. I just love it.

It was people when I came here, it was Jim Kasik and Stephen Grammer were the people that I worked with up until these awesome people came along this year, but they were fun to work with. It was just enjoyable to come to school. The kids are great. And I got to get back in with Dr. Hoesing and start kicking butt again. It’s been awesome.

Q: I want to ask you about your program directors and how instrumental they are to your success. When you are looking for the right fit for a band director or a choir director, do you have to be intentional about finding someone with a particular set of leadership styles that'll mesh here in your district?

Samantha Ladwig: The biggest thing for us is that we are all about building relationships with kids, because without a relationship, they're not going to work for you. We look for people who are willing to take the time to understand our kids and understand where they're coming from. So when they do have bad days, they still get work from them because they have that built in. That's a huge part for us, because everything else will fall in once those relationships are built.

Dr. Joey Lefdal: I don't want to brag, but as coaches, we coach our teachers. When we evaluate, we're really in there to help them. I will hire anybody who likes kids. We can teach them to be teachers; that's easy to do. We can spend the time and we'll do that. But if we have somebody come in here who just cares about kids, wants better for them, and is going to bend over backwards and do whatever they have to do to get them through, I'm going to hire them every time.

Melanie Gustafson came to Schuyler Central High School five years ago in search of a new challenge. She accepted a position teaching English, and has since picked up duties directing the school play and, to this day, coaching the Warriors speech team.

Gustafson’s move to Schuyler proved to be a rewarding one. The Warriors brought home a state champion in duet and a runner-up in the humorous category that very first year, and have continued to experience success since, finishing in the top-five at state this spring.

Q: What drew you to Schuyler?

I had been in my previous role for 11 years and enjoyed the job but was looking for different challenges in my career. That led me to look here. Getting the kids involved in what I was interested in, that has been a really fun challenge for me. It’s also been rewarding beyond words.

Q: How important are the fine and performing arts to Schuyler’s overall culture?

Well, we have a core group of fine arts kids that participate in the play and are on the speech team. There's some doing the musical right now. And there's a core group of sophomores and juniors coming up, so I think that that is going to solidify that program or even improve it and make it stronger. So hopefully, they'll keep bringing on younger kids to keep making the program stronger.

Q: Do you feel supported by the administration here and how important is that to a coach?

I do. I think that speech is something, if you aren't a part of it, maybe you don't quite understand what it is. And so through the five years I've been here, we really have tried to do some parent showcases and do things that allow people to see what the competition part of speech is and looks like. We host a speech meet here, so that gives our teachers too some just insight of what goes on. And the kids see the administrative support too. It's not like sports is more important than what they're doing to be a part of our school. It’s not like that all.

Q: Do you see high participation rates?

We usually start with around 30-ish on the speech team. I can't speak for the play. I don't direct that anymore. But we ended up with 18 this year. So we had 16 of them go to the district competition. They can do two events to compete and so that fills the events that we can take for the competition part.

Q: How do you reach those middle school students and try to peak their interest in speech?

We try to get the middle schoolers to things like the showcase. We had some kids help this year at the speech meet that we host. This spring, we are actually going to take a handful of eighth graders to our first middle school meet. April 22nd is when they're going. We've never done that before. We have a teacher that helped us last year who is getting the students prepared. So I hope that that gets built more so that when they come from the middle school they kind of already know what's going to happen.

Q: These students who are active in Speech and the play and band and concert, what do they gain out of the experience in terms of life skills-building

Many of the kids that we have are active in other things throughout the year too. So the nice thing about speech, although it's an NSAA activity, they can still be in winter sports while they're in speech as well. We have kids that are in FCCLA or FFA and things like that, too. So time management, responsibility, confidence,. I can tell the kids that we work with have a confidence about them, even just working in groups, in class or just presenting to their teachers or whatever it may be.

Q: What were some of your greatest successes in your time as the speech kind of coach here?

The first year I was here, we had a state champion duet and a runner-up in humorous. And we worked on work ethic that year and I didn't really know exactly what to expect coming in that first year. But fast forwarding to this year, we took seven kids to the state meet, which was huge. Out of six of those events, four of them medaled. Again, that was huge for us. As a school, we placed fifth in class B. My hope is that it just continues to grow from there.

Q: Those accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without the exceptionally talented students you get to work with every day. Tell me a little bit about those kids and what they’re like to be around on a daily basis?

We’re fortunate enough that they have a class period, an advanced speech class, where if they're in that class, they get some time during the day to just prepare what they're doing, maybe practice some things, get some peer influence. This year, what I think helped their team so much is they actually became quite a tight-knit group. They became friends. They were a unified group, and they wanted each other to succeed as much as they wanted themselves to succeed. So that to me was a huge success in itself.

Q: Why have these fine arts programs thrived at Schuyler? What kind of sets the table for all the successes that you guys have all across your fine arts programs?

You go back to that core group of kids and that's what their passion is. Not that they don't have other passions, but that is one thing where fine arts gives kids a place to succeed if they're not athletes, or if they are, we have both, but it gives them a different outlet as well, just the acting, the platform for expression and creativity for some of the kids that just like to write. This just gives them a different outlet.

Q: The cool thing about longstanding successes is seeing those younger students get to evolve into leaders. Do you have that leadership from upperclassmen?

I do think it's coming. It takes a while to build the program like that, but I do think that it's coming. We have some kids now on the team, and will still be on the team next year, who have brothers and sisters who were able to see them succeed at the district and even state level. We even have little sisters who memorize scripts and, I mean, it's impressive. And so it's coming. It's getting there.

Q: As administrators, when you get to go watch the speech team compete and thrive and find success, how much does that fill you with pride in this school district and in those students and in that coach?

Dr. Joey Lefdal: Speech is one that I've always just loved. My kids are actually part of the team as well. And my youngest daughter loves it as well. I love seeing those kids excited because they're really not the kids who are on the basketball court. A lot of them, like my daughter, compete in other sports. But really, she thrives and she excels in speech and the fine arts portion of it. Watching and those students who really are blossoming as people and you see their talent is just getting so much better and crisp, I'm just so proud.

Samantha Ladwig: Their success is awesome, but even more than that, I love to see the camaraderie they have. Mrs. Gustafson downplayed the fact that they are a tight-knit group. Watching them work together, and not just in speech, but it carries over into the classroom setting, it carries over into the lunch room, when they help at community events, you just see that in all aspects of what they're doing in life. And they're growing as genuine human beings that have a well-rounded perspective of the world because of what they're learning.

Q: Do you feel embraced by the community? Do you feel like the speech team is supported and you have that Schuyler community behind you guys?

Melanie Gustafson: Definitely. Like I said before, not everyone always knows what being on the speech team really means. A lot of the kids, if they've taken speech class, they're like, "We're not being a part of speech team." It's not the same thing. Through the time I've been here, people have kind of latched onto what actually does it mean to be on the speech team. So when we actually left for state speech, the elementary and middle school kids lined up the highway and waved and we honked at them and it was really cool. So I know those little kids probably didn't understand that, but they'll remember that and why they did that.

Samantha Ladwig: We had a pretty sweet escort out of town too. The fire department gave them an escort out.

Melanie Gustafson: Yeah. That was really neat.

(Photo from the Schuyler Speech Facebook page)