#CULTIVATING
St. Joseph School District

March 25, 2021

Written by Emily Baumann | Photography submitted and St. Joseph School District

CHARACTER TRAIT: Cultivating

DEFINITION: To develop and improve something (or someone).

The trust parents place in educators is a bond that brings families together into a community and elevates everyone. No greater responsibility can be placed in the hands of another than the heart and minds of our youth…and the teachers, staff, and administrators of the St. Joseph School District have embraced that trust. Never knowing which of their words or actions will be the guiding light of a student, they have dedicated their past and present to brightening the future. Here are a few stories of those who have dedicated their lives to the children of St. Joseph, helping them discover their full potential, and then achieving just that.

DAVID GEORGE Teacher at Central High School

You could say that David George was born to be an educator (even if he was certain he DID NOT want to be a teacher when he grew up). His father taught social studies at Central High School and his mother taught at Humboldt Elementary. At home his parents were often working on their lesson plans and that just looked too much like (home)work for his liking. Not even being the great-grandson of Skaith Elementary’s namesake Mr. Francis L. Skaith, beloved educator and superintendent of the Pickett School District, would be enough to influence him. But what would life be without plot twists? A 20-something David found himself reading history for fun, he went back to college…and the rest is…well…history.

He has been an educator for 22 years and began his career with the SJSD in 2001. Currently at Central High School (previously at Lafayette High School for 18 years) he teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History, Honors U.S. History, and Talented and Gifted Humanities. Over the course of his long career David has seen classroom time evolve from writing notes on the white board and struggling to schedule computer lab time to now when every student has the world at their fingertips 24/7. This is a time in which technology changes so rapidly that every year brings changes and challenges for educators and students alike.

“Every student deserves a dedicated teacher in the classroom,” he said.

His philosophy is simple: great schools develop lifelong learners, attract new businesses and inspire the community as a whole. Continuing to improve our district alongside to keep pace with rapid technological change will not only improve business infrastructure, but it will also give a place for the leaders of tomorrow to call St. Joseph their home.

“I have always believed that having a positive classroom environment, treating students with respect, and maintaining a positive sense of humor is as important – if not more so – than the subjects we teach.”

DONITA SWAFFORD Nutrition Services Manager at Carden Park Elementary

The St. Joseph School District isn’t just feeding the minds of the children, but their bellies as well. Providing nutritious, balanced meals so that kids can perform at the top of their game each and every day is key to ensuring success in and out of the classroom. No one knows this better than Donita Swafford, Nutrition Services Manager at Carden Park Elementary, who has been with the SJSD since 1989. What started as a flexible role so that she could be home at the same time as her two young daughters has grown into a career that she never expected.

Living by her motto “Bloom where you are planted,” Donita uses her role as an opportunity to serve others by providing quality meals and being a positive uplifting presence in the lives of the leaders of tomorrow. Since starting her career over 30 years ago she has seen the district evolve and grow to provide resources to the changing and diverse demographics of our community. The lunchroom tables are a gathering place of different cultures, languages, and all walks of life…and her team is there to help facilitate this new and changing environment. Carden Park is unique, being a Community Eligibility Program school, if a certain percentage of the student body is free or reduced lunch…every student receives free lunch. This program helps everyone breathe easy, knowing that all students have a warm meal to help fuel the learning process.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic everyone in the district pulled together to continue to provide meals for students, even while schools were closed. This huge team effort of meal distribution was unlike anything seen before, but the results were worth it. The nutrition teams have continued to be flexible by bringing meals to the classrooms, providing pick up meals for virtual students, and dealing with supply-line changes.

She has seen first hand how the pandemic has strained the necessary resources of our schools; being forward thinking and planning for the future needs of our community would allow our district to be prepared for anything.

Donita and her team miss seeing the smiles and giving big hugs to the students that they serve…but that doesn’t stop them from serving up a lot of love (and smiling really big with their eyes) each and every day.

LAVELL RUCKER, MSW, ACTP School Social Worker at Central High School

If there is one thing that rings true, it’s that a career in education is a calling and LaVell Rucker, a school social worker at Central High School, is no exception to this rule. How does a woman with dreams of a high-powered, corporate job turned stay at home mom become a daily influencer in the lives of students? She got involved…and then stayed!

When her children were students in the St. Joseph School District LaVell found herself volunteering as a room mother, scout leader, basketball coach, lunchroom monitor, etc…she did it all! During that time she reflected on her own education and felt drawn to do even more. She went back to school at Missouri Western State University, and quickly found her passion and natural skills in psychology.

“I wanted to help kids discover who they are…a person with value and worth, to realize their full potential.”

LaVell’s career as a social worker allows her to get to know students and help them chart a course to success. In her 21 years as part of the SJSD she has seen technology shape the face of learning. Students no longer submit handwritten assignments or visit the library for research, schoolwork is done digitally. But counseling is still done best in the time-tested way, face to face. Being able to BE THERE in the moment with students allows her to more effectively assist students. During the COVID-19 pandemic LaVell has been agile in her approach by adopting technology for meetings going virtual or by email.

“Children don’t ask to be born, I believe they deserve to be given our very best.”

Not only has the learning environment changed drastically, but so have the mental health needs of modern students. Improving the school environment coupled with increased access to resources for educators and staff allowing them to stay on top of emerging trends in psychology benefits every single student in the district by building well-educated and well-adjusted community members. School social workers make a difference in small and big ways, by being a “go to” confidant for teens when making life decisions or dealing with the heavy stuff – like pregnancy, homelessness, and conflicts.

“One day an 18-year-old girl came to me and said her mom kicked her out of the house and she didn’t have any family to go and stay with,” LaVell said. “She didn’t have anyone to take her in. She was to get her things at the end of the day and get out. She was crying and felt helpless. I made a phone call to Pivotal Point Transitional Housing where they had a unit available. She was able to apply and have a safe place to stay. It’s days like this that make me really glad I do what i do.”

We support the #uncommoncharacter of the dedicated staff, teachers, and administrators of the St. Joseph School District. They are the heroes that our children depend on every day.

#ORIGINAL

Amidst the chaos of a packed gymnasium… squeak, squeak. Bounce. Bounce. These are the only sounds that matter. Sneakers and a basketball against a polished gym floor.

#DELICIOUS

What does it take to become a local legend in sandwich-making? The recipe calls for a family history of food know-how, plus a generous amount of business savvy.

#TIMELESS

Walking into Café Belle Epoque takes you back in time. The copper tin ceiling, marble table tops, hardwood floors, wood-burning stove and jazz music seem to transport you to a period of economic glamour in historic St. Joseph.

#HISTORIC

A visit to the St. Joseph museums is … Quirky. Surprising. Curious. Impressive. Enlightening. And totally worth a day, or an afternoon, or a full weekend with the family.

#SWEET

For 100 years, the iconic Cherry Mash has been made in St. Joseph. The combination of peanuts, chocolate and cherry fondant is the third-oldest continuously made candy bar in the country.