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THE JOURNEY: From Preschool to Caps and Gowns

First Gilbert preschool class set to graduate in May

One by one, they walked through the preschool classroom door, unsure of what to expect. They stopped at the back of the classroom and looked around, from one side of the room to the next. They saw the youngest of Gilbert students sitting at tables, either coloring or playing or talking. They glanced to the front of the room and saw a familiar face in Heather Currans looking their way with a smile on her face and a tear in her eye.

And one by one, they smiled. They were back where it all began. Where they started it all, really.

They were the first. And they always will be.


Mrs. Currans simply doesn’t own a poker face. She often wears her emotions on her sleeve and communicates through radiating eyes and a warm and welcoming smile, which is perfect for a preschool teacher.

She did her best to hold it together — the emotions of the moment — when 18 of her former pupils walked through her classroom door on a bright Thursday morning just after the first bell had rung. Had her current students not already been in the room and needing her undivided attention, she almost certainly would have crumbled.

A few tears did slip down her cheek, first when senior Cam Stephens presented her with a floral arrangement from the Class of 2024. Hugs were quick but so heartfelt, both from teacher and student.

This was going to be a good morning.


In a few short weeks — seriously, where does the time go? — the Class of 2024 will say goodbye to the Gilbert Community School District. Like so many classes before, graduation will be celebratory, reflective, and emotional. The seniors will move on, and hopefully they’ll look back at their adolescent years with fond memories of what they experienced inside our halls and classrooms.

This class is special though, particularly to Currans and Gilbert Elementary Principal Staci Edwards. In the fall of 2010, 20 of this year’s graduates — Taylor Banning, Ashton Dodds, Henry Gustafson, Jackson Johnson, Kiera Miller, Kilee Miller, Taylor Puck, Eli Roske, Ian Roske, Toby Ruba, Cam Stephens, Elle Ellingson, Adalyn Gauck, Zach Heimer, Haley Loonan, Hope Marquette, Zain Mueller, Maddy Shannon, Sidney Steenhoek, and Dylan Terry — were a part of the first ever preschool class at Gilbert. Classmate Jacob Leedom, who tragically passed away this past fall, was also part of that special group.

The first Gilbert Elementary preschool class to graduate. Now that’s pretty special.

“The evolution of that particular class has been so fun to watch,” Edwards, who led the effort to implement the Early Childhood Program at Gilbert, said. “They’ve been in school the whole time I’ve been at Gilbert and I think about the change they’ve seen going from a district that had three buildings to four buildings, and then to a new (high school) building. It’s exciting to know in a bigger picture how much change can happen in really just the school lifetime of a kiddo here at Gilbert.”

With administration and community support, Edwards wrote the early childhood grant for state funding throughout the 2009-10 school year, and after receiving accreditation through NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), Gilbert was ready to welcome its first class in the fall of 2010.

Currans, who had worked in the Ames school district for a number of years, applied and was hired to lead the new program at Gilbert Elementary. In the first year, she taught two sections of preschool — a morning class with 17 students and an afternoon class with 16 students.

“It was pretty exciting to be able to start a program from the ground up,” Currans said. “Everything from how you’re going to set up your room to what is your teaching philosophy going to be, to getting new things. And what I really loved is Staci is an early childhood person … she trusted me to make the decisions that I felt would be best to build the program. Anywhere I’ve ever worked, I’ve never had the kind of support from a principal or administrator that I have here. She was instrumental in getting the program here and making it what it is.”

Over the past 14 school years, approximately 750-800 students have taken part in Gilbert’s Early Childhood Program. So popular was the program that in 2012-13, another educator was hired and preschool increased to four sections — two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Kindergarten prep was added for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, and then returned again in 2019-20 where it has remained since.


And that brings us back to last Thursday — April 11, 2024 — when some of those first students returned to where it all began.

After the initial shock of being in their first classroom, the 18 seniors quickly acclimated to their surroundings. After greetings with Currans, they gravitated toward the tables spread around the room to interact with this year’s preschool students.

Slowly, the memories began to flood back into their minds.

“I really couldn’t remember a lot of things off the top of my head, but being back in the classroom again made me remember all of the things we did,” Cam Stephens said. “It’s where I met all of the kids and a lot of them are my friends today.

“It was cool to be back, especially talking to Mrs. Currans because I’ve known her for so long. She was definitely a great teacher.”

Following the free time with the young students, the seniors joined the preschoolers on the carpet in the front of the room to get the day started. Many of the soon-to-be graduates nodded their heads, remembering the morning routine of checking the date and the weather outside. Those are happy memories, but there was also a bit of melancholy at the realization of just how fast the entire school experience went.

“Mrs. Currans has seen us all grow up and be who we are now, so there is a lot of nostalgia for that for sure,” Elle Ellingson said. “But it was also kind of sad being back there. To be back there and see all of the little kids … seeing how much life they have to go through and learn, it’s sad that it went by so fast, but also beautiful to think about.”

Zain Mueller wore a perpetual grin on his face throughout the morning. The energy and enthusiasm of the preschoolers was infectious and made it impossible for the seniors not to see the joy.

“It’s fun to see them be happy all of the time,” Mueller said. “I was definitely thinking back to my preschool and elementary memories, and it was fun to be in Mrs. Currans’ room again. She was definitely the best preschool teacher you could ask for. She was always so sweet and helpful.”

Mrs. Currans felt the affection from her former students, both through their expressions and their words. So see them all in her classroom again, to see what it meant to each of the seniors to return to where it all began, it will stay with her forever.

“It was incredible and I was blown away with how many of them came,” Mrs. Currans said, the emotion in her voice resonating through the cracks. “I know the things these kids have gone through and I know the accomplishments they’ve had, so to see them grow is just really neat. It meant so much to me to see all of them back here.”

Just like their entire academic careers at Gilbert, the 30 minutes in the classroom went by quickly. It was time for the seniors to leave, to head to their own building and prepare for a day of learning.

But not before they made one last stop.

The seniors went out the back door of the classroom and headed to the playground for one last trip down slide mountain. There were laughs and even a few screams as, one by one, they flew down one of the side slides.

“It doesn’t seem like 14 years ago I was in that classroom sitting on that carpet and writing my name in a workbook,” Stephens said. “It definitely goes by really fast.”

It sure does.

Preschool Students Learn About Space

On Thursday, Gilbert Elementary preschool teachers Mrs. Currans and Mrs. Terrones had the pleasure to welcome Mr. Jim Christensen into their morning and afternoon classes to teach our youngest students about science, specifically the sun, the moon, and space.

A little background on Mr. Christensen, who just so happens to be the dad of Mrs. Anderson, our middle school and high school family and consumer sciences teacher. Mr. Christensen was a sixth-grade science teacher for many years before he moved on to be a Science, Math and Technology Director with the AEA.

After retiring, Mr. Christensen went to work at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where he served as the Director of Education. At the Kennedy Space Center, he led a project designing a new education building named the ATX Center (ATX stands for Astronaut Training Experience).

Currently, Mr. Christensen  is the Director of Innovation for Aldren Family Foundation, an educational non-profit. He writes STEAM curriculum materials and projects, trains teachers, and conducts presentations for students, teachers and the general public.

Mr. Christensen’s vast knowledge and ability to connect with students was quite apparent yesterday. The kids were captivated, particularly when they went outside to see a homemade rocket launch! Anytime the word “NASA” was mentioned, their eyes got wide.

Mr. Christensen, thank you for spending some time with our students. It was so informative and so much fun!

YSS Mentoring Program Offers Students, Adults The Chance To Make A Lasting Impact

Jaden Rydl has regrets every week when she walks into Gilbert Intermediate and meets with a fifth-grade girl who has become her friend. They smile. They laugh. They play games and tell stories. They confide in one another.

And Rydl, who is one of more than a dozen Gilbert High School students involved in the YSS School Based Mentoring Program, has regrets.

Why didn’t she do this sooner?

“I wish I would have gotten into it as a sophomore or junior,” Rydl, who will graduate in just a few months, said. “This is a chance to have an impact on a kid you never would have known before. Being a senior, you’re such a role model to younger kids and I feel like this is a chance to do it.”

January is National Mentoring Month, as all of us celebrate the positive influence mentors can have on our young students.

When Rydl signed up to become a mentor, she thought it would be a chance to be a good role model to her younger peers. And yet she now knows the impact she can make is far beyond what she initially thought.

“Going into it I thought this would be fun, but I didn’t realize how big of a role we could play,” she said. “You can tell they look forward to our meetings as well. She’s willing to be open and talk about stuff, and I’m glad I can be there for her.”

GHS junior Will Hawthorne, a first-year mentor as well, shares similar stories. He mentors a sixth-grade boy at Gilbert Middle School where he gets a weekly opportunity to make a noticeable difference in the life of a young student.

“It’s a great opportunity to rewind a couple of years and use what you know now to be a big buddy to someone,” Hawthorne said. “I remember when I was in middle school, I can remember mentors coming to school and they were like celebrities. It’s really interesting how, in the blink of an eye, it all switched. We go out and play at recess and all of the kids think I’m the coolest guy ever when, really, it feels like I was in their shoes just two weeks ago.”

Now in its 23rd year, the YSS School Based Mentoring Program remains impactful throughout the Gilbert CSD buildings. In her first year as the Gilbert Mentor Facilitator, Kristi Leyva says there are 30 mentors in the program and 60 members. And the program is always looking for new mentors, whether that’s high school students or leaders in the community who would like to make a difference in the life of a young student.

“It’s a neat experience because it’s outside of your every day experiences,” Leyva said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time and it really makes a huge impact.”

High school sophomores, juniors, and seniors can all sign up to be mentors, Leyva said.

“Mentors have to be at least 15 years of age,” she said. “You can be a mentee anywhere from kindergarten to eighth grade, and then freshman year, we consider that a gap year.”

Gilbert Schools’ Transportation Manager Trent Becker is one of the adults who serves as a mentor and he currently works with two students. Becker was initially a mentor nearly a decade ago and then picked back up this fall.

“I think research is pretty clear that kids who have two or three people they can count on, adult voices in their life, they tend to be more successful,” Becker said.

Becker’s weekly meetings with his mentees usually take place over their lunch period. They eat, they talk, they play games, and just have fun.

“Most people want to make a difference in the lives of other people and this is a very easy way to do that,” Becker said. “Every kid that I’ve talked to always thanks me for encouraging them to do it.”

Leyva says the program is always looking for new mentors. If you would like to find out more information about the program, enroll your child into the program, or sign up to become a mentor, head over to the YSS website HERE.

Chef Clarke The New Food Service Director For Gilbert CSD

The Gilbert Community School District is thrilled to welcome Tace Clarke to our team as the new Director of Food Service.

Chef Clarke got right to work at each of the four buildings last week. She replaces Deb Purcell, who served in the role for more than five years before her retirement last week.

Previously the Food Service Director at Baxter Schools, Chef Clarke comes to Gilbert with more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant and food service industry. She says she has a friend to thank for pointing her in Gilbert’s direction.

“I actually had a close friend who worked here as a long-term (substitute teacher) and I asked her what she thought of Gilbert. She said the processes and routines and families were incredible, and she really sold it for me,” Chef Clarke said. “The opportunity to have multiple buildings and be able to grow a program in a growing community at a school like Gilbert that has a reputation for excellence, it’s just fantastic.”

Chef Clarke grew up just outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and began her culinary career in Little Italy, Baltimore where she learned under well-respected chefs on the east coast.

She moved to Iowa a decade ago to serve as the Regional Operational Lead at Life Time Athletic in Des Moines. She eventually took over as the Associate Director of Food Service at Grinnell College and then moved into a leading role at Baxter Schools, where she was in her third year before accepting the position at Gilbert.

Chef Clarke says the move to Iowa has been all she and her family had hoped for when they made the decision.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “My parents moved out from Maryland about two yeas ago … we love it here.”

Chef Clarke is excited to get to work with her new Gilbert CSD staff and put her plan in place.

“I love being able to teach the cooking to my team,” she said. “I love homemade cooking from scratch and I’d like to move in that direction instead of processed ingredients. That’s not a tomorrow thing, but the goal is to start that one day a week and go from there.”

Dr. Christine Trujillo, the Superintendent of Gilbert Schools, sees the passion and enthusiasm Chef Clarke brings to her department, and is excited to see her become a leader in the district.

“Chef Clarke brings a new and exciting energy to the nutrition department,” Dr. Trujillo said. “I look forward to watching her creativity come alive in the kitchen for our children.”

Chef Clarke and her husband, William, have two young children: Liam, 8, and McKenna, 5. William is also a former chef and currently serves as an EMT and firefighter. Liam, a second grader, and McKenna, who is in kindergarten, attend school in the West Marshall Community School District.

An avid equestrian, Chef Clarke and her family live on a farm where they all spend quality time riding.

“Before getting into the culinary world, I actually rode for many years,” Chef Clarke said. “Now I just do it for fun. We all ride and just have fun with it.”

Dr. Trujillo also wanted to thank Ms. Purcell for her commitment to Gilbert CSD during her years as the Food Service Director.

“I’m so grateful to Deb for her hard work and dedication in the area of nutrition for Gilbert students,” Dr. Trujillo said. “We wish her nothing but the best in retirement.”

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Gilbert Community School District

Gilbert Community School District

103 Mathews Drive, Gilbert, Iowa 50105  |  (515) 232-3740