Archive for Thursday, March 16, 2006

Retirees to leave void at Lexington Trails

March 16, 2006

When John and Julie Riffel and Betsy Wooden retire from Lexington Trails Middle School this May, they will take almost a century of teaching experience in De Soto with them.

"It's absolutely going to be hard to replace them," Lexington Trails principal Mark Schmidt said.

John and Julie Riffel began teaching in De Soto in 1973. John taught industrial arts and Julie taught third grade. Although they're not originally from De Soto, they've made the community their home.

The Riffels met at Emporia State University after getting their bachelor's degrees. John had served a tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army sergeant from 1968 to 1969, which allowed him to be able to pay for college.

"We moved here to be close to Lawrence so he could get his master's and stayed for 30 years," Julie said.

Julie originally taught at the old elementary school that is now the district service center. Throughout the years, she's taught third through sixth grades. She now works as the librarian at Lexington Trails.

John taught industrial arts and switched to technology arts. He also coached football and basketball and briefly served as an assistant principal. The Riffels' two children, Dana and Brandon, both graduated from De Soto High School.

Betsy Wooden came to the district in 1979 after teaching private school in her hometown of Kansas City, Mo., for 10 years.

"I had never gone to a public school, so this was a complete shock to me," she said.

Wooden grew up six blocks from the Country Club Plaza and got her bachelor's from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. She now teaches math skills but has also taught language arts at the junior high level.

The three teachers remember a different time in De Soto's history, when children attended school in non-air conditioned buildings and there were four computers for the entire junior high school.

"Back then, some of these kids were very rural," Wooden said. "A lot of them had never been to Shawnee, never seen a K-Mart or Wal-Mart."

Wooden said the lack of air conditioning was particularly difficult when temperatures soared above 95 degrees in August.

"Today, that's unheard of," she said. "I used to get so mad about that. I would tell board members, 'You try moving your work out in the garage for three hours.'"

John said he would get up at 3 a.m. to begin setting up fans and opening windows to get rid of the hot air that filtered into the building on summer days.

John also remembers when the downtown junior high school, which is now City Hall, was full of 500 to 600 students, with many living at Clearview City or Sunflower Village.

"That's the biggest change I've seen," he said. "At one time, most of the students were from rural communities. Now, it's suburban Johnson County. The complexity has changed."

Julie said getting 600 students in the old downtown junior high school was chaotic.

"The building was built for half that," she said. "It was before they started the new elementaries. The halls were so crowded. It was bedlam."

One change with which the teachers have doubts is the adequate yearly progress goals detailed in the federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation, requiring all students to be at a proficient level by the year 2014. John said although there had been many undesirable trends in education, teachers would survive.

"You adapt to the situation and away you go," he said.

Wooden said the biggest change for her was adjusting to the new technology and computers now used in every classroom.

"The first computers were a mess," she said. "It's so frustrating when there are four people with their master's degrees and we couldn't get the computer to work and our grades were due. At one point, they wanted us all to learn programming."

Although it was her biggest hurdle, Julie said it was also Wooden's greatest success.

Julie said she was most concerned about the talented teachers who don't stay in education.

"What frustrates me is seeing teachers who really have a lot of potential and don't stay in teaching," she said. "You have to give up your life for this job and sometimes they're just not ready."

Wooden said her advice to newer teachers was to ease into the job slowly at first.

"Don't spread yourselves too thin," she said. "Don't try to take on too much your first few years. They'll often get somebody young and want them to coach, but you need to get your feet on the ground first."

The three teachers once taught a few students who are now Lexington Trails teachers. They are now having students who are children of students they had in the '70s and '80s. John calls them "grand-students."

"It lends itself to credibility, when you had their parents, they listen to you a little more and respect you a little more."

The Riffels are looking forward to spending more time with their grandchildren in west Shawnee. Wooden said she was looking forward to gardening and traveling the world. All three said they would be glad to come back to Lexington Trails as volunteers. They're proud of the school community they helped build.

"I think it's really special to have so many families who keep coming back to our schools," Wooden said.

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