FONTANA — When he first arrived at Fontana Elementary School, Steve Torrez noticed colorful potted flowers greeting visitors at the school’s main entrance.
He later spotted a woman tending to the flowers, as one of many parent and community volunteers who help to keep things running smoothly at the school.
That was when the school’s new principal realized that he had found someplace special in Fontana.
“We have a just wealth of people,” he said. “They are sharing their skills and sharing their time.”
As principal at Fontana Elementary School, Torrez has joined with first-year Superintendent Mark Wenzel to bring a new leadership team to a school that, like many in Wisconsin, is grappling to overcome unsteady enrollment and dwindling resources.
Together, Torrez and Wenzel have laid out an ambitious plan for building on the strong foundation they found at Fontana Elementary.
They have brought in new teachers and staff, introduced new curriculum, reassigned teachers to better utilize their specialties, and even reached outside the school to offer continuing education to adults.
School Board President Tom Labus said he has heard positive feedback in the community and he, too, is pleased with the direction of the school’s new leadership.
“It turned out,” Labus said, “to be exactly what we hoped it would be.”
The school serves about 200 students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, with 20 teachers and about 15 other staff.
Under a difficult environment for public schools in Wisconsin, Fontana Elementary has faced its share of adversity in recent years. With enrollment fluctuating but generally heading downward, the school has lost state aid, and also has been hampered by state-imposed property tax caps.
Only a voter referendum in 2018 authorizing $750,000 a year in tax increases for four years rescued the school from a budget deficit that would have forced painful staff cuts.
That was followed this year by the departures of Principal Sara Norton, student learning director Jennifer Smithman and later business manager Sarah Duncan.
After considering different administrative restructuring options, the school board found its new principal in Torrez, who had been running a pre-school in Harvard, Illinois.
The board then created a part-time superintendent’s position and filled it by coaxing Wenzel out of retirement. A former longtime Fontana teacher and administrator, Wenzel had left the district five years ago.
After Duncan’s resignation as business manager, she was replaced by Sharon Llanas, who came over from a school district in Waukesha County.
Wenzel said his new position has given him a chance to study the school’s finances, to review its policies, to contemplate enrollment trends and to consider options after the referendum-approved tax increase expires in 2021.
With the support of the school board, Wenzel said he is optimistic that the school is headed in the right direction.
“I feel good about the direction,” he said. “I feel strongly about where we’re going.”
Torrez said he is excited about getting off to a strong start in his first year on campus.
Along with the teachers, students and parents who have welcomed him, he has been impressed by the number of parents and other volunteers who are committed to helping the school. Volunteers show up to read to students, to decorate the halls and to organize special activities.
“The school is already very good,” he said. “We’re just trying to build on that.”
In addition to a new business manager, the school has hired a full-time health aide, language arts teacher, physical education teacher, two teacher aides, a part-time music teacher and a part-time speech pathologist.
Teacher assignments have been juggled in some cases with the intent of freeing up teachers with specialties in science and math to focus their time on what they know best.
Among the biggest changes is the addition of a Spanish language teacher, who is not only teaching Spanish to students, but also is launching a new after-hours course for adults.
Teacher Brittany Rambatt spends her week introducing students in all grades to the Spanish language. She also offers an elective class that has attracted many students to study world cultures.
Offering foreign language in an elementary school is not common, especially in this region. Torrez and Wenzel say that is exactly the point — they want Fontana Elementary to distinguish itself as a progressive school that recognizes the importance of cultural literacy.
“The world is getting smaller,” Torrez said. “Having a global perspective is something that we find valuable.”
The Spanish language course for adults is starting Nov. 4 at a cost of $25 a person. The course will meet once a week for seven weeks.
Labus noted that there is a growing Hispanic population in the Lake Geneva region.
“We think it’s important for people to be able to communicate,” he said.
With the introduction of Spanish language and with improvements in physical education and music and the arts, Fontana Elementary’s new leaders hope they are creating a more holistic education that will draw more families and students.
For now, however, Torrez said his chief priority is creating the best possible education for those families and students who already are part of Fontana Elementary.
“We’re focused on what we can control,” he said. “And our goal is to maximize that.”