Dr. Geri Gilstrap, guest speaker at the May Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting, said Stilwell Public Schools has done well this year, and the only virtual sessions were the week before Thanksgiving because COVID numbers were high.

“Great things are happening here,” Gilstrap said.

Students have had the opportunity to attend dual classes, both virtual and in person.

“[There were] scheduling [issues] and people who didn’t want to get out of their comfort zones about computers, but now are, and we’ve accomplished dual enrollments, so we have found a silver lining in COVID,” Gilstrap said.

Everybody has stepped up, she added.

“We basically customized schedules for kids. We feel very blessed we’ve done pretty well in spite of COVID,” she said.

The school made all of the buses mobile hot spots and sent them out during the pandemic so kids could download assignments.

“Everything we do is now virtual and in person,” Gilstrap said. “Through virtual reality activities, they’ve been able to [have] an authentic Cherokee Village, Sevenstar Spatial Labs and esports competition."

"The Nutcracker" was also made into a video and put out online, she said.

One competition kids have done well in uses physics: Stratostar.

“They’re learning physics by using balloons. The kids are very good at this competition; they’ve even beat college students. How many of you remember physics being fun?”

Faith Phillips has taught the students about podcasts in her creative writing class.

“She keeps the kids so involved and interested,” Gilstrap said.

A Don’t Quit grant for $100,000 provided a new fitness center at Stilwell Middle School. In alternative ed, they serve any child in any way, she said.

“And we’re co-oping with rural schools – Zion, Rocky Mountain and Maryetta – so now the students can play on our teams. I just want to be a good neighbor. Eventually they’ll be in classes together, so this way they already have friends,” she said.

Other highlights are Tyla Sawney having her poetry featured in Chicago at the Native American Field Museum, and Mika Chuculate being featured in a PBS investigative reporting piece about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and Jimma Fuson being accepted to the Oklahoma Arts Institute summer program.

FFA won third in state for poultry and vet science with four state degree winners, talent at convention, and were designated a 3 Star Chapter, the highest rating.

Leader in Me District designation has been good for teaching students Seven Habits for Success. And they started a day care for employees to help retain young teachers and be supportive of them, she said.

“We saw that as a need. The Cherokee Nation and Child Development Center have helped us with this,” said Gilstrap.

They have received CARES Act funds and are using it wisely.

“We wanted sustainability so we’ve invested some of it in the HVAC. Every year, we update some, but we replaced them all districtwide that were more than 15 years old – about 58 so far,” she said.

The elementary still had the original push-out windows from when it was a hospital, so she got a low-interest loan for the windows.

Vaping sensors are going into all middle and high school bathrooms.

“It’s a problem at the high school and even the middle school,” she said.

The auditorium is open as a shelter and police have a key if it needs to be opened, Gilstrap said.

She’s also looking into ways to help with mental health needs of students and staff.

The Backpack Program helps about 150 students a year, with food and other essentials they can take home for the weekend, and is sponsored by Schwan’s.

A tour of Schwan’s was fascinating for Gilstrap.

“I tell him [Jonathan Vanderheider, senior director of manufacturing] he’s the Willy Wonka of Adair County. It’s so interesting to tour the facility,” said Gilstrap.