School is getting underway across Eastern Jackson County, and area superintendents have highlighted changes and updates.

Superintendents Paul Kinder (Blue Springs), Jason Snodgrass (Fort Osage) and Dale Herl (Independence) spoke Friday in Independence, and Grain Valley Superintendent Marc Snow spoke last week. Voters in all four districts have recently passed bond issues or raised taxes to pay for expansion and upgrades, and superintendents were quick to highlight those and other changes.

Here are some of those highlights.

What’s new:

• The freshman wing at Blue Springs South High has been added, moving those students out of the district’s Freshman Center.

• Independence has the area’s newest school, Cassell Park Elementary in western Independence. It’s a two-story building fit onto a relatively small amount of land, and it’s designed to feel open and spacious, including wide halls that can serve more than one purpose. “ … we have learning space built into the hallways,” Herl said. It opened this week with 301 students, a number likely to grow.

• Truman High School has four new classrooms, and all three Independence high schools have refurbished science rooms. Van Horn High School has a new gym.

• Grain Valley has continued to add to its high school with a new library, refurbished office space and a courtyard with seating and even an amphitheater.

• Blue Springs has added classrooms at four elementary schools, a new library at Blue Springs High School, and a “black box” theater is coming in January to Blue Springs South.

Achievement:

• Two students at Blue Springs South High School scores perfect scores of 36 on the ACT college aptitude test.

“You don’t see that very often,” Kinder said. The district also had four National Merit Scholar finalists last year.

• Independence scored 97.5 percent on its state APR measure – the only district in the state to raise its score six years in a row.

• Herl said 72.7 percent of this year’s Independence high school graduates left with either a dual credit for college or with an industry certification. “We’re hoping to get that to over 90 percent in the next few years,” he said.

• Fort Osage has placed an emphasis on attendance and last year had 2,300 students with 95 percent attendance or better.

• Four Blue Springs schools have been named Blue Ribbon schools – a national recognition – in recent years, and James Walker Elementary is working on that designation expected to come this fall, Kinder said.

Fresh ideas:

• The new Farview Neighborhood Library in the old Early Childhood Education building in the Susquehanna area is a collaboration of the Fort Osage district, the Community Services League and the Mid-Continent Public Library.

Children checked out more than 1,000 books in June, and the food shelf is helping 100 families a week. “This is really a model, I think, to be used more extensively as people learn about it,” Snodgrass said.

• Grain Valley has therapy dogs in three of its schools and plans to have them in each school. “What a game-changer for a lot of these kids …” Snow said.

• Blue Springs has adopted a grow-your-own teachers program under which local college students get interest-free loans of up to $20,000, and those loans are forgiven if that person comes back to the district to teach.

• The Independence district has worked with Blue Ridge Bank & Trust to open what Herl called the nation’s “first student-assisted bank” that’s not on a school campus. It’s in the office building – once a bank, not housing a bank and other things – at the southwest corner of Lexington and Liberty.

“The other exciting thing,” Herl said, “is we now have a bank back on the Square.”

• Grain Valley middle school students have been issued Chromebooks, which “means a lot of opportunity for our kids,” Snow said.

• Independence is using “Advancement via Individual Determination” to get middle school students to start thinking seriously about readiness for college or career.

What’s old(ish):

• The oldest building in the Grain Valley district is Matthews Elementary, at 40 years. It’s been refurbished. “The building looks totally different,” Snow said. There’s a celebration from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 5.

What’s next?

• Snow said a fifth elementary school in Grain Valley “is not too far down the road.” There are plans for a second gym at the high school – something all of the Eagles rivals in the Suburban Conference already have.

– Jeff Fox