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SOUTH SIOUX CITY | On Tuesday, Michelle Helt ended her science class by asking an age-old question: Is squishy slime a liquid or is it actually a solid?

"You'd be surprised at how often slime comes up in conversation when you're teaching third-graders," she noted as students filed out for their lunch break.

This particular day, Helt's classroom was quite different than others at Cardinal Elementary School. Her room was being used as one of the locations for a new documentary highlighting innovative public schools across the state.

While a film crew positioned video cameras and microphones around Helt's room, Brittany Mascio explained that South Sioux City was the first northeast Nebraska school district to be profiled in the on-going series of documentary called "Nebraska Loves Public Schools."

Since 2011, "Nebraska Loves Public Schools" has produced more than 50 films, exploring a range of topics important to education.

"We had first heard about South Sioux City schools last fall," Mascio, the production company's marketing director, explained. "What drew us to the district was that the teachers were trained to adapt to the needs of their students."

"Teaching in a public school should never be a one-size-fits-all model," she added. "At South Sioux City, teachers are keenly aware of that."

Indeed, documentary director Sally Nellson Barrett and her film crew were filming portions of a Professional Learning Communities (PLC) meeting inside Helt's room.

PLC groups allow teachers to collaborate with one another while adapting strategies that can increase the effectiveness of their teaching in the classroom while focusing on individual student achievement.

According to Principal Dan Swatek, such meetings sometimes occur on a daily basis.

"If there's a need for it, meetings can occur more often that that," he said.

Such PLC discussions are used to gauge the effectiveness of both math and English curricula. This is important, Swatek said, since nearly 72 percent of Cardinal's school population is made up of Hispanic kids. 

"We have to always work hard to increase the learning opportunity for every student," he noted. "This is a district that really understands the importance of PLCs."

Mascio nodded her head in agreement.

"Teamwork enhances teachers' voices while giving them some autonomy," she said. "Whether discussing curriculum or individual students, teachers can implement changes in real time."

Which, in the end, Swatek said, benefits the kids the most.

"By prioritizing standards, teachers can directly increase the learning opportunities of every student," he added. "Giving students a road map of goals and achievements will allow them to make improvements."

The documentary -- which Mascio said will features interviews with administrators, teachers and students at both Cardinal Elementary School and South Sioux City Middle School -- will premiere online at on May 1.


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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