VASD: Drake brings high school experience to VAIS

Scott Girard

Photo by Scott Girard. New Verona Area International School director Barbara Drake stands in front of a map of China in one of the school’s classrooms.

For years before she retired in 2009, Barbara Drake worked to bring a Chinese program to her high school in Illinois.

She couldn’t get it mostly because of tight budgets. Instead, she’ll help bring the language to Verona students as the new director at Verona Area International School.

“If we’re going to offer French and German and Spanish, we should be able to offer Chinese,” she said of her efforts in Illinois. “When there’s 1.3 billion people speaking it, if not more, it’s just important to our country.”

Now a Fitchburg resident, she began volunteering at Glacier Edge Elementary School last school year, where she had a chance to observe the district’s new Two-Way Immersion Spanish program, more commonly called TWI.

“That’s one of the reasons I thought, ‘Wow, Chinese is even a bit more intense,’” she said.

While she’s excited for the job, she also enters the school in what might be its most important year since it opened in 2010, as it expands to a full K-5 elementary school and leaves questions about what this year’s fifth-graders will do next year.

“How do we sustain that beyond K-5?” she said. “And I think other districts are going to be watching us to see what happens here.”

She expects to eventually see a Chinese program at the high school, but knows the next steps will be a long process, with many people involved, from school administrators to parents.

Those parents, she said, are a key to what makes VAIS work, and Drake looks forward to working with them and the elementary students, an experience she says is similar to working in a high school, with a few important differences.

“The schedule is so different, you have to build in recess and things like that, that at the high school level those aren’t concerns,” she said. “The amount of work, the hours put into this school by parents is just mind-boggling.

“The school couldn’t operate without them.”

Drake, a University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Minnesota graduate, was the second person hired for the position after former director and founder Amanda Mayo left last spring. Stacey Struessel, the first hire, had left due to “health reasons,” Verona Area School District superintendent Dean Gorrell told the Press last week.

Drake’s background includes 17 years as a high school administrator in Minnesota, where she lead schools that included grades 7-12, and Illinois, as well as time as an associate dean at Harper College in Illinois.

When she moved to Fitchburg last summer, little did she realize she’d be just a six-minute drive from her job a year later.

“Sometimes things just happen for the right reasons, I guess,” Drake said. “I am a seriously lucky person.”

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