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8 Over 80: John Focht stays in tune with elementary education

Second in a series on this year’s Courier 8 Over 80 honorees.

CEDAR FALLS – Looking back on a full career in education, John Focht says, some things have changed a lot, and some things never will.

“A lot of people go on about, ‘Children aren’t like they used to be,’” he said. “Well, they’re not like they used to be, but they are like they are, and they still have to be accepted for where they are and what they come from and what they’ve been through.”

Focht grew up on a farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse in southwest Iowa. He graduated from Villisca High School in 1948 and worked with his father on the family farm. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1951-54, and later graduated from Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa, with a major in speech therapy. He then earned a master’s degree in elementary administration from Mankato (Minn.) State University.

Throughout his career he served as a principal at several Cedar Falls elementary schools, including the former Main Street School where the Cedar Falls Rec Center stands today. He also was principal at Cedar Heights Elementary from 1971-84 and spent time at the helm of Lincoln, Valley Park and North Cedar elementary schools as well.

“I am very proud to have been a principal,” Focht said.

He also is known for a column he wrote in the Cedar Valley Record on fitness. Fitness remains a big part of Focht’s life today.

To describe Focht’s career and personality, the word “colorful” suits him well. At first glance, Focht often sports a variety of bracelets and outfits that are never shy of pinanche. He cheerfully greets anyone on the street from strangers to family and friends.

His home and yard are decorated with treasures from his hobby of remaking chairs into works of art. In his free time, Focht enjoys painting old furniture, mainly chairs, with designs and inspirational phrases. He has gifted hundreds of these chairs to members of the community, each with a design unique to the receiver.

Inside his home are flowers, art and furniture of all colors. Paintings on each wall, many depicting sunsets and sunrises, were painted by Focht from photos of vacations he and his wife, Judy, have taken. His wife’s “pencil tree,” which could be mistaken as a Christmas tree, stands in the couple’s home all year with ever-changing decorations. The tree currently commemorates and promotes the use of masks, and typical of Focht, it has another use: Its limbs can be used to dry masks.

Focht also has a “colorful” social media presence. A quick scroll down his Facebook page shows his love for nature and photography.

Giving gifts also is important to Focht. If it’s not one of his “pebble pets,” the decorated rocks he gives to students, there is surely another token of his appreciation he will leave behind. Baking bread to give away is another hobby of his. With 10 bread-making machines, sometimes all running at the same time, Focht always is eager to break bread with friends old and new.

After a career of more than 30 years in education, Focht, 88, has spent another nearly 30 years volunteering in elementary classrooms.

“It’s been a joy and keeps me in touch with teaching kids,” he said.

He is known among the youngest generations for his “pebble pets.”

Each “pebble pet,” as he calls them, is decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint, a sticker or painting on one side and a note on the other stating, “Please read to me.”

He volunteers every week with teacher Sonya Kremer, who now teaches at Southdale Elementary School, and Deb Marchesani.

“John comes to my classroom with the vigor and vitality of a 20-year-old. His enthusiasm is contagious,” Kremer said. “And he has an amazing connection with the kids.”

His volunteerism garnered him statewide recognition in 2017 as a recipient of the Governor’s Volunteer Award.

Since retirement, Focht has done a little bit of everything — teaching at UNI, helping with funerals, painting furniture he calls Chairs for Charity sold at silent auction fundraisers, and reading to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

He also said he is running for president and currently has 650 Facebook votes, with new campaign ads running “every now and then.”

Under his presidency, “every child when they’re born will be issued a ukulele,” he said. Focht said he is a passivist, “so it would be very difficult to have a war with me as president.” The Legislature’s attire would include Popeye shirts, and the Supreme Court would also weary Popeye shirts, but with a cape, which is just another story he tells with a sly grin and a twinkle in his eye.

His campaign slogan would be the same as his motto and one of his favorite songs to play on ukulele: “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative.”

“(Children) are like they are, and they
still have to be accepted for where they are and what
they come from
and what they’ve
been through.” John Focht

Workers protest racial inequality

NEW YORK — Workers from the service industry, fast-food chains and the gig economy rallied with organized labor Monday to protest systemic racism and economic inequality, staging demonstrations across the U.S. and around the world seeking better treatment of Black Americans in the workplace.

Organizers said at least 20,000 workers in 160 cities walked off the job, inspired by the racial reckoning that followed the deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of police. Visible support came largely in protests that drew people whose jobs in health care, transportation and construction do not allow them to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What the protesters are saying, that if we want to be concerned — and we should be — about police violence and people getting killed by the police … we have to also be concerned about the people who are dying and being put into lethal situations through economic exploitation all over the country,” said the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of the organizations that partnered to support the strike.

Barber said Monday’s turnout showed the importance of the issue to the people who are willing to come out during a pandemic to make their voices heard.

“Sadly, if they’re not in the streets, the political systems don’t move because when you just send an email or a tweet. They ignore it,” he said.

The “Strike for Black Lives” was organized or supported by more than 60 labor unions and social and racial justice organizations, which planned a range of events in more than two dozen cities. Support swelled well beyond expectations, organizers said, though a precise participation tally was not available.

Where work stoppages were not possible for a full day, participants picketed during a lunch break or observed moments of silence while kneeling to honor police brutality victims including George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police in late May.

In San Francisco, 1,500 janitors walked off their jobs and planned to lead a march to City Hall later in the day. McDonald’s cooks and cashiers in Los Angeles and nursing home workers in St. Paul, Minnesota, also went on strike, organizers said.

At one McDonald’s location in Los Angeles, workers blocked the drive-thru for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, about the amount of time that prosecutors say a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air.

Glen Brown, a 48-year-old wheelchair agent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for almost five years, said his job does not give him the option of social distancing. Brown and fellow workers called for a $15 minimum age during an event in St. Paul, and he said workers were “seizing our moment” to seek change.

“We are front-line workers, (and) we are risking our lives, but we’re doing it at a wage that doesn’t even match the risk,” Brown said.

In Manhattan, more than 150 union workers rallied outside Trump International Hotel to demand that the Senate and President Donald Trump adopt the HEROES Act, which provides protective equipment, essential pay and extended unemployment benefits to workers who cannot work from home. It has already been passed by the House.

Elsewhere in New York City and in New Jersey and Connecticut, organizers said 6,000 workers at 85 nursing homes picketed, walked off the job or took other actions to highlight how predominantly Black and Hispanic workers and the nursing home residents they serve have been put at risk without proper protective gear during the pandemic.

In Massachusetts, about 200 people, including health care workers, janitors and other essential employees, joined Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in front of the Statehouse in Boston.

“We’re just being overworked and underpaid, and it makes you sometimes lose your compassion,” said Toyai Anderson, 44, who planned to walk off her job as a nursing aide for two hours at Hartford Nursing and Rehab Center in Detroit. “It makes me second guess if I am sure this is my calling.”

After 13 years on the job, Anderson makes $15.75 an hour. Nationally, the typical nursing aide makes $13.38, according to health care worker advocacy group PCI, and 1 in 4 nursing home workers is Black.

Hundreds of other workers planned to walk off their jobs at six Detroit nursing homes, according to the Service Employees International Union. The workers are demanding higher wages and more safety equipment to keep them from catching and spreading the virus, as well as better health care benefits and paid sick leave.

Across the nation, participants broadly demanded action by corporations and government to confront racism and inequality that limits mobility and career advancement for many Black and Hispanic workers, who make up a disproportionate number of those earning less than a living wage.

The demands include raising wages and allowing workers to unionize to negotiate better health care, sick leave and child care support.

AP featured
Guidance for masks in schools varies widely across US states

DES MOINES — School districts that plan to reopen classrooms in the fall are wrestling with whether to require teachers and students to wear face masks — an issue that has divided urban and rural schools and yielded widely varying guidance.

The divide has also taken on political dimensions in Iowa, among other places, where Democratic-leaning cities like Des Moines and Iowa City have required masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while smaller, more conservative communities have left the decision to parents.

“It’s a volatile issue,” said Mike McGrory, superintendent in Ottumwa, a district in the state’s southeast corner with 4,700 students. “You have to be very sensitive and realize there are lots of perspectives.”

McGrory said it would have been easier if state health officials had issued specific rules, but since that did not happen, the district gave weight to the state Education Department’s recommendation against a mask requirement.

Many states are calling for teachers to wear masks, including Alaska, Connecticut, California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Washington. Some will require masks for students. Many other states are leaving the decision to local officials.

Dr. Rob Murphy, an infectious disease expert at Northwestern University, said from a medical perspective, it should be an easy choice: Wear a mask in school.

Schools should take other steps, too, including reducing class sizes, limiting contact sports and screening students and teachers before they enter school buildings, Murphy said. But a first and essential step should be a mask requirement, said Murphy, who called the current lack of direction a “no plan plan.”

“This is how ridiculous the whole situation is. It’s all over the place,” Murphy said. “There’s a lack of any continuity to this. There’s nobody at the wheel.”

Even among health experts, there are disagreements. Many districts point to a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which urges school officials to encourage but not require face coverings. The organization stresses the need for students to return to school and notes that coverings can impede learning for some children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended students and teachers wear masks whenever feasible.

Other countries where schools have reopened have stopped short of mandating masks for all students.

In France, public schools reopened briefly before a summer break, with no sign of widespread virus transmission. Masks were only required for upper grades, but students stayed in the same classroom all day.

In Norway, nursery schools reopened first, followed by other grades. Children were put in smaller groups that stay together all day. Masks were not required.

Iowa’s largely rural Western Dubuque Community School District will let students and their parents choose. Superintendent Rick Colpitts has heard the arguments for face coverings, but he also hears from people who are opposed.

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Colpitts said. “We tried to take the political piece out of it, but there’s no way to make everyone happy.”

Iowa is among many states that have left the mask decision to local school officials. The state Education Department’s recommendation against a mask requirement was based on the idea that a mandate would lead to a host of questions about what face coverings are acceptable, how the rules would be enforced and what exceptions could be made.

“There are just so many things that go into it,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said in explaining why she opposes a school mask requirement. “If somebody wears the same mask for seven days without appropriately washing it or changing it out, is it actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing? Who’s going to monitor that?”

To Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the lack of mask requirements and other safety rules is “a formula for chaos.”

Claire Hanson, who teaches eighth-grade English in North Liberty, sympathizes with concerns that face coverings would be hard for young children but thinks it’s still the best option.

“Do you understand how resilient children are? It’s not a mask of terror. They will get through it,” Hanson said.

DeAnna Strethers, whose youngest daughter attends high school in State Center, said she understands parents who want to make their own decisions without mandates from the government.

“I’m not a big government type of person. I do not like my government telling me that you have to do this or can’t do that,” she said. “But personally, I think masks are smart.”

top story
WATCH NOW: Waterloo approves long-delayed street repair contract

Jamie Knutson

WATERLOO — A street repair project delayed over funding concerns will get underway.

Waterloo City Council members voted unanimously Monday to approve a $3.2 million contract for Aspro Inc. to put a new asphalt overlay on portions of 14 deteriorating streets.

The contract approval had been on hold since April because city officials were concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the local-option sales tax receipts expected to pay for the work.

But City Engineer Jamie Knutson and Chief Financial Official Michelle Weidner noted Aspro president Milt Dakovich suggested a plan to complete two-thirds of the work initially.

The city would then review the sales tax budget later this year before issuing a notice to proceed with construction of the remaining streets, assuming dollars are available.

Weidner said it may take time to determine the impact of COVID-19 on the 1% sales tax, which Waterloo voters earmarked entirely for roads. Many businesses generating the tax shut down or saw reduced business during the pandemic.

“Because of COVID-19 there are impacts statewide on some of our street funding,” Weidner said. “…We just don’t have all the pieces of that puzzle that we need to have right now, so that is why I’m being cautious about awarding the contract.”

Knutson said the first phase of the contract would include about $2.2 million in work and was designed to pick up streets that were tied to other projects and needed to be done this year.

Those roads include Greyhound Drive from U.S. Highway 63 to Ridgeway Avenue; Lafayette Street from Fairview Avenue to Oak Avenue; Newell Street from east of Springview Street to Northeast Drive; Rachael Street between Nancy and Wendy roads; Reed Street between Arlington and Hanover streets; San Marnan Drive’s frontage road from Flammang to Penneys Street; and Tower Park Drive from Johnathan Street to Kimball Avenue.

Streets put on hold until a financial review later in the year include West 11th Street between South and Washington streets; Easton Avenue from Hammond Avenue to 11th Street; a portion of Flammang Drive east of Hammond; Forest Avenue from Randolph Street to Hammond; Hartman Avenue between Ansborough and Janney avenues; Meadow Lane from Russell Road to Ansborough; and Stephan Avenue between Falls and Stratford avenues.

University Avenue phase three renderings:

University Avenue Phase 3 Renderings