By MAGGIE SCHUETTE-VOSS
Thursday night was step one, the first of two meetings of planning for the school district and community.
The meetings have been initiated by the school board with the intent to "create a shared vision for strategic planning among school and community leaders and stakeholders."
The second meeting will be Thursday, Jan. 29 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the city hall. Anyone concerned about the school district and/or city is asked to attend.
At this first meeting, Don Christensen, educational planning and development consultant, went over the results of interviews he conducted with school and community leaders. The interviews took place between Dec. 15 and Jan. 21.
Christensen interviewed 49 people; 32 individuals and three focus groups. All the interviews covered the same five topics: what do people see Lester Prairie becoming, community assets, barriers that may hinder the vision, the city's current state, and the role of the school in achieving the community vision.
The 22 responses to the first inquiry, vision, ranged from the positive to negative.
Five people saw Lester Prairie becoming a bedroom community united around a common purpose for quality. Other responses were to grow but also keep Lester Prairie a small town, have industrial parks east and southeast of town, a variety of community events, grow to reach Highway 7 with homes and business in the next five to 10 years. Some people felt the city had no vision or no future.
On question two, the majority, 27 people, felt the school is the city's strongest asset.
Slightly less, 24, thought that the fact Lester Prairie is a small town in itself was an asset.
Other assets were that it is close to the metro, Hutchinson, St. Cloud areas, the churches, and the service organizations.
Barriers in the community were cited as the limited housing, unawareness of visionary leadership to carry the city into a prosperous future, the main street is unattractive, and the city employees have no city manager or development person.
The public school was seen as having an important role in achieving the community vision. Promoting the public school was deemed important, as was creating a student-focused, community-based school with students visibly working in the community.
Other opinions were to keep the k-12 school in Lester Prairie and not consolidate, establish business internships, and do more for gifted students.
Doug Thomas, outreach coordinator from the Center for School Change is also working on this project.
He gave his opinions of the interview results, and one of his first comments was he was surprised the city did not have an administrator.
Thomas, who is from Henderson, said that city hired an administrator in 1982. Due to the work of the administrator, Henderson has made great strides in economic development, he said.
"We have three housing developments and have grown by 200 people since 1990. We're building a charter high school and soon will be opening the Joseph R. Brown Interpretive Center."
Thomas sided with not consolidating the district with another.
"The mistake people make is to consolidate and try to be a smaller version of something bigger and, every time, the small school loses." He added the best consolidation he has seen is Heron Lake-Okabena, "but that is because they didn't try to be a Worthington," he said.
"It's critical to have the school play a role in the community," Thomas said. "We must see the kids as a resource, in different kinds of ways that can add to the economic development of the city."
Thomas gave several success stories of student and community involvement.
In Goodhue, the students are designing the loop where the Pioneer Trail will loop through the city. Westbrook-Walnut Grove students make and sell barbeque sauce.
He said there is much competition for students' time from television and computers.
"These are things that pull kids apart and leave them in their own spaces. We need opportunities for kids to come together."
The audience gathered into small groups to brainstorm about the vision for the school and a directive for the city council, school board, and service groups.
One group requested the school develop a long-range plan to address community growth and the increased number of students.
The second requested the school, city, and townships to work together and to promote the service groups.
One of the third group's requests was for the business association to revitalize downtown.
Christensen said he will continue working to create the shared vision at the next meeting Thursday.