By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD, CARVER, MN Education is always changing, and local school district leaders are working to make those changes benefit students and their families.
Seven superintendents met at the Herald Journal office March 16 to discuss current topics in local education, including finances, athletics, enrollment, testing, and security.
One proposal that is being discussed to decrease costs is moving junior high sports to community education.
“Schools do that during tough times,” Dassel-Cokato Schools Superintendent Jeff Powers said. However, school is the best place for sports, he said, because it gives all students the opportunity to participate. “We’re an equalizer for families and kids,” he said. The cost of community education sports is often much higher than school-sponsored athletics.
“It becomes elitist,” Winsted Holy Trinity Schools Principal Bill Tschida said. If sports are run by community education, schools also lose the ability to regulate eligibility based on academic performance.
“We lose a lot of control, and we lose the education piece,” Tschida said. “It becomes a slippery slope.”
Declining enrollment is another concern for area schools, but superintendents remain optimistic.
“Wright County is a fast-growing county,” Powers said. “I think we’re going to do pretty well. We’re all close enough to the Metro area.”
“We’re the lucky ones,” Watertown-Mayer Schools Superintendent Karsten Anderson said.
Even though schools are relatively close to the Twin Cities, district leaders have concerns.
“In rural America, the kids just aren’t there,” Tschida said.
“Where there were 10 farms, there’s one,” Delano schools Superintendent John Sweet added.
The declining housing market contributed to the slowdown in enrollment, Tschida said, because fewer families are moving to the area. With the weak economy, many people are more cautious about buying a new home.
“People’s confidence level was shaken,” Howard-Lake-Waverly-Winsted Schools Superintendent George Ladd said. “We’re flat this year.” Although enrollment is expected to dip, “we’re holding our own,” he said.
“We’ve been on a pretty steady growth trend until this year,” Sweet said. This year, however, has been level. “When people start buying houses again, enrollment will go up.”
For Joel Landskroener, executive director for Mayer Lutheran High School, questions about enrollment are frequent. Because it is a private school, “that’s a huge source of income,” he said. Enrollment is expected to drop until 2015, and then increase, he added.
“One reason people move out here, in my opinion, is because of the schools,” Landskroener said. “I think that will continue to draw families out.”
Limiting open enrollment
Some area schools have opted to limit their open enrollment.
“You have to find that balance,” Powers said.
“Minnesota was one of the first to be one of these ‘choice’ schools,” Sweet said. “But I don’t know if it drives quality.”
In 1990, Minnesota became the first state to adopt a mandatory open enrollment policy, which allows students to attend public schools outside of their district.
“We all want to be as good as we can be,” Sweet said. “We need cooperation. We don’t need competition. Competition doesn’t work very well in education.”
“Too often, open enrollment is used for the wrong reasons,” Powers said. Many times, it is better for the student to stay at one school instead of switching schools when there is a problem, Lester Prairie Schools Superintendent George East added.
Many families choose to send their children to school closer to their workplace in the Cities. “We get a lot of west to east migration with people driving to work in the Cities,” Ladd said.
“We pull a lot of kids from Litchfield,” Powers added.
According to a study from the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), “findings were mixed regarding the validity of the supply-and-demand theory of educational choice.”
The study, which focused on 84 school districts in Minnesota, found that while it is possible that open enrollment motivated some districts to improve programs, it also forced staff layoffs or program cancellations in some districts.
Improvements in technology may also bring change to schools, superintendents said.
“The biggest thing is online education,” Powers said.
In the future, lessons may even be able to adapt to individual learning styles, Tschida said. Online education gives smaller schools with limited staffing more opportunities. “Is it the same? No. But, I also think it’s a wave of the future,” Tschida said.
Landskroener predicts that laptops and online textbooks may become more standard in classrooms. Cell phones may be utilized more as a learning tool as well, Ladd added.
Despite incidents of violence in some of America’s schools, “schools are still the safest place for kids,” Anderson said.
Security has been heightened in schools, Landskroener said, with limited access to buildings and security cameras.
“The reality is, bad things happen,” Powers said. Local schools try to focus on building a relationship with students. “You can support them before the crisis ever happens,” Powers said. “That doesn’t mean we’re immune though, and it doesn’t mean those schools did anything wrong.”
If someone is really determined to commit a crime in school, even the best-laid plans can’t stop them, East said.
State standardized test scores can vary greatly depending on the demographics of a school, superintendents said.
“We shouldn’t all be painted with the same brush,” Ladd said. “Look at us individually, and help us improve.”
Some families are not able to speak English, and this affects test scores, Ladd said.
“Parents can’t assist sometimes,” he said. “The first time education happens is in the home. If the family can find time and energy to support and encourage students, they often do better.”
“We’re not turning out widgets,” Powers said, adding that each student is different.
“I don’t think any school should be considered a failure or success based on test scores,” Anderson said. At Watertown-Mayer school, for example, Anderson said, it appeared that the school didn’t meet a certain goal, but it was later discovered to be a clerical mistake. Even when the test scores are accurate, Ladd added, “it’s just a snapshot in time for that one day.”
“Education, unfortunately, is part of a political beast,” Tschida said. “Every four years, someone says education is in bad shape and tries to fix it. They keep trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”