From classroom trends to school board decisions, Class Act will keep you updated on all the school issues followed by the Star Tribune’s education reporters. Contributors include Steve Brandt, who covers Minneapolis; Kim McGuire, who covers the west metro; Erin Adler, who covers the south metro; Anthony Lonetree and Libor Jany, who cover St. Paul and the east metro, and Paul Levy and Shannon Prather, who cover the north metro.

Missing board member raises WMEP issues

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 19, 2014 - 1:21 PM

Since his appointment to the board of a west metro school integration district, John Solomon has been missing in action more often than not.

Minutes of board meetings for the West Metro Education Program show that Solomon missed 18 of 26 meetings since he was named Brooklyn Center’s representative to the integration board.

Solomon said this week that he’s planning to ask the Brooklyn Center board, on which he also serves, to name a replacement. But the attendance issue highlights a bigger complaint made by dissident parents about the board of WMEP, which operates two arts-focused schools in Minneapolis and Crystal that go by the name of FAIR. They say it’s out of touch, a charge disputed by Vice Chair Julie Sweitzer.

"I think that the board has been quite engaged with the FAIR schools," Sweitzer said. The parent-teacher group demurred.

“Time and again, [joint powers board] members demonstrate, for whatever reason, that they are uniformed about many issues connected to WMEP,” the parents said in a cover letter to a dossier they last week asked the board to review.  The dossier covered alleged misdeeds by the district’s sole principal, Kevin Bennett, whom they want the board to fire.

Part of the group’s frustration is that the WMEP board doesn’t have the normal accountability to parents that marks most school boards.  That’s because the boards of the 10 member suburban districts and Minneapolis each appoint one WMEP board member. So parents typically get to vote for or against only the board member who runs in the school district where they live. And in Minneapolis, since the school board’s  WMEP representative, Kim Ellison, is elected form a North Side district, only one-sixth of that city's voters get a vote for or against her.

A set of recommendations to the WMEP board from two ex-superintendents of WMEP member  districts,  Ken Dragseth of Edina and Toni Johns of Brooklyn Center, noted that parents want more involvement in the board’s proceedings. The consultants recommended a parent advisory group meet monthly with WMEP’s top administrator and at least two board members.

The ex-superintendents also found that the format of the board hampered its supervision. Board members are appointed by the boards of their home districts and seven of 11 board members turned over at the start of the year.  That has slowed the board’s decision-making process on other major questions posed in the report by the consultants. One remedy would be to stagger the expiration of terms on the WMEP board.

Major questions hanging over the board include whether member districts remain committed to WMEP membership for the next three to five years or whether the district should fold, whether it should operate its two schools or shift them to another operator, and whether the district needs a full time superintendent and principal for a district of just over 1,000 students. (Besides running the schools, WMEP also provided training to teachers in its member districts and programs for some of their 99,000 students).

Those questions are necessary to answer before the WMEP board decides whether to hire a new superintendent to replace departing Daniel Jett. But the consultants said board turnover “can leave open a steady influx of members who have little knowledge of WMEP, its history and vision. This can lead to the [joint powers board] by lack of knowledge of WMEP relying more and more on staff to set the direction of WMEP instead of the JPB.”

Gregg Corwin, an attorney representing some parents and teachers dissatisfied with the district’s leadership, put it more bluntly. “Most of the board members are new and have no idea what the history is,” he said.

That’s also true if board members don’t show up.  Several times in the last two years, the board has had only a scant quorum of six of its 11 members show.  Solomon said time conflicts posed by his job as a child protection social worker for Hennepin County account for his many absences. Brooklyn Center board Chair Cheryl Jechorek said she was unaware of Solomon’s absenteeism. “I’ll talk to him,” she said.

But by the time that the Star Tribune reached Solomon, he said: “I’m preparing to ask them to have someone sit in my place.”

The WMEP board last week authorized its leaders to negotiate a contract for former Brooklyn Center superintendent Keith Lester to serve as interim superintendent for the next year. Lester brings the advantage of being familiar with WMEP because superintendents of member districts previously served on the WMEP board.   

Still, Sweitzer noted, in a remark sparked by Solomon’s absence: “It’s unfortunate that our Brooklyn Center representative isn’t here.”

(Photo: Third graders Curtis Hatcher, left, and Kashawn Pierce read their book while their classmates worked independently in their classroom at FAIR School in 2012.)

St. Paul begins assembling details of iPad rollout

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: June 18, 2014 - 7:27 PM

The first year of a two-year plan to put iPads in the hands of all St. Paul students could result in the district paying up to $5.5 million to lease devices in 2014-15, a district official said Wednesday.

The school board is expected to vote on the lease agreement during its monthly meeting Tuesday.

Matt Mohs, the district's chief academic officer, said students at about half of the district's schools could expect to have iPads by early next year, under the plan. Getting the iPad effort rolling would require the district to lease 28,000 iPads for students and teachers, plus an additional 1,400 laptops for teachers, in 2014-15, Mohs said.

In 2015-16, when the iPad project is expected to be fully operating -- with all district students having devices -- the annual lease cost would rise to about $8 million, Mohs said.

He estimated the lease cost for the upcoming school year at between $5 million and $5.5 million, and said that the funding, if approved by the school board next week, would come from a $9-million-per-year technology initiative approved by voters in 2012.

That initiative, dubbed "Personalized Learning Through Technology," was initially intended to produce a "teaching and learning platform," or Facebook-like Web page, through which teachers and students could interact. Last month, however, the district pulled the plug on that project, citing difficulties in getting a platform to work quickly and efficiently enough, and set out to supply students with devices, instead.

Mohs said then that the district intended to take advantage of advancements made in the use of iPads for learning. Providing the devices to all students also would ensure that minority and low-income students were on equal footing with technology, he said.

At a committee meeting last week, school board member John Brodrick warned that the change in direction, if not done right, could be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

It wasn't until Wednesday that the district offered any cost projections.

Mohs said that under the lease arrangement, the devices would cost the district between $100 and $125 per student per year, or a little more than 1 percent of the revenue that a student generates annually.

The district still is working on a list of which schools will be covered in the first year. Also still to be determined is what happens if a student loses or breaks a device. Some districts, Mohs said, have family insurance plans, "but we're really not sure if that works for St. Paul." 

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage makes change in GPA calculations

Posted by: Erin Adler Updated: June 18, 2014 - 12:22 PM

Thanks to a recent school board decision, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage secondary students may see a boost in their grade point averages (GPAs) next year, without hitting the books any harder.

A student's GPA "is simply a numerical way to reflect grades," said Principal Dave Helke.

When calculating GPA, each letter grade -- A, B, C, D or F -- receives a numerical value. An 'A' typically receives a '4' and each other letter grade gets a point less than that. An 'F' gets no points.

The board voted to give all 'minus' grades -- A-, B-, C- and D- -- a one-tenth of a point increase, awarding 3.7 points for an A-, for example, instead of 3.6 points, the previous value given.

The change comes after a parent "called with a very personal story of how GPA had impacted some things going on with her child," said Helke.

Helke and the board did some research, and realized that a majority of metro-area schools give students the higher value, resulting in higher GPAs overall.

Even a small difference like that can affect things like scholarships and class rank, he said.

"One one-thousandth, one one-hundredth of a point can really make the difference between making a cut and not making a cut," he said.

The new value will be given to all 'minus' grades beginning in the fall, the registration guide will be updated, and all the GPAs of all seventh through 12th grade students' GPAs will be recalculated at that time.

This year's grads won't see any GPA changes, however.

"So, is this retroactive back to 1985?" joked Jim Schmid, board chairman. "Ok, I'll take that as a no."

Henry Sibley High School hires new principal

Posted by: Erin Adler Updated: June 18, 2014 - 10:45 AM

On July 1, Ronald Monson will report to Henry Sibley High School to begin his role as the school's new leader.

Monson most recently served as an assistant principal at North High School in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district.

He replaces Ryan Redetzke, who served in the role for only a year before resigning in May for "personal and professional reasons."

While Monson was an assistant principal in North St. Paul, a role he held since 2012, he was a lead administrator on several projects, including working with Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an engineering program, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum at the secondary level.

Before his admininstrative role, Monson taught science at Minnehaha Academy and Hill Murray High School. He has also been a coach and athletic administrator.

Monson holds a bachelor's degree in biology with chemistry and mathematics from Bethel University and a master's degree from the University of St. Thomas. He completed his administrative licensure through Bethel and has also taken classes toward his Ph.D. at Bethel.

Before Redetzke's hire in 2013, previous Henry Sibley principal Robin Percival stepped down abruptly. The district investigated a complaint against her but didn't take disciplinary action. Percival received $64,000 as part of a separation agreement with the district.

D.C. groups says Minnesota colleges are doing a so-so job of preparing teachers

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: June 17, 2014 - 2:10 PM

“The University of Minnesota-Morris, Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota State University-Mankato and St. Olaf College are among some of the best institutions when it comes to preparing teachers, according to a report released today.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a D.C.-based group pushing for stronger evaluations of teachers, released a report ranking teacher preparation programs across the country while pressing for more accountability among the institutions.

While acknowledging some programs are raising standards for aspiring teachers, the group argues that most teacher preparation programs don't adequately prepare education majors entering the classroom.

This year, the group reviewed 1600 programs across the nation, an increase from 2013. Still, the group said that many programs were to weak to receive a numeric ranking or chose not to participate.

In Minnesota, of the 39 programs that were evaluated, 15 elementary and 20 secondary programs received a national ranking. Of those, the University of Minnesota-Morris was ranked 50th for secondary programs, Gustavus, St. Olaf's, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, University of Northwestern-St. Paul and the University of St. Thomas tied for 57th. For elementary programs, Minnesota State University-Mankato was ranked 27th.

"Given the increasing knowledge and skills expected of teachers, it is indeed disappointing that we could not identify more exemplary programs in Minnesota. However, Minnesota is by no means unique,” noted Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “The dearth of high-quality programs is a national problem that public school educators, state policymakers and advocates, working alongside higher education, must solve together.”

This is the second time the group has scrutinized national teacher preparation programs based on a set of internal standards that have been widely criticized by colleges and universities. Some - including the Minnesota State Colleges and University system - were sued by the group in 2012 when they refused to turn over course syllabi used in developing the 2013 ratings.

In rankings rely heavily on published course requirements, syllabi, and other documents that spell out what aspiring teachers are expected to learn.

Many universities - like the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities - only provided enough documentation to the group to comply with legal guidance. They question the rankings released Tuesday.

"We got a ranking based on an incomplete data set," said Misty Sato, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

Kate Walsh

Kate Walsh



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