Convention just another challenge for this school

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2008 - 11:30 PM

Wellstone Elementary will be close to the action of the Republican National Convention. But officials there aren't worried.

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Pre-kindergarten student Poua Pheng Chang, 5, looked around a corner near a mural at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul. The mural was created in the spring of 2006 by teacher Christine Foster (no longer at the school) and her sixth-grade students.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Nearly 70 percent of the children attending Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul are learning how to speak, read and write English. More than 90 percent of them live in poverty. Every day, school officials work to keep the lines of communication open with parents who struggle to cope with American life.

This school of new Americans will be the one most affected by the Republican National Convention, to be held just a few blocks away, during the first week of classes this fall. The first days of school could face new disruption for families less accustomed than most to the chaos of the beginning of a school year.

Wellstone principal Christine Osorio sees the upcoming convention -- with its traffic snarls, disrupted school bus routes, protest marches and built-in civics lessons -- as a challenge. But not an insurmountable one.

"My main concern is keeping really tight communication with our families," she said.

Wellstone also is expected to pick up about 100 English language learners from Homecroft school, Osorio said.

Personal connections

Wellstone teachers make contact with every child's family before the start of the school year, Osorio said.

When so many of the families are new to the country as well as the school, it's a good practice to make those connections. With the potential complications of a national political convention, Wellstone teachers will probably start making that contact earlier in August, she said.

Suzanne Kelley, chief of staff for St. Paul Public Schools, said Wellstone will have to grapple with altered bus routes and schedules, and work around restricted space surrounding the Xcel Energy Center.

It's not yet clear what space is restricted and which areas will be open to protesters. Some of those details won't be known until May or June, she said. St. Paul schools officials are forming planning committees to go over all the possible disruptions.

But the convention could also provide an opportunity for Wellstone's students to learn about the American political process and the details of selecting a president. Older students could use the convention week to discuss issues such as free speech and the right to demonstrate.

"We do want to make the connect, particularly for those students who are learning English or have just moved to this country," Kelley said.

Osorio also sees opportunity.

"We're looking for ways to weave that all together," she said.

Over her four years leading Wellstone, Osorio has seen the school's 520 students rise off the "underperforming list" by improving their test scores. Teachers have detailed records of each student's work in reading and math, with ongoing assessments. Osorio meets with each teacher to discuss that work three times a year.

Students spend 60 to 90 minutes a day on math and another 90 to 120 minutes a day on reading.

Wonderful facilities

Housed in a former YWCA on Kellogg Blvd., Wellstone's facilities -- complete with a huge gymnasium, a swimming pool and an impressive media center -- are among the best in the city. Osorio said its teachers are among the best, as well.

"We dig deep into the abilities and challenges of all of our kids," she said. "It's a great team here. Am I worried about our ability to meet the challenges of the convention? Not a bit."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

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