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Metro school leaders describe magnet themes Faribault might consider
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Reasons to convert a traditional school to a magnet vary, according to Melissa Jordan, the executive director of a seven-district collaborative in the northwest metro.

Magnet schools, she said, can provide more educational options, promote diversity, offer unique hands-on learning opportunities, keep students from open enrolling outside the district and create cross-district opportunities. But in order to implement a magnet school, Jordan recommends districts take time to consider which model to use, gather staff input and tour existing magnet schools.

“It takes training and professional development, and learning how to develop those themes in the content area,” Jordan said. “It really is a cultural shift in how you do things in the building … Three to five years is what it takes to really have a true magnet school up and running.”

Almost a year ago, the Faribault School Board began talking about transitioning Roosevelt Elementary into a magnet school to attract new students and retain existing ones, and offer unique programming at a time when the district's enrollment is plummeting.

The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the planning process, pushing conversations about distance learning and health guidelines to the fore. But while the magnet school conversation has slowed, Superintendent Todd Sesker said the administration will continue to explore options to determine the best fit for Faribault Public Schools.

In October, the board discussed possible magnet school strands such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), a community school model, or an international school model with a possible language immersion components.

“Our next steps will be to go out and talk to staff and get feedback from them to see where they think we should be going and ideas they have on creating a new and innovative school for kids,” Sesker said. “We want to eventually survey parents once we get ideas of what staff would support.”

Sesker hopes the conversation can pick up speed again in January with a goal of having a theme chosen by February and a K-5 or K-8 magnet school ready to go by fall 2021.

Different focuses

Northwest Suburban Integration School District (NWSISD), which Jordan serves, is a collaborative of seven school districts in the northwest metro: Anoka-Hennepin Schools, Brooklyn Center Community Schools, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools, Independent School District 728 (serving Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman), Fridley Public Schools, Osseo Area Schools and Rockford Area Schools.

Based on community survey results, NWSISD selected the strands of STEM/STEAM (STEAM includes Art as a component), the arts and International Baccalaureate as options for the schools it serves.

STEM focuses on the sciences with different themes integrated into the curriculum. For example, one school might focus on aerospace as an underlying theme, or horticulture, agriculture or engineering. The common thread is that STEM magnet schools use a project-based learning model.

Arts magnet schools focus on visionary or performing arts, and like the STEM magnet schools, each one might pick an underlying theme within that strand.

For the International Baccalaureate magnet schools, staff must complete specific training on how to teach the curriculum. IB magnet schools prepare students to be responsible world citizens and offer an international curriculum emphasizing cultures, world languages, and changing technology.

Jordan said most of the NWSISD school districts have transitioned existing staff to their new magnet schools, but some districts opt to hire new staff.

“Sometimes it’s hard because it is a shift in your professional career, but I’ve seen schools really transform and come together as a staff,” Jordan said.

Anyone can apply to join an NWSISD magnet school as long as they live within one of the school districts, and there are no specific academic requirements. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of available seats, NWSISD conducts a lottery. Special education and English Learner programs are also integrated into the magnet schools, so the project-based learning is inclusive to all students.

Cross-curriculum and collaboration

One NWSISD school is Rogers Elementary STEM Magnet School, part of Independent School District 728. Initially, only one classroom per third, fourth and fifth grades followed the magnet school model. Over a three-year development process, more and more staff were trained, allowing the entire school to become a STEM magnet school in fall 2011.

The STEM Magnet School is one of two public elementary schools in Rogers, and while there is a mandated pool of students that attends the magnet, there are usually a few seats available to students from other schools in or outside of the district.

Jill Waldron, curriculum integration coordinator for Rogers Elementary STEM Magnet School, said the only difference between the STEM Magnet School and Hassan Elementary, the other elementary school in Rogers, is the integration of STEM curriculum into the entire school day. That means teachers apply cross-curriculum lessons for each subject. Teachers might integrate math into science lessons, for example, or even use measuring and other math skills in the schoolyard garden.

“One of things we get the most comments on about our kids is just their ability to work together and collaborate,” Waldron said. “Many of our STEM lessons and things they’re doing require them to work in small groups, so they develop great communication skills, and they’re great at sharing ideas.”

Melissa Jordan, NWSISD executive director, sent her children to Salk Middle Pre-Engineering Magnet School in Elk River. What stood out to her is that the school focused on History Day as an all-school activity as well as science fair projects. In terms of doing research, Jordan recalls her children being well-prepared for high school after graduating from Salk Middle School.

“They were ready to just hit the road running with research projects, creating bibliographies, and using primary and secondary sources,” Jordan said.

According to Rogers, students at Rogers Elementary are "pretty creative. With the engineering lessons that start that young, they get good at thinking outside the box. A lot of people want to send kids to STEM schools because they have more opportunities for hands-on activities, breaking outside that tradition where they’re sitting in class with a pencil and paper.”

Although COVID-19 conditions may not create the ideal opportunity to visit other magnet school sites in person, Jordan encourages districts planning for magnet schools to do just that when the time is right.

“There are so many great magnet schools across the state of Minnesota; you don’t have to travel across the U.S.,” Jordan said. “I find magnet schools are very congenial and want to share the highs and lows, dos and don'ts. Be inspired and see what’s out there, and create the right magnet school for your district.”

Waldron agreed: “I think it is a good idea for whoever is making decisions to tour some of these schools, just to get a better feel for what the programs might look like.”

Bridgewater, Dundas to clarify agreement, potentially enabling development
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Members of Dundas and Bridgewater Township’s Planning commissions on Thursday worked to iron out a key discrepancy in a 15-year old agreement that has left local property owners unsure of how they can use their land.

In recent months, Dundas City Planner Nate Sparks noted that some property owners have raised the question as to how they can utilize land within the Annexation Reserve District, the area surrounding Dundas providing room for the city to expand should development proposals come its way. Looking back on the annexation agreement, Sparks soon realized that the answer was unclear.

Under the annexation agreement, parts of the ARD are designated for potential development and incorporation. Areas to the northwest and southeast have been suggested as suitable for residential development, with commercial and industrial to the southwest.

The current Dundas-Bridgewater annexation agreement, first approved in 2004, gained an increased profile in recent years as Bridgewater Township, Rice County’s largest township, discussed the possibility of incorporation. Under that agreement, an Annexation Reserve District was designated.

Bordering the district is another regulated district, the Dundas Rural Service District. This area, located on the west side of town, is within city limits but is considered rural and is accordingly reserved for such uses.

The existing ARD does not include a formal designation of the land use map within the potential area, so the Planning Commission lacked clear guidance on whether it should deny land uses within the district that could be seen as potentially incompatible when the area urbanizes.

Bridgewater Board member Glen Castore has said that the township believes neither Northfield or Dundas are likely to need additional land from the township for several decades. During that time, the agreement could inhibit landowners from pursuing certain types of productive development on their property.

Dundas City Administrator Jenelle Teppen said it’s not clear why the issue didn’t arise until recently, but said that additional staffing, as well as Bridgewater’s status as the only Rice County township with its own zoning board, gave both entities the resources to address it.

Outgoing Dundas City Councilor Chad Pribyl said that the city is comfortable with Sparks’ suggestion that the existing land use map govern current development and Bridgewater officials seem to be so as well.

Nonetheless, the topic will be discussed at Bridgewater Township’s next board meeting, giving it an unusual opportunity to push for changes to an agreement in effect for more than a decade.

Should the board agree that the land use map be used to regulate current development, then it would return to the joint board, then go before the Dundas City Council. Pribyl said that the city isn’t likely to suggest any major changes.

“What the city planner had laid out is what we’re going to go with,” he said. “It will be up to the Township Board to make comments and decide if they’re okay with it.”

Were Bridgewater to incorporate, Castore has insisted that Bridgewater could consider transferring land to Dundas or Northfield. Both cities opposed incorporation because they feared it would inhibit their ability to expand.

The annexation agreement between Bridgewater and Northfield is set to expire at the end of 2020, with negotiations slated to restart next month on a new one. Bridgewater’s agreement with Dundas lasts until 2033, but would end if Bridgewater were to incorporate.

Proposed "Instagrammable mural" downtown hits a roadblock
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A month after requesting proposals, Faribault’s plans for an “Instagrammable” mural on a city-owned wall downtown appear to have hit a roadblock.

At its Tuesday evening work session, councilors ruminated over a memo from Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen regarding the RFP, which set a firm date of Dec. 18 for interested parties to submit proposals.

City staff and community partners submitted the RFP to organizations of local, state and national mural artists. While they received responses from interested artists, Clausen said that several said they needed a far larger budget than the $15,000 offered. Based on figures suggested by Councilor Jonathan Wood, the council allocated just $15,000 for the project. Wood, who owns his own construction company, derived the estimate from the approximate painting costs of houses he’s built.

Indeed, Clausen’s memo said that artists believed that paint for the blank wall, which clocks in at a sizable 2,720 square feet, might cost around $12,000 to $15,000. However, they said such costs are only the “tip of the iceberg.”

Once additional costs from design fees, installation, lifts, support crews and travel costs were factored in, artists gave estimates closer to $65,000 or $70,000. For just the $15,000 budget, they estimated that only 400 square feet would likely be painted.

Local artist Jeff Jarvis said he believes the estimate could be lowered somewhat if the city is willing to accept a simpler mural that perhaps doesn’t use every square inch. However, he noted that a complex, “Instagrammable” mural would likely be a much more complex project.

“It depends on how much work you put into it,” he said. “If the city’s looking for a really extravagant mural, the costs would add up.”

Councilors were extremely hesitant to throw $65,000 to $70,000 at the wall. At most, Tom Spooner and Royal Ross said they could see investing another $10,000 in a subsequent RFP, but not far beyond that. As an alternative, Spooner said the city could look to private donors. Councilor Peter van Sluis has also suggested that the city explore potential opportunities to acquire grant dollars, though such funding is less available than ever amid the pandemic.

In the end, the council decided to punt on the discussion until the original RFP deadline passes. Should the city receive no proposals it finds to be of interest, it could easily issue a new RFP with a larger budget.

Local artist Joey Feaster has painted several murals for downtown Faribault, including one located nearly adjacent to the wall that commemorates Faribault’s former Brand Peony Farm, and its history as the one-time Peony Capital of the World.

Feaster said that he had been considering submitting a proposal for the wall, even though it would have been far larger than any project he’s done before. However, he decided against it after concluding the proposed funding fell far short of what would be needed.

While he doesn’t have experience working on a project so large, Feaster said he carefully researched potential costs when considering whether or not to submit a bid. Based on that, he believes a budget in the $40,000 to $50,000 range would likely be enough. Feaster was less than certain as to whether the additional $10,000 suggested by the council would be enough to make the project viable. However, he said that such a move could well increase interest, especially if coupled with a longer deadline and additional flexibility.

“I still think it would be a very, very conservative allocation,” he said. “But it would be a step in the right direction.”


Pandemic has schools struggling to fill staffing gaps
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Demand for substitute teachers has increased as more and more teachers have had to quarantine or self isolate.

Schools across the region are feeling a staffing strain, forcing many to consider switching to distance learning sooner rather than later.

Just a week ago, Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad announced that the district had 42 staff members that were out of school in quarantine or isolation with seven to 10 unfilled positions being covered by teachers during their prep periods.

“Our staffing coverage is becoming an emergent piece for us at this point,” Elstad said before the Owatonna School Board approved the shift to distance learning. Staffing issues were among several factors which contributed to the switch.

Many regional districts have dipped into their federal COVID-19 funding to help pay for extra staff support, including educational assistants and substitutes. Additional funds have gone toward purchasing technology for teachers to teach from home. While some teachers are still able to teach from home during quarantine or isolation, others may be too sick to teach, effectively leaving a gap.

“When we are doing distance learning, if we have a teacher that falls ill that’s not able to conduct distance learning, we are repurposing some of our staff from the district to help with that, but we do also hire substitutes for the day to do distance learning,” Elstad told the People’s Press.

Even so, the district is having difficulty finding substitutes as the pandemic has required subs to weigh their options. Many substitutes are unable to commit to subbing this year because of health concerns, Elstad said. Thus the general pool of fill-ins has decreased.

For those teachers who are still able to teach from home, a class supervisor, whether it’s another teacher, educational assistant, paraprofessional or substitute, is needed to monitor students in person in the classroom. In Medford schools, a paraprofessional is usually in the classroom monitoring students, according to Medford Superintendent Mark Ristau. Staffing issues are becoming more apparent there, too.

“It’s proven to be a little more difficult in the elementary, because maybe sometimes the kids are a little more squirrelly or there are some classroom management things, it’s more than just teaching and listening, there are some management things that come into play,” Ristau said of finding staff.

Blooming Prairie Superintendent Chris Staloch agreed that it’s more difficult to find classroom supervisors and substitutes for elementary level students compared to the older grades. Staloch said teachers who are still able to teach from home do so, pointing to the consistency and continued connections with students this option provides.

“Ideally, if we could have our teachers teaching, that is the best,” Staloch said.

However, Staloch said the district has been fortunate to have community members who were able to help out to fill some of those gaps when teachers are unable to teach. He credits them as one of the big reasons why Blooming Prairie was able to stay in their learning model for so long.

Ristau describes Medford’s substitute situation as “OK,” but also admits that the district has started needing teachers to step up and fill in where needed. Fortunately for both Medford and Owatonna schools, all staff returned to teach this year despite the pandemic.

“Our staff is very committed to moving this forward and persevering through this pandemic,” Elstad said.

Blooming Prairie had one staff member who decided not to return because of COVID-19, which Staloch says is understandable given the situation.

Across the area, superintendents have praised teachers’ flexibility and hard work through this year’s ups and downs.

In-person learning won’t be an option for local schools for a while, as some schools have already transitioned to distance learning. By Nov. 30, the three school districts and Faribault Public Schools will be in distance learning, some with the goal of returning to their previous model by the second week of December.

Faribault schools has seen a similar trend, with all students going to distance learning. Plans are to remain in the model until the end of winter break.

“One of the reasons why we went to distance learning was because we were having a hard time finding substitutes,” Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker said.

Like Steele County schools, Faribault schools have faced an increase in staff shortages in November due to staff becoming sick or having to quarantine.

By late October, all Faribault elementary schools were distance learning on Wednesdays. The switch was made so that students could practice for when the entire district provided distance learning.

Originally the district had planned to place only Faribault’s Lincoln Elementary in distance learning for two weeks, in part because of staffing issues. However, a few days later officials announced a district-wide closure and model switch.

Faribault teachers are teaching from home in quarantine and isolation if they are able to do so, according to Sesker.