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Volunteers prepared to serve 1,000 people on Thanksgiving

One year ago, the feeling at the Owatonna VFW approaching Thanksgiving was somber to say the least.

Emily Kahnke / By EMILY KAHNKE emily.kahnke@apgsomn.com 

Mike Meyer, co-organizer of the holiday community dinners in Owatonna, checks the temperature on one of the 56 donated turkeys being cooked up and served for Thanksgiving this week. After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the community meals are prepared to serve up to 1,000 people on Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Emily Kahnke/southernminn.com)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, community dinner organizers Mike Meyer and Joe Falteysek had to make the difficult decision not to host either the Thanksgiving or Christmas meals, a first since the inception of the meals in the late 1980s. Historically, the dinners served upward of 1,000 people on both holidays.

The two men, however, decided the cancelation had to be a one time thing.

On Tuesday morning, a group of volunteers gathered back in the VFW kitchen and began preparing 56 donated turkeys, enough to feed 1,000 people on Thursday, starting at 10 a.m. The return of the annual Thanksgiving community dinner will include turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, sweet potatoes, pie and, most importantly, good company.

“I’m very excited to see it back,” Meyer said. “We made the decision once everything started opening back up to bring the meals back.”

Meyer has been helping with the community dinners for the last decade, originally helping Mike and Trudy Pierce. The Pierces were longtime organizers of the dinners who took over for Virgina Stirens, who started the community dinner at the KC Hall. When the couple announced their retirement from the meals in 2018, Meyer and Falteysek stepped in to carry on the tradition.

Two separate serving lines formed in the VFW hall in Owatonna Thursday for the 2019 Community Thanksgiving Dinner — the one on the right for those who were eating there and one on the left for the volunteers who were getting meals together to deliver. (File photo/southernminn.com)

With only the 2019 dinners under their belts as organizers, Meyer said the disappointment they shared when having to cancel the 2020 events still feels fresh, adding that he worried about where so many people would get a home-cooked, holiday meal.

“It was just such a disappointment for me because I enjoy helping the community,” he said. “I just love serving my community, it’s one thing I’ve always loved to do.”

Aside from providing a meal, however, the true heart of the community dinners is to ensure no one would be alone over the holidays. After canceling the 2020 events, Falteysek said he knows a lot of families depend on the community meals, so it was difficult not to be able to provide them that space to all be together.

This week they will be together again, though, and Meyer said he is looking forward to seeing everyone again after a long two years apart.

On top of getting the opportunity to have a second round of meals under his belt as an organizer, Meyer is also in the process of helping training in his next partner in the kitchen. Falteysek decided earlier this year to step down after the Christmas meal, and Jordon Vore is busy learning the ins and outs of two of Owatonna’s biggest community events.

“He hasn’t helped out with the dinners before, but he’s coming to learn and watch and see what we do,” said Meyer. “He’s ready to come and help.”

The dinner is free for anyone to attend and a free-will donation will collect money for future community dinners. People can also call in the morning of the event to place delivery orders. Meyer said, as of now, the Christmas dinner is scheduled to take place as planned on Saturday, Dec. 25.

Despite COVID interruption, Owatonna schools report confidence in achieving academic goals
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Despite the issues many students and families have faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Owatonna schools are on their way to meeting the goals that have been set for the 2022 school year.

Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning at Owatonna Public Schools, and three of her colleagues presented the World’s Best Workforce annual report Monday evening to the Owatonna School Board.

World’s Best Workforce was a bill passed in 2013 to make certain that each school district in Minnesota is progressing in student performance by focusing on five goals. These goals are to make sure all children are ready for school, all third grade students can read at grade level, all racial and economic achievement gaps between students are closed, all students are ready for career and/or college upon graduation, and all students graduate from high school.

Krell said the district as a whole is working to align those five goals with the four parts of the district’s strategic direction, which are high quality teaching and learning, safe and caring community, equity, and 21st century learning.

“We started as a district to look at our strategic roadmap and identify what it is that we need to make sure we produce for our students,” Krell said. “With that, there was a desired daily experience that was identified through survey data.”

Through this survey, they were able to identify desires and experiences by students, staff and families. The district then looked to see if and how they aligned with the work done within the schools.

Kenneth Griswold, data and assessment coordinator for the Owatonna Public Schools, said during the presentation that one of the concerns they’ve had in thinking about World’s Best Workforce while evaluating progress over the last two years has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are making a good faith effort to consider a wider range of information sources as we set goals, as we evaluate our progress and as we think about what good education looks like,” Griswold said.

This comes from having an assessment system from multiple sources of information, not simply state testing scores to navigate into a future with more effective learning.

The five goals

For the first goal of school readiness for children, the district saw a composite result that 51% of kindergarten students met the benchmarks in the FASTBRIDGE early reading assessment. The goal for the fall of 2022 is to increase that percentage to 60%. The action steps the district plans to take to achieve this goal include adding literacy resources such as shared reading, which uses big books so the students can see how reading works and how letters come together. Social emotional readiness will be a focus that is ongoing to get kids ready to learn, and to have family and community outreach by connecting with early learning networks.

For the 2020-2021 school year, 47% of grade three students showed they were proficient in the state reading assessment, the goal for the next school year is to increase that percentage to 60% by supporting individual students in their needs.

The district also plans to decrease the gap difference in reading and math proficiency for all economic and racial/ethnic student groups by 3% by June of 2022. MCA testing did not occur in 2020, but despite the issues faced throughout the pandemic, percentages differed slightly throughout student groups from 2019 and 2021.

In 2021, the percentage of graduate students who earned a credit in AP, CIS, articulated, concurrent enrollment, PSEO courses or earning a bilingual seal was 84.5%. The percentage of students grades 9-12 who earned credit in advanced career and technical courses, or participated in internships or mentorships, was 48.2%. Both percentages were down from 2020. Martina Wagner, English language development coordinator for the district, said this was somewhat to be expected given the challenges faced during distance and hybrid learning throughout the pandemic. The goal for each of these sections is to increase by 3% for the 2022 school year.

The final goal of having all students graduate high school is to increase graduation rates from 84% to 88% with no racial/ethnic group dipping below 80% by 2022. The district hopes this will be accomplished through increasing academic support and student engagement and by utilizing programs and pathways to lead students to graduation.

No newspaper on Thanksgiving; stay up to date online
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The Owatonna People’s Press will not have a Thursday, Nov. 25 print edition due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Friday e-edition will come out online as usual (find it at Owatonna.com). The online site will continue be updated with the latest stories, as usual. Print editions will resume Saturday, Nov. 26 as normal.

Owatonna schools commended for 'clean' audit report
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The Owatonna School District was commended during Monday night’s school board meeting for having no compliance issues during the annual audit results report.

Dennis Hoogeveen with Clifton Larson Allen presented the auditing report for the Owatonna School District. In the five aspects reviewed in the audit report, no issues were noted anywhere in the district. The five aspects were yellow book compliance, internal controls, single audit, legal compliance and enrollment.

“It’s very unlikely to get an audit report issued in Minnesota where you get unscathed or have no compliance issues,” Hoogeveen said. “Your district had no finding under any of the particular audit letters that we issued … That was very commendable.”

Following the audit report, Board Vice Chair Lori Weisenburger offered comments to the accounting personnel of gratitude for the work they have done throughout the year.

“I work in the compliance field, so I understand the importance and value of a clean audit,” Weisenburger said. “It’s unheard of in many industries, especially in the education field.”

Other meeting news

School Board Clerk Eric Schuster gave a brief update on what is happening with construction at the new Owatonna High School following the facilities meeting. He said some of the bathrooms are ready to be plumbed and anticipates walls going up in January.

Thirteen students were also able to tour the grounds recently as a part of a career development program.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad then spoke about an update from Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, regarding a vaccine mandate for all staff of businesses with more than 100 employees. He said this mandate was stayed by district court and is set to be heard again Dec. 7-10 by the Sixth District Court in Ohio.

Elstad said one of three things can come out of this hearing: the stay will continue and the mandate will remain on pause, the mandate will be dismissed or move forward. He said the district has now begun discussing and planning around what impacts the potential mandate could it’s more than 800 employees. Though he gave no further information on how the district alone will tackle and potential mandates, Elstad said they will be following whatever OSHA recommends.

Elstad also celebrated the kick off of winter activities in the district.

“It’s really exciting to see our kids involved and that’s a big part of the engagement we have with our students to get involved in activities,” Elstad said.

State of the district

Earlier this month, Elstad addressed the State of the District on the school website.

“It would be an understatement to say that the last year-and-a-half have been among the most challenging of my 28-year career in education,” Elstad said. “I would also imagine that most of my colleagues would agree.”

He continued on by discussing how departments, educators and students had to adapt during the peak of the pandemic. Some learners were able to continue school in person, while others went to a hybrid model.

Elstad also spoke about the challenges that arose from all students coming back to school every day. Many students had to re-learn what it meant to be together and in classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms and gymnasiums again.

“I am so grateful to our amazing educators. During the deepest and darkest hours of the pandemic, they continued to rise up and remove barriers to ensure students were receiving the best education we could provide,” Elstad said. “Working with students is a calling and the challenges of the pandemic called on our educators to go above and beyond. They are my heroes.”