OWATONNA — In a little more than a week, students will once again be flooding the halls of Steele County schools. For some it may mean the start of a fall sport, for other it may be their year to become the star of the school play, and for many it will mean transition to a brand new building.
Parents, however, may be feeling more of the back-to-school jitters than their kids. A new grade means new influences, which also means new choices their children will have to make. How do parents prepare their children to make good choices and how do they respond if they don’t?
Andi Arnold with the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition fields questions from concerned parents and guardians daily. As school gears up, Arnold knows that they are starting to feel anxious about how to keep their kids safe while they are away from home.
“Talk to them,” the project coordinator said.
The answer may be short, but it’s most definitely sweet.
“First and most important message is prevention, which means the importance of connection and conversation with your kids,” Arnold explained. “It’s about being a resource to your children so they see you as someone they would want to go to with questions.”
During the Steele County Free Fair earlier this month, Arnold put together a “Hidden in Plain Sight” booth that was strictly an adults-only zone. At the booth, Arnold presented parents with tips on how to start difficult conversations with their kids. These tips ranged from how to accurately display disapproval of underage drinking to discussing ways to cope with peer pressure.
“It’s a good time right now in these days leading up to school starting to sit down and have a conversation with your student. As the school year starts, students will be back with their friends and social circles — some of them going to the middle school or high school for the first time,” Arnold said. “We are always trying to find new ways to inform the kids on the choices their making and support parents and teachers in any way we can through education.”
The booth — designed to look a room belonging to a teenager girl — was also equipped with several “Easter eggs.” As parents walked through the room, Arnold would ask them if they noticed anything that “didn’t look right.” More often than not, the parents would come up empty-handed.
Coincidentally, there were 25 items literally hidden in plain sight indicating that the young girl who occupied the room was experimenting with vaping, pills, and other substances. The items ranged anywhere from hooded sweatshirts to electronics that contain secret compartments to items clearly hanging out of a garbage can.
“Our goal wasn’t to frighten parents, but I think there was a lot of shock,” Arnold said about the reception the booth received from fair goers. “So many parents were shocked that this stuff even existed, that corporations would sell these products knowing that the intent is to hide or do illegal activities. And it’s all definitely aimed more toward youth as a way to conceal bad behavior. I think parents were just really overwhelmed with what’s out there right now.”
A few of the items that seemed to particularly shock the crowd were the different vaping paraphernalia hidden throughout the room.
A hooded sweatshirt was thrown into a laundry hamper that is designed to vape through the hood strings while two other e-cigarettes were thrown in with a mix of pens and pencils. Arnold stated that a pile of chargers also consisted of chargers specifically for vapes.
“I just saw that they are now coming out with a vaping watch,” Arnold laughed in disbelief. “They are coming out with these products so that people can vape in public places when they’re not supposed to. There’s another that looks like a Game Boy and some that look like inhalers. They are made to look like everyday products that you would see just sitting around.”
An element specifically tied to vaping that cannot be seen that Arnold said is important to pay attention to is smell. Because of the sweet and fruity flavors vape products are being produced as, Arnold said that it isn’t uncommon to be able to smell the products on students. “Teachers have pointed out to me that it’s frustrating because they can’t see it, but they know the students are vaping when they smell the fruit or cotton candy scents,” Arnold said.
One teacher stated that a student had been requesting last school year that the room’s air freshener be turned on, only to later discover that they were using it to mask the vape smell. Arnold said that though all of these elements can seem overwhelming, the initial solution is still simple: talk to your kids.
“If you don’t know what something is than ask them,” Arnold said. “If you’re doing the laundry and you come across that sweatshirt – ask you kid what it is and ask them why they feel they need to [vape]. It is still all about having conversations.”
“We are not trying to encourage people to start overturning mattresses and rifle through their kids’ things,” she continued. “But at the same time it is their house. And if their overall health and well-being is at risk, then parents need to be empowered to know that they should be able to question what they see.”
For more information on the Hidden in Plain Sight booth, as well as the Safe and Drug Free Coalition, visit SteeleCountySafeAndDrugFree.com or email Andi Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OWATONNA — As the Owatonna school district continues to press deeper into STEM, E-STEM, and STEAM learning, the education of teachers received a significant funding boost courtesy of Eldon Steuernagel, his family, and the ISD 761 Foundation.
Steuernagel taught math in this district from 1953-1985, and he was one of the founders of the 761 Foundation, even serving as secretary from 1992-2003, according to Bruce Paulson, chairman of the 761 Foundation. Following his death in July of 2018, Steuernagel’s family decided to fund STEAM (science, technology, education, art, and math) education for teachers, since Steuernagel was an ardent believer in that method of instruction.
Steuernagel “felt it would be very useful” to staff and students, Paulson said. “STEAM is such a wonderful thing.”
The district is able to spread that money farther and wider than initially expected, said Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning for Owatonna Public Schools. The preponderance of training this summer for staff at Lincoln and Wilson was actually covered by a grant from the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University, meaning the Steuernagel money can be earmarked for further training, professional development, and collaboration.
“It really has worked out well,” Krell said. “We know professional development and ongoing support” allow for “us to do some really great things.”
For example, once all elementary staff members are STEM-ready, “we can collaborate across all four” elementary buildings, she said. Furthermore, the Steuernagel donation will allow high school staff members to receive STEM and Career Pathways training beginning in 2020.
This summer’s training at Owatonna Middle School was open to staff members of Lincoln and Wilson, as well as any new teachers to the district, and Owatonna had roughly 50 individuals attend, she said.
Lincoln and Wilson staff members who missed training this summer will have it in 2020.
After meeting multiple times with the Steuernagel family and explaining some of the STEM successes at McKinley and Owatonna Middle School, everyone agreed “we want to bring that to all students in our district,” Krell said.
“Addresses shouldn’t dictate” the education elementary students in Owatonna receive, and those students all filter into the E-STEM middle school before reaching high school.
The skill set of “an Owatonna graduate” ought to include abilities such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving, she said.
Employers desire those talents in workers, and the mission of a school district is to turn out graduates who can thrive in college, career, and life.
STEM students have “a different mindset,” she said. They have “perseverance and positive growth.”
Owatonna was one of the first districts in Minnesota to move in the STEM direction, and it remains a leader in STEM, STEAM, and E-STEM innovation, according to Dr. Gillian Roehrig, a science education professor at the University of Minnesota who has dedicated herself to studying STEM education, particularly in OPS. In many schools, students have to “get lucky” to get that one STEM teacher, but in Owatonna, STEM is building-wide, and that “cohesion” makes the district special.
“We need to challenge kids,” Krell said.
“How can we create more relevant learning opportunities?”
Funding from sources like the Steuernagel family will allow the district to continue offering STEM, STEAM, and E-STEM opportunities.
The Steuernagel “gift is tremendous to us,” Krell said. “We’re so thankful for their kind generosity.”
OWATONNA — Though Danielle Theis, who took over as the Special Services director for Owatonna Public Schools July 1, followed an unconventional path to her new role, she’s spent her career dedicated to mental health, and “it’s always been (about) kids.”
“I don’t have a traditional path to this,” said Theis, adding “I was always drawn to the most-vulnerable student population.” Those students, she said, “always ended up on my caseload,” because she is determined to “put the ‘who’ before the ‘what.’”
“We have to seek to understand how the child perceives” himself or herself, “what is going on around them, who is trying to guide them,” she said. It’s pointless to demand a struggling child be at a certain point; rather, one must “start where they are, then move forward with them at their pace.”
There’s always progress, eventually, with students one helps, but it might be delayed gratification, and “the reward might be this (tiny) bow,” she said. “We work so hard that we want to see the gains, but that’s not our pace to determine,” so “you have to” take comfort in knowing “you contributed to something better.”
As Theis settles into her new role, she’ll focus on making sure Special Services personnel always “stay in a compassionate lens” when interacting with children, she said. “Behavior is communication,” so when children misbehave, “they’re telling you they need to be supported differently.”
She also acknowledged “I have a lot of learning to do, but this team is willing to share, and I’m grateful for the support.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel, ‘There, I’ve got it,’” she added. “Kids continue to teach me things every day.”
Time in the trenches
Theis is a licensed psychotherapist, director of special education, and K-12 principal with experience serving youth through residential programming, school social work, child protective services, children’s mental health services, and centers for child victims of domestic violence.
Her time “in the trenches” only served to emphasize to Theis the value of reaching individuals young, before their struggles explode beyond their ability to cope, she said. “I can take what I’ve learned” and “be more proactive.”
Because young brains are still developing, “anything can happen,” she said. “I’m passionate about the potential and possibility of children.”
Theis was the director of special services for the Austin school district for two years before spending nine years as principal of New Dominion School at Gerard Academy.
New Dominion “is a beautiful, wonderful place,” and “I’m tremendously grateful for all the things those kids taught me,” as “I see them as tremendous survivors,” she said. “You learn a lot about yourself when you work with children who struggle,” and the residents of New Dominion “struggle with mental health barriers,” as residential treatment is “one step away from hospitalization.”
New Dominion served students in K-12 across all content areas, and, as principal, Theis “was able to build a tremendous team of adults” who helped students — some of whom had never succeeded in a scholastic setting — experience triumphs in an education environment, she said. “That was so powerful.”
In this district, Special Services run the gamut, from Developmental Adapted Physical Education (DAPE), to occupational therapy, to physical therapy, to visual impairment, to speech therapy. There are 13 categorical disability areas in special education, including students on the autism spectrum, the blind and visually impaired, the deaf and hard of hearing, those severely impaired, students with physical impairments, those with speech impediments, and students with traumatic brain injuries.
More than 900 Owatonna Public School students received some special education services this past school year, up from roughly 750 only two years ago. Though state and local outlets can offer more than mandated by the federal government in terms of special education, state and local can’t provide less, and the Owatonna school district provides services from birth to 21.
‘Energy, focus, passion, commitment’
Theis is familiar with the city of Owatonna, the school district, and the Special Services department. Theis and her husband of 15 years, John, moved to Owatonna 13 years ago, their son, CJ, will be a freshman this year at Owatonna High School, and their other son, Hunter, will be in seventh grade at Owatonna Middle School.
Over the past couple of years, Theis worked in the district’s Professional Learning Community’s (PLCs) on trauma-response practices and crisis intervention, as well as with Special Education personnel on contending with children who express their struggles “externally,” she said. “That gave me a peek into what’s happening in the district,” and she saw how staff members, particularly in Special Services, are “so committed to reaching children who struggle.”
“You truly have to want to understand their experiences because children deserve that,” she said. “I feel that energy, focus, passion, and commitment” in Owatonna.
In addition, “I really believe in” the “leadership” of Superintendent Jeff Elstad and “like the direction he’s moving” the school district, she said. Her “ultimate goal” is to provide special services to children in need in “the least-restrictive setting,” but, of course, that’s a communal effort involving everyone in the district, and SPED shouldn’t “be its own silo.”
The work of Special Services has only grown “more complicated” in recent years, as more children require services, she said. Often, they’ll present with “comorbidity” — say, being on the autism spectrum, as well as having a learning disability — and they may also have been impacted by trauma, so “it’s a pretty complex picture.”
Cases of autism in American children jumped 150% from 2000 to 2014 and 15% from 2012 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 3.5 million Americans have autism-spectrum disorder.
Roughly a third of people on the autism spectrum are nonverbal, and the same percentage have an intellectual disability. Autism can also coincide with other challenges, such as seizures, anxiety, and ADHD.
“The most-powerful emotion in the human experience is fear, and we can all agree we want our kids to feel safe and nurtured,” Theis said. “To do that, they need to feel understood, not judged.”
‘A frustrating barrier’
Among the hurdles for districts throughout Minnesota is the shortage of SPED funding, she said. “These are needs and services we must provide” by law, but “they’re not fully covered,” and that’s “a frustrating barrier.”
As costs for serving SPED students continue to rise, districts have to allot dollars from their general funds, a process known as the special education cross subsidy. The average cross subsidy for Minnesota districts is $820 per student.
The district is slated to spend $1,408,095 more on special education instruction in the preliminary 2019-2020 budget than in the final 2018-2019 budget, including several additional positions to meet needs of students.
The costs for special education continue to rise precipitously “for everyone, not just our district,” according to Amanda Heilman, the district’s director of finance. It’s “one of those areas severely underfunded statewide.”
Students are arriving at schools with more needs — at earlier ages — than ever before, according to Elstad. Unfortunately, “the funding isn’t following that.”
Theis learned from her mother, Donna McLoone, who was a school social worker for two decades in Owatonna Public Schools, and “that instilling hope is” paramount, especially in children, Theis said. In addition, “never underestimate what children are capable of becoming.”
At times, those who work in Special Services can be so heartbroken by the tragic tales of some of their students that they lapse into an, “oh-you-poor-thing” mentality, but children can be remarkably resilient, if taught proper skills, she said. “They need those skill sets.”
Roughly a quarter of children have been exposed to traumatic events, which can erode their trust in adults, and schools, of course, are guided by adults, Theis said. “If they don’t feel safe around adults,” proper learning is virtually impossible, so “we need to help change their perspective, but that takes time,” and districts are more mindful of metrics like ACEs (adverse childhood experiences).
“An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood,” according to NPR. “The rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems,” from substance abuse to suicide.
Theis is eager to hear from parents and families as she takes the reins of Special Services.
“I’m here, if anyone has questions, comments, or concerns,” she said. “Let me know what we’re doing well, too, so I can congratulate the staff who is working so hard.”