OWATONNA — The Owatonna school district welcomed new staff members Monday with a literal bang, as a drum corps of Owatonna students performed to kick off the morning.

“We’re so happy you have chosen to join our team of dedicated educators,” said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. “I hope you quickly feel the positive, family-like culture we have” in Owatonna Public Schools.

Elstad challenged administrators this spring to hire the “best and brightest,” and it’s “mission accomplished,” he said. This is a “first-round-draft-pick group here.”

The district has nearly 50 new educators this year, said Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning for OPS. Roughly two-thirds are teachers, and a third are support staff.

The entire district is driven by the mission of inspiring excellence in every learner every day, Elstad said. “Our work is to take (students) where they are at and inspire them to something greater.”

“We never stop at good,” he added. “It’s about being excellent in what you do.”

Elstad wants teachers and staff to “fail every day,” because “through failure, you’ll do something greater,” he said. Failing makes teachers “real” to students and serves as a valuable lesson that “I can fail at this, but do better tomorrow.”

The words “I’m sorry” are “two of the most powerful words” in the English language, because they mean “you’re a learner, as well,” he said. “True greatness is when you challenge the status quo (to be) a disrupter,” and, as administrators, “we are committed to making sure you all are the best you can be.”

Teachers and staff must build meaningful relationships with students, because learning cannot occur without them, Krell said. If students don’t feel their schools are “safe and caring” environments, “they won’t want to be” there.

“Create the very best relationships, and you’ll have a phenomenal year,” Krell advised. “Students need to know you care.”

“All of our kids come with stories,” she added. “Get to know them.”

“Demographics of our students only exist on paper,” said Martina Wagner, coordinator of educational equity in Owatonna Public Schools. “They come into our schools as human beings.”

It’s imperative teachers and staff “believe” not only in themselves, but in their charges, Krell promulgated. “Once we believe in kids, they will accomplish amazing things.”

They can collaborate, communicate, think critically, be creative, and have a community focus, she added. “Remove barriers for students.”

Not all Owatonna students have been raised on the “traditional Western model” of education, so teachers need strategies and protocols for all of their charges, Wagner said. “We infuse equity in everything we do.”

“Equality” means treating everyone the same, and the aim is to promote fairness, Wagner said. However, “that only works if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same support,” which is only the case in a theoretical perfect world.

“Equity,” on the other hand, requires providing support tailored to specific needs of students and aims to overcome a history of marginalization, discrimination, and underinvestment that has disenfranchised certain groups, especially minorities, she said. “Equity looks very different than equality,” and in Owatonna schools, “we are very focused on equity,” especially around race.

Equity entails “asking how we can address issues collectively and letting everyone speak (his or her) truth,” which can be “messy,” but that’s far better than “fakequity,” or “fake equity,” which is “talk about equity without action,” she said. In this district, “we have a lot of action.”

Julie Rethemeier, director of public and affairs and advertising for Federated Insurance, also addressed Monday’s group to remind them of their importance to the community, as well as to pledge Federated’s continued support for local schools.

“This is the best school district in Minnesota,” Rethemeier said. “I firmly believe that.”

The school district is “the hub of this community,” and teachers are “the backbone,” she said. Whenever Federated, a national company with its headquarters in Owatonna, attempts to lure employees from elsewhere, the “first thing they ask about is the schools.”

Roughly 1,000 Federated employees have Owatonna addresses, and the company encourages them to assist in local schools, she said. “If you need volunteers for your classroom, call me.”

She implored new staff members give this community a chance, rather than assuming they’ll move on to a larger district in a few years.

When Rethemeier first arrived in Owatonna, she believed she’d only be here a year, but she “fell in love with this community” and has been here three decades, she said. “This community has left an indelible mark on me and my family.”

Rethemeier is heavily involved in numerous community endeavors, including Rotary, and it would behoove new teachers and staff to look for ways to volunteer in Owatonna, she said. “I hope Owatonna is a great fit for you and your families.”

“You will feel support from the business community,” she said. “There’s lots of” pride in OPS in this city.

Indeed, Federated even pledged $20 million toward the cost of a new Owatonna High School, and “a gift like that doesn’t happen without the utmost trust and belief in your leadership team and all of you,” she said. “You are going to make a big difference,” and “we are all-in on supporting you in any way you need.”

Later Monday, new staff members ate lunch with administrators and then had site orientations with building principals. New teacher inductions will continue throughout this week with workshops, speeches, and activities on myriad subjects, from Junior Achievement to implicit bias, as well as team building, mentoring, and safety drills.

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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