Owatonna school board recap

Mel Hoffner, Wilson’s principal, briefed the Owatonna school board Monday on developments in her elementary school alongside Rachael Bird, English Language teacher, Jayne Jacobson, reading intervention teacher, and Amanda Hofer, psychologist. (Ryan Anderson/People’s Press)

OWATONNA — Monday, the Owatonna school board made official what many had been expecting: days will be added to this year’s calendar to make up for weather cancellations during an atypically rough winter.

“I wish we weren’t talking about this,” but “we’re at that spot,” said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Monday was the ninth day of classes lost on account of poor weather in the 2018-2019 academic term for Owatonna Public Schools, much more than in a typical year, so — following Elstad’s recommendation — the school board approved a revised calendar that will includes makeup days. March 22, which was already a day of school for K-5 students but the start of spring break for upper grades, will now be a regular day for all students. In addition, while the last day of school was set to be June 5, school will be in session June 6, and, should there be another weather cancellation, June 7 would also be tacked on to the calendar.

If snow days continue to pile up — like the snow banks all around the city — the district will continue to add on days at the end of the year, Elstad said. “We’ll have to go deeper into June.”

While the district technically has missed nine instructional days due to inclement weather, Gov. Tim Walz “gave us” — and districts around Minnesota — “a reprieve” for Jan. 29-31, Elstad said. A record cold snap that week plunged wind chills as low as 50 degrees below zero, and schools statewide had to call off classes for student safety.

Districts, including Owatonna, annually build in extra days to account for some weather cancellations, but this unusual winter has blown through those calculations. According to state statutes, school districts must have at least 850 instructional hours for kindergartners, 935 hours for students in grades one-five, and 1,020 hours — and a minimum of 165 days — for grades 7-12.

Elstad can only recall one other winter with this many weather cancellations, when he was a teacher in western Minnesota in 1996, but as a superintendent, five days is the most in a winter prior to this year.

That occurred in 2013-2014, when he was Byron’s superintendent, and even five snow days in a season is “unusual,” he said. This year, then, “really takes the cake.”

Board Business

Those weren’t the only calendar adjustments Monday, however, as the school board revised its schedule to meet twice in May, on the 6th and the 20th, rather than only on the 13th. Those meetings will start at the usual time of 5:30 p.m.

The board also approved the final 2018-2019 budget Monday. The budget for the year ending June 30, 2019, calls for a final general fund balance of $7,303,319, a decrease of roughly $1,866,481 in the general fund. That includes a projected increase in expenses of roughly $755,000 from the preliminary 2018-2019 budget.

Wilson Elementary

Also Monday, Mel Hoffner, Wilson’s principal, briefed the board on developments in her elementary school alongside Rachael Bird, English Language teacher, Amanda Hofer, psychologist, and Jayne Jacobson, reading intervention teacher.

Wilson has placed a premium on equity, Hoffner said. “At Wilson, we view everything we do through a lens of equity.”

Through various changes, including the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Wilson’s climate has improved, and “major referrals” — the ones that “go to me” — are down from 618 last year to 187 thus far this year, Hoffner said. The goal was to decrease those behavioral referrals by 50 percent, and “we’re well on our way,” which is “awesome.”

Another important piece of the equity push has been the transition to more co-teaching in all grades of Wilson, a paradigm shift from the former model of taking students from their regular classes to receive EL services, Bird said. That “singled-out students,” stigmatized them, and erected a barrier for them because it isolated their learning.

Both classroom and EL teachers have learned from one another through co-teaching, said Bird, who has a master’s degree from Minnesota State University-Mankato and taught kindergarten EL in Eagan before taking her current post at Wilson. There are many models of co-teaching, from two teachers up in front playing off each other, to “station teaching,” where, for example, one station is led by the EL teacher, another by the classroom instructor, to “parallel teaching,” where the classroom is split in two, with the same material being taught to both sections, just by different teachers.

Co-teaching also reframes bilingualism as “an asset,” rather than “a deficit,” Bird said. Wilson has more than 100 multilingual students.

Because Wilson is so diverse, the school has established four pillars on which to base life inside that building, Hofer said. The first pillar is “student voice and perspective,” which includes student-perspective interviews, stocking the library with a book full of stories about immigrant students, and bringing the Green Card Voices traveling exhibit to Owatonna Public Schools this April.

The second pillar is “family/community connections,” Hofer said. Wilson conducts numerous family outreach nights throughout the year, including multilingual nights, reading nights, and STEAM nights.

Those evenings have flipped from lecture to listening during Bird’s tenure, said the EL teacher. On her first family night, which followed the former lecture format, “three people showed up,” but, “at our last session, we had over 130 people.”

In addition to turning those evenings into listening sessions, Wilson also serves “culturally-sensitive food,” Bird said. That can range from Somali dishes to Mexican cuisine.

While the food might be seen by some as mere cosmetics, “it’s actually really powerful,” Bird explained previously. “It shows we value you, your culture, and your customs, and we want you in our schools.”

The third pillar involves “instructional focus,” Hofer said. Examples include the Wildcat Broadcast — a TV show for and by students — a monthly book display, and the aforementioned co-teaching.

The focus in co-teaching is on academic language, such as “summarize,” “compare and contrast,” “paraphrase,” and “infer,” as academic language “appears across all content areas” and “enriches content learning for all students,” Bird said. “All of us were academic language learners at some point.”

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) have also boosted equity, said Jacobson. “We can look at data” daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly, so there is “data everywhere.”

This is “new to us,” but “very effective,” Jacobson said. “The kids are getting what they need from us.”

Wilson has also instituted a problem-solving team for behavioral or academic concerns, she said. “What can we do to meet the needs of this child?”

And the data is trending upward, she said. Students have made strides in proficiency from their fall to winter benchmarks in three reading categories among nearly every grade.

Teachers of all grades—and staff members—have dedicated themselves to the new data-centered approach in order to make sure each and every child receives personalized education, Hoffner said. “It comes down to adults making changes for kids.”

Having a teaching and learning coach, Kacie Clauson, has been “amazing,” because Clauson is “a rock star,” Hoffner added. “We’re thankful for that.”

The final pillar of equity at Wilson is staff engagement, Hofer said. That includes sowing the seeds for “courageous conversations,” surveys, a simulation to better understand poverty, and learning about implicit bias and microaggressions.

“I’m invigorated by your work,” the “passion you bring” to teaching, Elstad told the Wilson contingent Monday. “I see it in your eyes,” and “I’m very proud of you.”

Gifts to the district

Finally, the board accepted several gifts to the district, including $1,000 to the Alternative Learning Center from Steele County Public Health—through a Statewide Health Improvement Grant (SHIP) — for a water filling station to promote employee wellness. The Music Boosters of Owatonna also presented a 16-student drum kit, for $2,889, two MacBooks for a band program, at $2,498, and a $3,390 music carpet to the district.

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

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