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School leaders prepare for visit from School Turnaround Team

"Vigorous interventions" by the Obama Administration to turn around under-performing schools has state school leaders making plans for a visit from the Minnesota Department of Education.

While receiving a poor performance review isn't good news, some area school leaders hope for the best from the federal funding, instead of preparing for the worst.

In the North-Central region, Ponemah Elementary and Red Lake Senior High School in the Red Lake School District, Cass Lake-Bena Secondary and Waubun Secondary qualify for receiving federal funding through the School Turnaround Grants, as they are in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Obama Administration has committed $3.5 billion to fund transformational changes in America's persistently low-performing schools and assisting states to identify and prioritize schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

Waubun School District Superintendent Mitch Anderson said that while some of the School Turnaround's drastic measures are a tough pill to swallow, he said he's had a good working relationship with officials from the Minnesota Department of Education since first being notified in January.

"I was assured by (Patricia King, Minnesota Department of Education's director of school improvement) that rehiring half the staff and firing the principals are not the approach they want to take," Anderson said. "Those measures are geared towards other districts."

In Minnesota, a School Turnaround Team with the state Department of Education will visit all 34 underperforming schools in Minnesota to assess what changes need to be made.

Red Lake School District Superintendent Brent Gish said his district is in the process of gathering data to present to the team. He said the four school districts in north-central Minnesota have been in contact by telephone and may meet in the future to discuss reform matters.

"Part of this is still the unknown," Gish said. "The Department of Education is saying 'We'll be up there; we're going to work with you.' But the process hasn't begun yet."

Gish and Cass Lake-Bena School Superintendent Carl Remmers are currently in Washington, D.C., at the National Federation of Impacted Aid Schools to study the situation.

"They want to work with us to turn around our schools," Remmers said of the Minnesota Department of Education and the Obama Administration.

However, he said firing teachers and principals is not part of the plan.

He said a major problem of the Cass Lake-Bena School District is lack of regular student attendance.

"We do have a high absentee rate," he said.

The school district and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe are working together in programs such as Youth Build and Camp Rabideau to keep students in school.

Cass Lake-Bena was recently cited as a high-performing school in a U.S. News Report study of schools in districts where poverty is prevalent. Remmers said more than 80 percent of the students at Cass Lake-Bena qualify for free or reduce cost lunches. He said when students have to wonder where they will be spending the night each day, school attendance doesn't seem as important to them as it should.

As negative as the initial situation seems, Gish said he looks at school reform as an opportunity for positive change in the district.

"We're putting our best foot forward," he said.

Waubun's Anderson shared similar thoughts.

"I want to show the team all of the positive things our district is doing and what we're doing well in," Anderson said. "We've had encouraging collaboration to get things going. I'm optimistic about receiving the funding to help make some improvements in our school."

What neither school leader said he fully understands, however, is the criteria the department used to determine the list of 34 schools.

"Our MCA scores are a weak area, but our graduation percentage is 85 percent or higher," Anderson said.

Both school leaders commented on the high achievement gap among districts.

"Have we been shown how we ranked? No, we haven't," Gish said.

"We had a number of reforms before this ever began," he said. "The old formula used to be it took three-five years to turn a school around. Now it's five-seven years. We've been at this less than three years. We have data that shows we are improving."

"There are so many flaws with the testing system to begin with," Anderson said. "Waubun is a small school district with a high percentage of Native American students. We've got about 37 areas under AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) that we could get hit on."

According to Anderson, only two of the four reform models will be effective measures for the Waubun School District - the Transformational Model, which involves extending learning and teacher planning time and potentially replacing the principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformational model; and the Turnaround Model, which among other actions, requires the school district to replace the principal and at least half of the school staff, adopt a new governance structure for the school and implement a new or revised instructional program.

The other two options are to either close the school and reopen it as a charter school or close the school and enroll its students in other, higher-achieving schools in the district.

"Turning our public school into a charter school isn't an option," Anderson said. "Closing it is not an option. Just because they're listed doesn't mean it's going to happen."

Regret is not an option, at least not for Anderson or Gish. Only time will tell as they wait for school assessments from the Department of Education.

"Our board, our administrators, our entire staff, we want to get better. If there is research out there with proven practices that we don't know about, trust me, there's no one who wants to get better than us," Gish said. "We have a hard working staff that, for the last several years, have been building a program that we think is very sound and is going to move our students forward."

Anderson echoed Gish's comments by saying, "We're looking at this as an opportunity to sit down and come up with a strategy on how we're going to help the kids."