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Red Lake School District: Staff can stay, but principal must go

For most educators, summer is a time for relaxing, catching a few rays of sun and giving the red ink pen a rest.

But this summer, so far, the only heat Red Lake School District Superintendent Brent Gish has felt has been in the form of a state deadline to create a school turnaround plan for Red Lake High School and Ponemah Elementary School.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Education released independent evaluations of 32 of Minnesota's persistently lowest performing schools. Red Lake Senior High, Waubun Secondary, Cass Lake-Bena and Greenbush-Middle River Senior High were among the schools on the list.

The MDE's evaluations were part of the federal government's $34 million School Improvement Grants program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act. It is the government's primary mechanism for turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Each of the 32 schools were given a set amount of time to use one of four turnaround strategies prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education to apply for funding as part of the three-year grant. In order to receive the funding, the school had to design a plan that meets the shortcomings found in their report.

All applications were due Thursday, July 1.

While Gish knows school reform means giving students more opportunities to succeed academically, it also means change.

The Red Lake School District's decision to approve the U.S. Department of Education's transformational model will force Red Lake Senior High's principal Ev Arnold to be replaced. Arnold has served as principal for four years.

"In the transformation model, it leaves the teaching staff intact and requires the removal of the principal," Gish said. "I don't agree with this. I think our principal has been a part of our solution and not a part of the problem."

But while losing the principal wasn't what Gish preferred, it also means staff and teachers can stay, one of the main factors that influenced the school board's decision to approve it.

The turnaround model, a different option, would replace the principal, screen existing school staff and rehire no more than half the teachers. The restart model would convert a school or close it and re-open it as a charter school. The other option would be school closure and sending the students to higher-achievement schools in the district.

Gish said if the MDE accepts the district's application and schools' turnaround plans, the board of education would likely consider keeping Arnold employed in the district, "using his individual talents in a different capacity that has yet to be defined."

At Ponemah Elementary School, the principal is faced with the unknown.

According to Gish, because the principal at Ponemah has been in the position for less than two years, Gish said he hopes the MDE will take that under consideration.

"It has been confirmed by progress reports that the principal at Ponemah is playing a key role in the school's positive progress," Gish said.

Gish said he anticipates hearing word from the MDE on Red Lake School District's school turnaround plan roughly nine days from now.

If the MDE gives the district a green light, Red Lake Senior High teachers and students can expect to see a few changes, such as longer school days. According to Gish, the transformation model would add 20 minutes to each school day.

"We are restructuring how we begin our day," he said. "Participation in our breakfast program was very low at the middle and high school. We're going to offer breakfasts they can grab, such as, juices, bagels and breakfast bars."

Gish said Monday mornings will start later because teachers will be actively involved in Professional Learning Communities, where they will work together to assess classroom data. He added that 90 minutes per week of PLC time will be added to the school week.

Gish said the improvement plan requires the school to raise the bar and add rigor.

The plan entails adopting a K-12 plan with behavior management called responsive classroom.

"It involves developing learning communities and teaching students to take responsibility for their own behaviors," he said. "It's trying to get students to rethink and redo. Students would develop a personal improvement plan."

Additionally, Gish said, focus will placed on summer academics.

"One of the things we know about summers is that, in communities that are economically challenged, there is a summer loss component," he said. "We have designed a school calendar that reduces that. We would begin with summer academies, perhaps growing to a flex calendar."

Gish said the need for analyzing state test data and individual student test scores will be key to creating a positive change.

"We received our state test scores," he said. "We are already seeing positive results. We're moving the bar up and that's what we need to do. We'd like to see it accelerated."

Red Lake School District is also considering resurrecting the school-tribe collaborative, established after the 2005 Red Lake school shooting tragedy.

"We want to work together to address issues where we have common ground. We would like to reactivate that collaboration and maximize our efforts."

While the state department pointed out the school's shortfalls, it also addressed positive attributes of the district, Gish said.

"They commented that our school climate was very positive, as far as discipline and positive interactions," Gish said. "They also recognized our efforts to create an environment conducive to all and implementing strategies for American Indian students."

Gish said the district will be adding a turnaround officer who will oversee the implementation of the entire grant.

"With professional development, the amount (of the grant money given to the Red Lake School District) could approach $1 million over three years."

As for Red Lake's principal Arnold, Gish said he has not yet been dismissed.

"We are waiting to see what the state is going to do," he said. "I want to emphasize the hard work that the staff has done. We've seen positive indicators in the MCA test scores that have come back. And we are pleased with direction we are headed."