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Education union gathering public input on matters affecting schools

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By Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR — Minnesota’s largest education union is asking for help in defining solutions for the challenges facing the state’s schools.

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Thursday, Education Minnesota representatives were in Willmar for the fifth of six community meetings planned around the state.

Those attending were asked a series of questions about schools and teachers. They discussed the characteristics of great school districts and memorable teachers, as well as ideas for encouraging more people to choose teaching as a profession.

In addition to Education Minnesota staff members, about a dozen people from the area attended the meeting Thursday evening at the Willmar Community and Activity Center.

The union previously conducted meetings in Rochester, St. Paul, Brooklyn Center and Red Lake. The last will be in Duluth.

Those at the meeting divided into two groups to discuss a series of questions about education before sharing their ideas with the larger group.

One group said teachers who communicate with parents and students contribute to great schools, as do teachers who get kids to think for themselves. The groups praised teachers who were willing to seek out new ideas and show respect for students.

Jennifer Mendoza, a community member with children in the Willmar schools, said she had enjoyed the meeting. “I really liked the atmosphere,” she said. “I think we all have a common goal,” she said.

Mendoza said she and her family like Willmar’s school system. “I love the fact that my kids love going to school,” she said. She said she hopes more parents will get involved with the district.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said the union will collect and compile the ideas heard at the meetings. The information will be used to develop union proposals and may help guide future legislation.

“We’ve heard some awesome ideas,” she said.

The union is interested in attracting more diversity in the state’s teaching ranks and in attracting more people to the profession.

This year, the union is involved in legislation for reducing paperwork for special education, requiring competitive bidding in school district health insurance plans, and funding to support a new law for teacher development and evaluation. The union also favors an increase in the minimum wage.

The law on teacher evaluations implements a new infrastructure of evaluations and reporting that goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Specht said she is happy to see the state and teachers talking about the issue. “I see it as a once-in-a-career discussion,” she said. “We can’t let this opportunity go by.”

The Education Minnesota meetings “are an example of how we want to find solutions for our schools,” Specht said. “I think Minnesota has a lot to offer in terms of ideas and solutions.”

At meetings around the state, the union has heard lots of interesting ideas, she said. Groups have talked about how to identify potential teachers earlier, possibly through a future teacher organization in high schools.

Another idea was a “grow your own” concept by encouraging minority paraprofessionals to go on to get their teaching degrees.

It’s been encouraging for union members to hear comments from around the state, she said. “People really care about their schools, and they see that schools are trying their best.”

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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