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Popular child guides survive, will be part of community education: Welcoming staff

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WILLMAR -- When Willmar teachers and students begin a new school year Tuesday, the child guides will be there.

It hasn't been certain that the popular program would survive in the past couple years, as grant funding has dwindled. Now, the guides have a new lease on life as a program of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation Department.

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Describing what the five child guides do for children isn't easy. They can find donated sports equipment for young athletes and make sure all kids have pencils and colors on the first day of the school. They comfort crying kindergarteners and find volunteers to read and eat lunch with children. If a kid needs something, one of the child guides -- Christine Hilbert, Deb Kleven, Leah Thorpe, Heidi Burton and Aggie Meium -- will try to find a way to provide it without using money from the school district's general fund.

Now, with a connection to Community Education, the guides will have access to additional resources, and the department will have "foot soldiers in the schools," said Steve Brisendine, director of Community Education. The daily contact the guides have with students will help his department determine the types of programs kids want or need, he added.

Kleven will be working at Jefferson Learning Center with children and families in the family literacy and early childhood programs. Hilbert will be working at Jefferson as a coordinator and fundraiser for the program.

Thorpe will be based at Kennedy Elementary, Burton at Roosevelt Elementary and Meium at the Middle School. With the district's school reorganization, all of them will be working with larger student populations than they have in the past.

The guides were supervised previously by a school administrator and funded by outside grants. However, the school could no longer provide an administrator for the guides, and connecting with community education turned out to be a good fit, Brisendine said.

The guides have enough grants to fund the program through the first half of the school year. After that, Brisendine said, more should be known about outstanding applications and about his department's funding priorities.

"Community ed has supported many things that don't support themselves," he said. Community education receives funding from a separate portion of the school property tax levy, and its purpose is to provide opportunities for kids.

"The money is always a concern," Hilbert said. "We're still on the grant search, and always willing to take donations. ... We couldn't do what we do without the community."

The school district has experienced many changes this year. A reorganization of grades K-8 has placed the district's students into two elementary schools and a middle school. In the past the district had four elementary schools and a junior high.

Many teachers are starting the year in new classrooms, and many students will have moved to different schools.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard welcomed the staff Thursday morning by thanking them for their cooperation and hard work in accomplishing the move. The staff applauded loudly when he praised the custodians for their work in getting all the buildings ready.

The staff filled the auditorium at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Kjergaard also pleaded for the staff's patience as the school year started. "We are going to find that there's something we missed," he said. "If we didn't, it would be amazing."

Short, humorous videos were used to illustrate his points as Kjergaard talked about the challenges teachers face. He urged them to fight for underdogs and help people who needed it, even in the face of resistance.

"Thank you for what you do," Kjergaard said. "Every day you come in and give your best; we should celebrate that more."

The superintendent said he knows that teachers often come to work sick. From the balcony, a woman called out, "It's easier."

"It's easier, because you don't have to prepare for a sub," he agreed, but he urged them to look at things differently this year. "If you're sick, we really need to have you stay home."

He urged them to be careful, to wash their hands and have their students do the same.

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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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