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Sarah Carlson, 8, a second-grader at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar, eats lunch Tuesday with her classmates. Kennedy was one of the buildings affected by the district's restructuring as it went from a K-4 building to a K-5 building. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Principals say first year of school reorganization had a few ups and downs, but mostly it was OK

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Willmar principals say the first year of a school district restructuring went well.

But the realignment of grades K-8, affecting more than 2,500 students, was not without its frustrations, they told the Willmar School Board during a workshop meeting Monday.

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During an effort to cut nearly $2.8 million from its budget a year ago, the Willmar School District went from four elementary schools to two. In the process, it closed two small elementary schools and moved all students in grades K-5 into two larger schools.

The former junior high became Willmar Middle School with grades 6-8.

Roosevelt Elementary went from a 4-6 school to a K-5 school. Kennedy Elementary went from a K-4 building to a K-5 building.

A seven-room kindergarten wing was added to Roosevelt to make the new arrangement work.

"It's been a journey, but I think it's been a positive journey at both of our buildings," Roosevelt Principal Patti Dols said during the report from the elementary principals.

Since Roosevelt had never had primary grades before, she said, the staff had some adjustments to make for younger students and the different types of activities they need.

The change wasn't as drastic for Kennedy, said Principal Scott Hisken said. However, about half of the students at the school are spending their first year at Kennedy, about 30 teachers are new to the building, he said.

Staff members from the two schools have been working together, Dols said. Both buildings adopted a character education initiative called "Above the Line; All the Time." They are also using ELL collaborations in their classrooms and teachers have had joint grade-level meetings to discuss curriculum.

"It's been a very positive transition overall," Hisken said.

The impact of budget cuts continues to be a challenge in the elementary schools, they said.

Class sizes continue to increase because of cuts, and the district has lost about 20 percent of the Title I staff because of penalties built into the No Child Left Behind federal education law.

Many students are working below grade level, but they are showing substantial growth in their learning, Hisken said. "I believe we are headed in the right direction."

Board members asked Dols about her view of all-day, everyday kindergarten, since this is her first year working with it.

"What I see is pretty exciting," she said. "I see kindergarten students reading."

The value of the full-time kindergarten is in helping students get ready for first grade, she said. Most of the kindergarteners are ready for first grade or very close, she added.

Middle School Principal Mark Miley said it was a challenging year, since the sixth and seventh grade classes were new to the school this year. He praised the teachers and staff for helping to meet students' needs.

"Overall, it's been a great experience," he said. The entire school was reorganized to accommodate three grades after having just two grades there for some time. The school had housed three grades in the past, at a time when the district had more students in each grade.

Sixth graders are able to use science labs and have more social study instruction than in an elementary setting, he said.

Students have also benefitted from a flexible schedule that allows them to have extended math and communications classes on alternate days, he said.

Miley said the eighth graders were good role models for the new students. The school year went well for the most part, though it was also a learning experience, he said.

The sixth-graders in particular benefitted from being with older students, he said. "They've grown up a lot."

Board member Mike Carlson said some parents were concerned last fall that the school would be crowded, but his two children who go to school there have never talked about it. He said he went to school in the same buildings when it had many more students than it does now.

"People are surprised with how quiet the hallways are," Miley said.

Lunchrooms have been one of the bigger challenges for the schools. The Middle School cafeteria "was a good 1960s lunchroom," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard, but it needs to be updated.

Dols said Roosevelt needs to be improved to fit the needs of younger students and to handle more students in the serving lines.

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