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Willmar, Minn., School Board takes steps to tackle achievement ranking

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District needs to tackle the low rankings of its elementary schools as diligently as it would deal with sudden financial problems, Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said this week.

Kjergaard and the Willmar School Board discussed the district's next steps Monday at a board meeting.

The district must develop improvement plans for Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools this summer and have them in effect on Sept. 1. The state judged them among the Minnesota schools most in need of coaching and improvement. A federal grant may be available to help with the work, but grants won't be awarded until fall.

The district is also preparing for a new teacher evaluation system required by the 2011 Minnesota Legislature.

The need to tackle the two issues has resulted in a plan to revamp the district's administrative structure and to add several positions at the elementary level, Kjergaard told the board Monday.

The board unanimously voted to hire a full-time elementary assistant principal, who will split time between the two buildings and work on evaluations.

When the law was passed, Kjergaard said the additional evaluations would probably be helpful, but meeting the law's requirements would be costly. The cost of the new principal is expected to be about $115,000 in pay and benefits, depending on training and experience.

After discussion, the board approved a new title and a new administrative in the curriculum and instruction areas.

Several board members challenged Kjergaard on his turnaround plan for the district and wanted more information about how it might play out over time.

"With having a Priority School and a Focus School, we're going to have to change the way we operate," Kjergaard said. "I believe it's similar, maybe more important than being in (statutory operating debt)." A school district is in SOD when it has a general fund budget deficit that exceeds state limits.

Under the old system of measuring school districts, Willmar's schools had made progress in meeting the requirements focused on overall proficiency, Kjergaard said. The new system emphasizes achievement gaps and student growth.

Kjergaard proposed two new positions -- director of teaching and learning and coordinator of curriculum and assessment.

The current curriculum director Cheryl Nash would become the director of teaching and learning. Nash would be in charge of curriculum, staff training and mentoring principals.

The coordinator position would take over some of Nash's current data analysis duties and coach teachers and other staff in addressing the curriculum and state standards.

A new instructional effort, called Response to Intervention, will be the hallmark of the turnaround efforts in the elementary schools. Kjergaard said he hopes the approach will help the district respond to student needs and improve communications between buildings.

In addition to the administrative changes, Willmar will use $215,000 in state literacy aid to hire two ELL teachers and two instructional coaches for the elementary schools.

Funding of about $100,000 for the assessment coordinator and for Nash's longer contract will come from the district's undesignated fund balance.

Nash is well-equipped for the new challenge, Kjergaard said.

"She has extensive knowledge in working with schools that need to be transformed," he said. "She will be responsible for all school improvement across the district."

State advisors have been pleased with the district's plans so far, Kjergaard said.

"How did we get to this point," asked board member Mike Reynolds. He asked if budget cuts in the past had harmed instruction.

Kjergaard said the district cut $4 million in expenses over two years, class sizes went up and some English Language Learner instructors were lost. "We tried to do things as reasonably as we could" to maintain financial stability, he added.

"We should have done some things differently in hindsight," Reynolds said.

"Are we sure we want to create another position," asked board member Dan Croonquist. He suggested waiting until the district hears about the federal grant in the fall.

Kjergaard said the new position will be an integral part of a plan that needs to be in place by Sept. 1.

Board members Linda Mathiasen and Sandi Unger said they felt the curriculum and assessment coordinator was needed right away. "(Nash) needs these people to make it work," Unger said.

Reynolds said he didn't think he knew enough about the new positions, and he voted against them. Other board members voted in favor.

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

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