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Leedom's farewell tour has begun

WILLMAR - Willmar Superintendent Kathy Leedom often visits service clubs in the community, telling them about the accomplishments and challenges she sees in the district she loves.

But as the calendar brings her closer to her retirement this summer, she's finding the visits a bit different, perhaps the beginning of a farewell tour of sorts. At the beginning of the meeting, when the Kiwanis members contribute a "happy dollar" if they want to make an announcement, a number of them brought their cash to the front of the room in honor of Leedom. When she was introduced, she received a standing ovation.

Leedom shared some personal comments in addition to providing an update on the school district.

"We just have a fabulous school system in so many ways," she said. "I'm having a difficult time thinking about letting go."

Leedom, 56, announced her retirement in December. In August, she will be moving to Henderson, Nev., with her husband Jack.

"It's a good decision for us," she said, because her husband has health needs that require more of her attention than she's able with the demands of her job. Jack Leedom had a stroke in 1973, while he was serving in the U.S. Navy.

While she knows that the move is the right one for her family, it's clear that the transition is not an easy one for someone who has worked in education for 33 years.

"I'm really not ready to professionally step away from this work," she said. "I love it, and I don't know what I'll do without it ... but we want to be there and support our loved ones."

Leedom thanked the Kiwanis club for the many ways it supports the Willmar school system and for "the way you value our young people during their learning years."

Willmar has a dynamic school system that has 4,100 students and 700 staff members, making it one of the larger employers in the community, Leedom said. The diverse student body has one-third minority students, including 809 Latino students and 126 students from Somali or east African backgrounds.

Five hundred students, about 12 percent of the student body, qualify for English Language Learner classes.

"They are learning the English language, just as many of our ancestors learned English years and years ago," Leedom said.

Newcomers receive intensive instruction in "survival English" when they arrive, Leedom said, but learning the vocabulary required to understand math or science textbooks requires years of study.

The district faces some challenges in the number of students needing to learn English and also in the poverty level of its students, she said. More than half the students in grades K-5 come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

"Many children face disadvantages inherent to living in poverty," she said.

With all the challenges, though, there are bright spots, Leedom said.

Graduation rates for minority students have increased dramatically in the past decade.

According to information from Willmar Senior High, just 15.5 percent of Hispanic students graduated in 1995. In 2006, the percentage was 73.8 percent. The overall graduation rate increased from 82 percent in 1995 to 93.8 percent in 2006.

The district will continue to face strains on its budget from inflation and limits on state aid to schools, Leedom said. Most funding for schools comes from the state, and the 1 percent increase planned for next year won't cover inflation.

Leedom listed some of the district's successes and challenges. Successes include all-day kindergarten, new technology courses for secondary students, the ability to offer classes in Mandarin Chinese and the Parent Portal system to communicate with parents.

Challenges include continued efforts to remedy a construction problem with the roof and wall drainage system at the Senior High and a possible building referendum on a new elementary school.

The School Board has not decided yet whether to move ahead with a referendum, she said. An architect's report this Monday will take the board a step closer to making a decision.