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Saved by Legislature, integration programs could be coming back

WILLMAR — The West Central Integration Collaborative continues to provide services to eight area school districts, thanks to the 2013 Legislature.

Less than two years ago, there was talk at the State Capitol about eliminating funding for integration services and using the money elsewhere.

Now, the state's funding formula and philosophy are changing, but integration efforts will continue.

West Central Integration Collaborative director Idalia "Charly" Leuze praised area legislators for shepherding the legislation earlier this year. "They were up to par with what we needed," she said. "It wasn't just for Willmar."

The collaborative has worked for more than a decade with the primary goal of keeping all students in school through graduation. Another goal has been to increase understanding between cultures.

The state has placed an increased emphasis on academics and closing the achievement gap.

"We will have to develop a new plan," said Leuze, but it may not include major changes.

"We're already doing a lot of what they're saying we need to do," said assistant director Leslie Kelly.

Integration collaboratives were originally in the state's larger cities. Rural districts that were considered racially isolated were added later. Willmar's student body is about 40 percent minority, a figure that's much higher than in nearby districts.

The other districts in the collaborative are Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, BOLD, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, MACCRAY, Montevideo, New London-Spicer and Renville County West.

The collaborative has a number of programs, and they are open to any students in the participating school districts.

School success coordinators have been placed in member districts to work with young people who are at risk of not graduating.

Other services include interpreting, the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program to teach Spanish to young students, and the after-school SMART Club for homework help and tutoring.

Funding has come mostly from state aid, with a smaller portion coming from local levies.

A new state formula will increase funding for school districts with larger minority populations and decrease it somewhat for majority white districts.

Willmar will receive about $180,000 more this year, and RCW will get about $13,000 more. The other districts will lose from $3,000 to $21,000 from their budgets, depending on the size of the district.

Kelly said it's left up to each district to decide how to spend its money. The collaborative offices are located in Willmar, and Willmar Public Schools is the primary focus of the work.

With the additional funding, Willmar will have a total of $776,000 for integration efforts this school year.

Not all of the plans are set yet, but Leuze and Kelly said the need in the schools is great.

"There's always a big need for cultural liaisons," Leuze said, especially at Willmar Senior High where some Somali refugee teens have never been to school before arriving in Willmar. The collaborative has already added another school success coordinator at the high school.

The additional funding could be used to develop a summer learning program for students, Kelly said. The collaborative will be submitting new budget plans to its school districts this month.

Other ways to spend the bigger budget could include more tutors for one-on-one instruction and more transportation for after-school programs.

The popular Celebration of Cultures event, ended after 2009 budget cuts, could return.

The new law limits spending in some areas and requires certain levels in others. At least 80 percent must be spent for academics, family engagement and other direct services to students, up to 20 percent is allowed for staff development activities and administrative costs are limited to 10 percent or less.

Kelly estimated that the collaborative already spends 84 percent of its budget on direct services to students and is already in line with the administrative cost limits.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he is still learning about the changes in the law this year. Superintendents from the member districts are meeting soon to begin planning for the changes.

"We believe the plan should need only a few tweaks," Kjergaard said. "My hope is it's still a viable component in our students' education."

The school district receives staffing help and staff training assistance from the collaborative, he said.

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