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Willmar, Minn., School District taking next step to right elementary school woes

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District submitted its application for a federal School Improvement Grant last week in the hopes that it help change the culture at its elementary schools.

The application seeks just less than $500,000 in each of the next three years.

In state rankings released in the spring, Kennedy Elementary School was categorized as a Priority Sc-hool, meaning it ranks among the lowest-performing sc-hools in the state in student academic ac-hievement and growth.

The rankings apply only to schools receiving federal Title I funding.

As a Priority School, Kennedy is eligible for a grant to hire teaching coaches and specialists to intervene with struggling students.

Roosevelt Elementary in Willmar was classified as a Focus School with an achievement gap in the lowest 10 percent among Title I schools.

Roosevelt is not eligible for a grant, but the techniques and strategies developed at Kennedy would be used there as well, Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said in an interview last week.

The state used test results from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years to judge schools last spring. Schools in the priority and focus categories will retain that classification for three years, regardless of whether their test scores improve.

Test scores from the 2011-12 school year were released Tuesday. In general, the state's students in grades 3-8 earned higher scores in reading and math, but 11th-graders' math scores were down slightly.

The analysis of the scores will be released at the end of the month.

The state requirements for focus and priority schools have made this summer busier than usual for the Willmar School District.

Elementary teachers and administrators have developed improvement plans for each elementary school. The plans have been completed and will be implemented this fall, according to Cheryl Nash, director of teaching and learning.

Students and their parents will notice some new things right away this fall, she said last week.

"Every child will have an extra 30-minute block of time when they receives some extra support," Nash said. Children will receive the attention they need, whether that's extra attention for students struggling in math or special projects to challenge gifted students.

The elementary schools will be adding science specialists to get younger children more involved in studying science and technology.

There are plans to enlist teachers to provide after-school tutoring open to all students at sites in the community, possibly at churches. Parents and families will be asked to become even more involved with their kids' schools.

Kjergaard and Nash said they believe students at both schools have been receiving a good education. Under past measurements, Willmar's elementary schools were making progress toward goals set by the state, with more children, including minority children, showing growth and reaching proficiency on state tests.

New measurements place a greater focus on achievement gaps, whether between minority and white students or between low-income and more affluent students.

"We need to have all of our kids do better," Kjergaard said last week. "We need to have all of our kids do well."

To accomplish that, the district faces a variety of challenges.

Teachers and administrators have been working this summer and will continue during the school year to find new ways of reaching all children in the schools.

In organized groups called Professional Learning Communities, faculty members will study state standards and look for the best ways to help children understand them.

Attendance can be an obstacle for some kids.

The district had 122 children who each missed more than 30 days of school last year. About 20 of them were in kindergarten. "Parents need to get their kids to school," Kjergaard said, though most students do have regular attendance.

If students are in school regularly and on time from an early age, he said, "We could make a lot of progress with those kids." If they aren't there, "that kills us."

Another challenge for the district is the level of poverty among its students. More than half of Willmar's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of the poverty level in a school district.

"Poverty is still a huge determinant of whether or not kids are going to be successful in school," Kjergaard said.

The district's minority populations, 35 to 40 percent of the students, include a wide range of students, from the many children born at Willmar's Rice Hospital to those who spent their formative years living in refugee camps in Africa.

Kjergaard said he finds that all of the parents in the school district want "what I wanted for my kids, a safe place to go to school where they are taught well ... and the chance to go to the college of their choice or a trade school, so they can get a job they want."

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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