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Willmar, Minn., Schools receive $600,000 grant to implement Kennedy Elementary improvement plan

Adrian Cruz, left, and Keilynn Swenson, read aloud May 29 in Nick Claseman’s second-grade classroom at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. School officials learned Wednesday that Kennedy will receive a $600,000 federal grant to provide funding for intensive instructors in reading, for training of teachers, and for instructional coaches to work with teachers. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District has received a $600,000 federal School Improvement Grant for the 2013-14 school year at Kennedy Elementary School.

The school received a similar $500,000 grant for the school year that ends this week. The school will be able to apply for another grant next year, but will be limited to three years.

Willmar school officials got news of the grant award early Wednesday afternoon. The grants are funded by a federal program and distributed by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The grant provides funding for intensive instructors in reading, for training of teachers, and for instructional coaches to work with teachers. It also paid for cultural liaisons to improve relationships with the Somali and Latino communities in the district.

A new way of analyzing state test results a year ago pegged both Kennedy and Roosevelt Elementary as schools in need of improvement.

Kennedy is on a Priority School list that put it among the lowest-performing schools in the state when it comes to student achievement and the achievement gap between different groups of students.

Roosevelt is listed as a Focus School, a group of schools with challenges in closing the achievement gap. Focus schools are not eligible for a School Improvement Grant, but the school district has used local funding to provide programs similar to those at Kennedy.

In reports to the Willmar School Board, school officials have said the efforts have led to improved test scores across the board in the first year of the program.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he was pleased with the grant award and full of praise for the group of staff members who wrote the application. The grant is good news for the district and for the entire community, he added.

"It allows us to continue doing everything we've done over the last year," he said. "I've been a superintendent for 27 years, and I'm about as excited about this as anything I've had happen."

Cheryl Nash, the district's director of teaching and learning, said the district would hire two reading teachers, one for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-5. They would go into classrooms to help the staff implement a new K-5 reading curriculum.

The district will be adding intensive instructors in math, too, she said.

"We're going to be doing very similar things" at Roosevelt, Nash said. The schools' instructional coaches work together now, and that will continue, she added.

The goal is to provide similar educational experiences for students at both schools, even though the federal funding can be used only at Kennedy.

The district's success with students this year led to Willmar being asked to give presentations at meetings with other Priority schools, Nash said. People from other schools have come to Willmar to observe what's happening at Kennedy, too.

"I really think we need to be an education hub, for not just the districts around us but for the state," Nash said.

Nash said the success of the efforts at Kennedy and Roosevelt have come because of the partnership developed within the district, that includes the school board, administrators, teachers and other staff.

"The classroom teachers have been relentless in support of the program," she said.

Starting next year, the intensive instruction efforts will be taken to the Middle School, too, Nash said. Next year will be a training and preparation year, with full implementation the year after.

The state ranking system instituted a year ago was developed after Minnesota received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law. Both schools had been making progress under the old ranking system, which focused on student achievement.

The new system takes into account other factors like student growth and achievement gaps. Both schools implemented new school improvement plans for the current school year.

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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