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Education commissioner discusses progress with Chamber

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, from left, Mark Miley, Beckie Simenson and Brenda Cassellius pose with the Willmar Cardinal Friday during an all school celebration held in Simenson's honor for being named Minnesota Assistant Principal of the Year. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — After learning that Minnesota’s fourth-graders led the nation in testing this year, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius began challenging school administrators and teachers.

She’s been asking, “Are you ready for these fourth-graders.”

Cassellius was in Willmar Friday to speak to a noon gathering of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. She spoke to about 70 people from the area business and education communities at The Oaks in Willmar.

Cassellius shared good news about education, including the state’s ability to pay back money that had been borrowed from schools in recent years. Gov. Mark Dayton said he planned to raise education spending each year he’s in office, Cassellius said.

The state added $485 million to school funding this year, but that still only raises schools to 2003 funding levels, she said.

“There’s lots of work still to do,” but it’s been a good few years for the state’s schools, she said.

Cassellius spoke about the priorities she and Dayton set for the state’s public schools and for closing achievement gaps in the state.

An emphasis on early learning has led to having 73 percent of students ready for kindergarten, up from 58 percent a few years ago. “That is gold for kindergarten teachers,” she said, and the readiness helps open up opportunities for children.

Third grade literacy has been another focus. Cassellius said she believes those efforts have led to the high national scores for fourth-graders in reading and math.

Scores for eighth-graders haven’t been as high though they are still ahead of most states nationwide, she said. One reason could be that many recent efforts have focused on younger students, and the focus will be expanding.

And that led her to her question about fourth-graders. The students who will arrive at middle schools and junior highs in the coming year are likely to be a different type of students, Cassellius said. They’ll be accustomed to using technology and moving at an accelerated pace.

Cassellius said she has been committed to developing a Department of Education that is responsive to the needs of schools. Rather than having school districts prepare reports, she said, the department offers on-site support for schools. Telephone calls are returned within a day.

The department’s regional centers provided 14,000 hours of technical assistance to struggling schools in the past year and saw some dramatic improvements in test scores.

Achievement gaps have narrowed, too, she said, but there is still work to do.

Willmar teacher Cindy Kroona asked Cassellius about assistance for children who are newcomers to the country and have never attended school before.

The emphasis on kindergarten readiness can miss children who arrive and start school at older ages. “We’ve got to give them as much as we can,” Kroona said.

Minnesota has become more diverse, Cassellius said. She was disappointed in the last legislative session to not get more funding for English language programs.

“We can’t afford to leave anyone behind anymore,” she said.

She hopes the statewide emphasis on achievement gaps can help schools focus on every child.

Schools have achievement gaps within all subgroups, including white students, she said.

In conversations with superintendents, she said, she tells them to “pay attention to all your kids” so they can all work up to their potential.

Asked by chamber President Ken Warner what she thought of the Q-Comp merit pay system, Cassellius said she did not believe in paying teachers for performance. Teachers work hard to help their students, she said, and Q-Comp wouldn’t make a difference.

However, she said she would like to see more money put into professional training and planning, which are other components of Q-Comp.

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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