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Report on Willmar Senior High reveals multiple challenges

WILLMAR — In the past, students who didn’t speak English at Willmar Senior High needed to learn the language to “unlock” all the learning they had experienced.

In the past six years, “we have students (arriving) that do not have a history of education,” Senior High Principal Paul Schmitz told the Willmar School Board Monday.

Schmitz spoke with the board about a plan for improving achievement at the Senior High and explained some of the school’s past test scores.

“The snapshot doesn’t tell the whole picture,” he said.

In general, white and Hispanic students score at or near state averages, but black students, primarily Somali refugees, as well as English Language Learner and special education students score “significantly below the state average.”

Schmitz explained some of the reasons for the scores, while also saying, “We have to do better.”

In the past, the high school would “teach students English to unlock earlier learning,” he said, “but now we are unlocking the language to learning that’s not there.”

Many Somali students arriving have lived in refugee camps, and some have never been to school before.

Schmitz said Willmar has done a good job at helping those students grow quickly in their learning, but they can’t be expected to work at their age level for some time.

“We feel great about what we’re doing, even though on paper, it looks like failure,” he said.

Schmitz said white and Hispanic students are about average for the state, but “that was difficult to see; we like to think of ourselves as above average.”

Willmar’s special education scores are lower than some other districts on standardized tests because of a district decision, Schmitz said. Schools are allowed to exempt a percentage of their special education students from state testing. However, Willmar has traditionally not used all of its exemptions.

Each student works with teachers and his or her family before deciding whether to give the test a try.

“We make it a student-based decision,” he said, and the test scores can be used in developing future goals for a student. “We may have to decide as a district if we want to continue letting kids take the test if they want to,” he added.

Overall, Willmar’s overall test scores will most likely not exceed state averages because of the challenges of some students, Schmitz concluded.

“I’m fine with the learning and teaching we’re doing, because we are teaching our kids where they’re at,” he said. “The question is when is the state going to recognize the challenges of some schools. … As long as the state continues to be punitive and not supportive, it’s just up to us to explain to our stakeholders, to explain the numbers.”

Board member Linda Mathiasen asked if Schmitz could show the board information about how minority students in the district for five or more years are faring.

“I think we owe it to our Latino families and our black families,” she said. “I would like to be able to say, ‘If you’re in our district and in this subcategory, this is what we do for you.’”

Schmitz said he didn’t have the information available on Monday but would send it to the board.

Goals for the Senior High include developing a more formal mentoring process for new teachers, expanding outreach to minority families and developing a more formal intervention plan for struggling students.

In other business, the board:

- Voted to raise breakfast and lunch prices 10 cents per meal. New costs would be $1.90 for lunch in grades K-5, $2.05 in grades 6-12 and $1.25 for breakfast in grades 9-12. Students in grades K-8 receive free breakfast.

- Denied a request from Community Christian School to develop a cooperative program in six sports — football, wrestling, hockey, swimming, gymnastics and softball. In a past situation, “the board’s directive to me was if they go to school here, they can play sports here,” Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said.

- Agreed to consider adding a high school trap shooting team and asked the staff to develop a detailed plan of how the team would be organized.

- Approved capital projects for the 2013-14 budget year. The district expects to spend about $1.3 million on a variety of projects, ranging from new windows at Kennedy Elementary to iPad leases at the Senior High.

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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