New community ed director likes what he sees in Willmar


WILLMAR — In his first month in Willmar, Scott Wallner says he's seen many things he likes.

Wallner, the new community education director for Willmar Public Schools, has met lots of people and has explored the town's ethnic restaurants with his wife. He was able to visit a Rockin' Robbins concert last month.

The district's work this summer to update buildings and the presence of a new elementary school are all pluses for Willmar, he said.

"I'm finding people are very friendly and passionate for this community," he said in an interview Friday. "There's a lot of people that care about this community."

Wallner joined the school district Aug. 1. Adult Basic Education classes and Community Education activities began Tuesday, the same day as classes began in the other K-12 schools in the district. Preschool activities begin next week.

Wallner said he understands that there may be challenges ahead as Willmar Community Education and Recreation splits from a joint city/school district venture to two separate departments.

However, he and Rob Baumgarn, the city's new recreation director, are hoping to make the transition relatively seamless, he said. Baumgarn is a longtime Willmar Community Education and Recreation employee, and Wallner said he appreciates having that historical knowledge available.

"The formal agreement ends today, but I certainly think the partnering will continue," Wallner said Friday, referring to the official end date of the city-school partnership. "We're going to need to partner around, for instance, facilities. We're still going to want to have recreation programs, and even if the school district isn't running them, those are still school children. They're our children."

Wallner arrived in time for another major change in the Community Education Department.

This is the first year Willmar's 4-year-olds will be able to attend preschool classes in each of the three elementary school buildings.

Wallner said the move should be a good one.

"It's an opportunity to have the 4-year-olds in the buildings," he said. "It's a nice opportunity to build alignment between what's being taught to the 4-years-olds and what's happening in kindergarten."

Much of Wallner's experience has been in working with Adult Basic Education programs. He worked in Mankato, Northfield and St. Cloud. He was most recently the assistant director of the community education program in St. Cloud.

Adult Basic Education classes cover a wide range. People use the classes to study for GEDs or to improve computer skills. Newcomers to the country go there to learn English and to study for citizenship tests.

"I have a lot of experience with immigrants and refugees, and I've really enjoyed that experience," Wallner said. "It's really rewarding to watch people come, gain English skills, gain confidence, learn about work culture ... watch them get jobs and watch their kids do well."

Alignment is a subject that comes up often in a conversation about his long-range plans for the department.

"I'd like to see the department get our activities in better alignment with what is going on during the regular school days," he said. "I would like to be offering more (science, technology, engineering and math), sort of reinforcing what kids are learning during the school day."

With Adult Basic Education, he said, he'd like to work with community partners to align courses with employment opportunities in the community.

Wallner grew up in Brooklyn Center and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota. His master's degree is from the University of St. Thomas and his doctorate from the University of North Dakota.