State education commissioner visits Kennedy

WILLMAR -- The third-graders stood up straight at their desks. Led by teacher Kristine Lippert, they began their chant with "I," then "I believe," warming up to "I believe that I can learn! I believe that I can learn!"...

Brenda Cassellius
Elijah West explains a math drill to Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in Kari Eckhoff’s fifth-grade classroom at Kennedy Elementary in Willmar Thursday. Cassellius visited four classrooms and staff in the cafeteria during a morning walk around. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR - The third-graders stood up straight at their desks. Led by teacher Kristine Lippert, they began their chant with “I,” then “I believe,” warming up to “I believe that I can learn! I believe that I can learn!”
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius laughed with delight Thursday morning when she visited their Kennedy Elementary School classroom in Willmar.
Lippert said they would be doing the cheer at an all-school pep fest today to celebrate the hard work that led to Kennedy’s improvement in state rankings.
Cassellius was at the school to celebrate the school’s academic performance. She also visited Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City schools Thursday.
Kennedy and the ACGC Elementary have shown dramatic growth in their state rankings.
Both were placed in the Priority School group in the state’s rankings two years ago. That placed them among the state’s lowest-performing schools receiving federal Title I funding to assist disadvantaged students.
Both districts sought grants and guidance from the state to revamp their programs, and both have improved in academic performance, achievement gap and student growth.
With the most recent rankings, ACGC’s elementary schools have moved into the top Reward School category, and Kennedy has moved into the second-highest category of Celebration Eligible.
Kennedy will submit an application to be named a Celebration School.
Cassellius spoke to the Kennedy staff before school Thursday. “I want to say a big thank you for digging in,” she said. She acknowledged that it wasn’t easy on them to be placed in the Priority School group.

The banners in the halls promoting good citizenship and respect, along with the school’s emphasis on art, music and physical education show her that Kennedy’s staff and leadership are interested in children’s overall development, Cassellius said.
“It’s nice you are working on the other things, not just test scores, that matter to kids,” she said.
“I miss being a teacher,” she said before sending the teachers off to start the school day. “Every time I get this close, I want to get in the classroom and forget all this political stuff.”
Cassellius visited several classrooms. In Lippert’s room she asked students about the sound system that amplifies their teacher’s voice. “It helps us listen better,” one boy told her.
In Kari Eckhoff’s fifth-grade classroom, Cassellius listened to them work on math problems and then answered questions. She asked some, too. She asked the students how many public schools Minnesota has. One guessed 200, and she told them to add a zero to that answer to get the total.
Another student was close when he guessed that a million students attend those schools. Cassellius said about 835,000 students attend public schools. When students at other types of schools are included, the total number of school-age children in the state is about a million.
Michaele Stoeberl’s second-graders told her about being able to read chapter books.
“I know you have been working super hard,” Cassellius said, and she urged them to keep it up.
She closed with, “Boys and girls, you all should be teachers; it’s the best job in the world.”
In Kathryn Voss’ kindergarten room, the children read off the whiteboard and demonstrated their counting and American Sign Language skills. “You’re superstars already,” Cassellius said.
Kennedy’s application for Celebration School status will spell out what programs the school has used to support student achievement, according to Director of Teaching and Learning Cheryl Nash. It will also describe the challenges in improving student achievement.
While scores have been increasing over the past couple years, the district has seen more newcomer students. Some of them arrive speaking no English, and some have never been to school before.
Nash praised the school staff for the improvements seen at all levels of the district.
“The student population became more challenging, but they overcame that challenge and they’re still growing,” she said. “The staff was still able to make the necessary changes and grow kids.”
Scores have improved among all groups of children, too. For those reasons, Nash said, she believes the school has a good chance of being chosen as a Celebration School.
The state rankings apply only to schools receiving federal Title I funding - the elementary schools in Willmar. But the Middle School and Senior High have implemented new programs to help students, too.
Roosevelt Elementary in Willmar has been classified a Focus School, which puts it in a group of schools that are contributing most to the state’s achievement gap.
Roosevelt has implemented some of the same changes that Kennedy has, but Kennedy had the advantage of a federal grant that helped pay for more administrators and more oversight.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
What To Read Next
Get Local