Talk of the District

with Denise Pontrelli, Superintendent
Denise Pontrelli

Talk of the District is where you will find monthly updates from our superintendent Denise Pontrelli.  If you have comments, concerns, or questions, Ms. Pontrelli can be reached via email at pontrellid@stillwaterschools.org.

Closing schools may seem like a drastic solution to save a million dollars. But saving money isn’t what BOLD is really about. BOLD was developed to help our students learn and to address concerns raised by parents and staff – things like class size and support for our students. It emerged not as a way to cut our budget, but to ensure we are investing our resources where they’ll make the biggest difference for kids. 

Even before I officially began this job I listened to parents share their concerns with the school board about rising class sizes and the loss of important school resources – like nurses and special education teachers. They passionately pleaded with the board to keep great teachers in front of their kids every day. For those who have lived and worked in this district longer than I have, these conversations have become common place. For more than a decade we’ve been losing students and families and they’re telling us they’re leaving because this district isn’t delivering what they need for their students.  

Staff shared similar concerns with me when I went to visit them at the start of the school year. The teachers told me about the many resources they’ve lost over the years. They told me how class sizes had grown and curriculum had changed. They explained how they’d continually been asked to do more with less. How they were stretched too thin. How student needs were increasing, as more and more came to school with emotional and behavioral issues and hungry stomachs. They told me they no longer received the training they needed to keep up with changes in curriculum, instructional strategies and assessments, or the changing needs of our students.

When we started to dig into enrollment and capacity numbers as we planned for the grade configuration changes promised in the 2015 bond, it suddenly became clear why some of these barriers are in place.

  • We’ve lost 12 percent of our student enrollment in the past 15 years, yet we operate the same number of buildings.
  • We have elementary schools in our district ranging from about 150 to 760 students, and a variability of $1,600 in the cost to educate students depending on the building.
  • Class sizes vary greatly in elementary classrooms across the district – with 27 classes above the ideal range and 16 below at the start of this school year.
  • We have staff traveling between buildings, sometimes as many as five schools in a week, which means the students they are trying to serve may only see them for a mere hour each week.
  • Four of our elementary schools are projected to be below 70 percent capacity when sixth graders move to middle school in the fall of 2017. 

It was then that we realized we are investing more than we need to on bricks and mortar and we’re skimping on student learning. 

Closing schools, I was reminded by a community member this week, should be a last resort. I couldn’t agree more. For nearly two decades this district has been searching for a way to run more efficiently and invest more money into its classrooms. School closure has been a part of that conversation all along, although few dared to say it out loud. And in all that time we’ve fought to maintain the status quo. Staff members have worked harder. Students have done without. Sacrifices have been made. Budgets have been slashed and families have given up on us and moved elsewhere. 

Will BOLD solve all of the challenges we face? No. But it will be a strong move in the right direction. It will bring students together in buildings staffed with the people they need to help them learn. BOLD will allow us to redistribute special education teachers, student advocates, school psychologists, interventionists, English Language Learner teachers, and speech language pathologists into the remaining seven elementary schools. When a child is looking for help, it will be there. Not tomorrow or next week, but when they need it. It will better balance class sizes, reducing the number of classes higher and lower than the ideal size. It will help us to work smarter, not just harder.

Learn more about the BOLD proposal at stillwaterschools.org/BOLD.

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