What do we really stand for?

April 22, 2014

In my remaining few months as superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools perhaps I can be a bit bolder than I’ve been in the past. What is weighing heavily on my mind in recent days is a continued commitment to the Bridge to Excellence (BtE) plan – a plan developed with tremendous input and passion from our staff and community just one year ago. When I first arrived in Stillwater one of the things I heard over and over was the need for a vision – a clear plan. I also heard from community members that a levy request would only be supported if it included a bold change for our schools, something new and exciting. With this input, my team and I moved forward to lead a process to develop both of these goals.

We knew that this plan would require a new way of thinking, a willingness to use resources differently, and the abandonment of things we’ve done in the past to make way for new solutions and ideas for the future. The last few months have been the first test of this new vision. I say this because even though we have moved forward with our promises, we are being challenged and tested by those most impacted by the changes.

Whether we like change or not, our students need to develop an entirely new skill set for our rapidly changing world. Those of us with school-aged children see this every day. Our kids must be able to produce knowledge, solve complex problems and collaborate in a world where geography, language and communication are no longer hurdles. They must be able to compete not just with their neighbors for jobs, but also with individuals from across the globe. The skills that made our country great in the past –such as curiosity, creativity and ingenuity - are coming to the forefront again today. And with all of the focus on technology and social networking, there is a renewed need to connect with others, give back to our community and provide service to others. This is what BtE is all about – fostering that curious spirit within our students to continue learning, seeking answers, and solving complex problems.

The learning happening in classrooms across the district is changing as we begin implementing this plan to prepare our students for the 21st century. But the conversation has become blurred. I’ve heard complaints about adding art, classroom technology and instructional coaches – core components of BtE. To be fair, much of this push back has been because of budgetary challenges that are impacting class sizes in a few classrooms - something we are diligently working to address before the start of next school year.

What’s been lost in recent conversation is the intent behind these bold changes. Adding art is really about changing our elementary day and offering students more opportunities to be creative and curious as they develop the skills needed for our new world. And adding instructional coaches is about providing support and hands-on training to our teachers to make them more effective – regardless of the number or the vast differences of the students they serve. Instead of removing them from the classroom for workshops, or providing infrequent training throughout the school year, coaches can work with teachers where they are to address the wide range of student needs that we see today. This is what best practice says we need to do, and research shows significant gains in student achievement as a result. Nevertheless, we are experiencing some discourse, which if we hold true to our vision is likely just the start of many such disagreements. 

When we lose focus it’s easy to point blame and cling to what we know. But to provide our students with the best opportunities in a time of continued resource challenges will require us to do things differently and be courageous. Difficult decisions need to be made. Other districts have made similar transitions by reconsidering the way in which they teach their students. Things like class size, long held sacred here, have been increased in other districts where the focus has shifted to teacher development and student opportunities. Although any teacher will tell you it is easier to personalize learning and build connections with fewer students, the research regarding class size impact on student achievement is inconclusive. I venture to guess that many of us have been in small classes and still had a terrible experience, and in larger classes where we had a great experience.  In these situations class size did not matter, but the quality of the teacher did. Our children deserve great teachers – teachers who are supported and have the skills necessary to help students succeed. This is why our BtE plan places a premium on putting the very best teachers in front of our students every day.

“Success is never final and failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” The vision has been set. My hope is that we all find the courage to cling to it through this time of uneasy transition – now and in the near future - to emerge stronger than ever before. If we do not, what will the future look like for our schools and students?

Comments

I'm sorry you won't be here to see the BtE Plan through. I personally believe the changes being made are exactly what a modern education system requires. The world we all live in is very different that the one we parents grew up in and one that will continue to change rapidly. We must embrace this new reality if our children and our country are to grow, adapt and be successful. I am completely in favor of the direction our school district is headed. I only wish my children would have been able to fully benefit from the existing changes and improvements being made.

Corey, your last day can't come soon enough... Don't let the door hit you on the way out of town...

It's too bad that immature and disrespectful people like you exist when talking about a community of students and future leaders. Your comment only proves you had nothing intelligent with which to respond. Typical with people like you.

.....is a sadly typical of the disdain shown to people who disagree with your point of view. You see it as immature, I see it as a frustrated taxpayer venting his frustration, in a terse if somewhat inelegant manner.

That comment about disrespectfulness was directed at "Steve"

My comment about "people like you" was directed at Molly for saying it's too bad people like Steve exist. That is not very kind or tolerant, is it?

If this is so important to you, then why are you leaving? Something doesn't pass rhe smell test when superintendents get a massive levy passed then use it to pad their reume for a bigger paycheck elsewhere. I thought you would be different but I guess I was sorely mistaken. You brag of a levy passing by the largest margin ever in an off-year election with the lowest turn-out ever. The taxpayers of the district are struggling to make ends meet and increased property taxes are piled on us now. If the BtE is so wonderful for the district, why not see it through? It is a lond-winded way to say what Steve said.

Dr. Lunn,
A bridge has to be built on a solid foundation. Maybe until we have our feet firmly planted and necessities met we should slow down with building this bridge (Stillwater has learned, quite literally, that when you rush ahead with bridge plans and neglect laying the groundwork it only takes longer to get there!)

I am concerned in your use of the word "few" to describe the number of class sizes that will be increased next year because of budget cuts. My fourth grader will be in a class of 35 next year (five sections of similar size) along with two- sixth grade classes of similar size. This is in ONE building- SEVEN classrooms of 35 students each? That's more than a few, I think.

I also would like people to consider that in our elementary school buildings students participate in art with a local artist once a month. This is funded by the PTA. Sure, it's only once a month; however, elementary classroom teachers (in my experience) do an amazing job of integrating creative art into projects throughout the school year. We DO NOT need to compartmentalize our instruction of art, or any other subject, for that matter. In fact, the most meaningful connections are made for students in interdisciplinary studies: creating posters, drawings and sculptures during social studies, performing skits and making murals during reading... All activities I have personally seen elementary school teachers provide to their students. Did you know that licensed teachers take art courses as part of their degree program?

Instead of maxing out our class sizes and straining our classroom teachers, why not WAIT on building the "bridge" and work a little more on the foundation?

Many parents AND teachers, as well as other committed community members put our trust in the school board and the administration when we got behind the levy efforts. I called my neighbors, spent evenings talking with community groups and lent my approval and my time to what I thought was best for kids.

Dr. Lunn, Members of the School Board, this is not best for kids. And I am deeply sorry that I trusted in your process. If your intent is to attract families and students, start by taking care of the families you have, or you stand to lose many more.

I have to agree with the person above - and I am also a case study. My 1st grade son was utterly lost this fall in the chaos of a huge class at Stonebridge. He had a pretty good Kindergarten year, but that was with an amazing teacher and the old para model. Now,he was getting in trouble constantly, in part because, as his teacher admitted, he was bored. He already knew the material being presented, but the huge class size made it difficult to impossible to differentiate within the classroom. On top of that, he had PE only every few days and a very short (and rule-crazy) recess. He was starting to hate going to school. I was frustrated, but became hopeless after trying to get help and hitting wall after wall between the school and the district. I ended up moving him to a charter in So Washington County - and he is doing wonderfully! He is able to work at his own level and gets outside at least twice a day, every day. Lunch has gone from chaotic stress to a relaxed time to eat. (I would sometimes stop by and have lunch with him in kindergarten, but I had to stop because it made ME feel crazy! I do not remember getting yelled at to STOP TALKING AND EAT! when I was in school.) I was originally planning on moving him back into the district in 6th grade. Now after, in part, considering the current state of the district, we are planning to move to St Paul Park to be in the So Washington County district. Art is lovely, but it would have made my son's day worse. One more time to sit still in a huge class without any other breaks. Where is the balance? Whatever our choices for 6th grade and up, I feel like they will be better there. So between him and his little brother, who starts kindergarten this fall, Stillwater lost two students. I love the community and the area, but I couldn't subject my kids to that experience.

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