Local Views: Stillwater’s Forgotten Children

The past 10 months have been a very exhausting marathon. Since the decision to go forward with the new BOLD proposal, it’s been a constant adrenal push to get through the endless school board meetings, retreats, past budgets, targeted programming, the Special Ed Report, the Allocation of Resources Report, the A-ROI information, the various consulting companies, school board candidate interviews and forums all while raising a busy young family running to school events, doctor appointments, dance class, soccer, coaching baseball, organizing play dates and running my own business.

I have managed to do this and I have educated myself. With my experience of children in this district, I also have some insight.

Stillwater is a unique community comprised of various socioeconomic neighborhoods. Each has their own appeal to give a sense of belonging and camaraderie. One is able to choose the environment best suited for themselves and their family. Our education system is no different.

We live in a state that allows choice of which school we want to send our children to. We make these choices because each child is unique. Unfortunately, this freedom has taken its toll on enrollment numbers at Stillwater Area Schools. More parents are opting to pull their children and send them to private and charter schools; some even choosing to homeschool.

According to the District Administration, BOLD was about equity. However, no honest definition of equity was ever given. At times it was said that services were lacking in some schools. Most recently administration said it was better to integrate our schools. During a contingency boundary meeting, it was said we need to shift boundaries (and therefore disrupt learning) because of racial diversity.

It was stated that if the District didn’t draw boundaries to balance racial diversity, then the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) would do it for them. This, in fact, is a lie.

In speaking with the Office of Achievement and Integration, they shared that an ideal situation for integrating our schools is to offer programming to attract diversity to wonderful schools and offer a method of transportation to get there, as we already do.

District 834 has a 1 million dollar line item (305) for Consulting. We pay for advice from different services including the District Management Council (DMC) and Teamworks. We also receive money, money that requires specific criteria be met. The strings attached to this money force us to make decisions and implement programs for our District that are not necessarily a good fit.

Following bad consulting advice and working for “string dollars” is not doing what is right for all kids. There are some programs that specifically target resources for subsets of children, such as AVID. The question becomes, have we seen positive academic gains from this and what programming is available to include more children with needs regardless of race, creed, socio-economic background, gender or origin.

We currently have a School Board consisting of a majority that are making decisions to remove choice. Minnesota allows for open and alternate enrollment which has partly impacted our capture rate (the number of students that reside in and attend Stillwater Public Schools). Recent School Board decisions have further reduced public education choice, by closing elementary schools in the north and central, filling existing schools to capacity, and building another in the South to attract students from neighboring districts.

Why is Stillwater not attracting and retaining students? Stillwater is known for its great athletics and arts programming, that alone can’t carry a school. The high school is big. My personal belief is that if you are self-motivated, self-directed, or even complacent you will do fine. But what if you’re not? We are missing kids….bright, intelligent, gifted, special-needs kids. These kids have difficulty learning in the environment that Stillwater is forcing them into.

Studies have shown that smaller elementary learning environments create a more successful secondary experience, one that needs less intervention. Having more intimate classroom settings early in the learner’s educational career means deficits can be addressed sooner. Stillwater is already on this path. Schools are as individual as learners and our elementaries currently offer various learning environments and styles. Surprisingly, two of the elementary schools slated to close are recent Blue Ribbon Schools. Other elementary schools have received this award in prior years.

Let’s focus on applying what is working well in some schools to those that aren’t performing as well, whether a school had a need for more paras, offers a traditional format, or an open format, these differences should be celebrated and embraced. Parents know their children, their needs and where they will thrive. Pulling choice out of their hands will encourage more people to leave.

We also need to take an in depth look into our high school.

This is a place where all resources are available and yet kids are getting pushed out when they have been deemed ‘too difficult to deal with’, or teachers ‘don’t know what to do with them.’ At the same time, we are seeing kids across America act out. If we stop and ask ourselves why, the answer isn’t too hard to find.

Consulting companies, such as the DMC, are trying to minimize the number of teachers and paras, encouraging cuts at the Special Ed level (kids with IEP’S and 504’s), moving towards large open forum classes. Some of these kids with an individual learning plan are extremely gifted children; they are just a different style of learner that the District may need to invest in. Some of these kids are our future leaders and business owners.

Having highly financially-efficient schools does not equate to better outcomes for children. We have taken away “hands on learning” and do not utilize it enough. We have changed our education system so much that we have less periods and spend most of the time meeting standards. Whose standards?

We need a School Board and Superintendent that are fiscally responsible. If we cut the strings, reduce the administrative costs, which have increased by nearly 30%, we can then give back to the learners. We are not a poor District, we are not in dire straits as the administration would like us to believe.

If Stillwater focuses on kids already enrolled that have needs not being addressed, they will attract and retain the students that are fleeing. Maybe we wouldn’t even need to market our schools. District 834 could stand alone on what it has to offer.

If we focused on providing a school system that spoke to all of our learner styles we would thrive. Kids need to fit into their environment. We need to recognize that if we allow flexible learning environments; we will foster positive outcomes. We need to move beyond labeling kids and nurture the creative leader.

Stillwater schools need to take a step back. Get rid of bad advice and string dollars that don’t fit. Recognize the missing kids and bring them to the forefront with all kids.

A healthy learning environment consisting of high-quality academics coupled with parental choice regarding school environment will attract any student whatever their background.

It’s time to do what is right for our community. It’s time to listen and stop shutting parents out. Reduce administration and get rid of programming that doesn’t fit. We are seeing a trend of wasting dollars that could be applied directly to student services. Solutions are within reach.

We live in a community of intelligent passionate people. It’s time to come together; the children need us.

— Tina Riehle, Stillwater resident, mother of six, parent and community volunteer, and small business owner