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Superintendent's Column December 2014

Bill Gronseth

Superintendent's View

Duluth News Tribune December 31, 2014

   Almost three years ago I sat down to prepare a presentation for the community about the state of our public schools. I had about two months’ experience as superintendent and a laundry list of challenging tasks that needed to be accomplished.

   I wrote about a quiet but certain optimism — practical and realistic — aware of the challenges but confident in the ability of our schools and community to meet them. I remember feeling a sense of purpose, an idea that, by working together with people inside and outside of our schools, we could solve problems and create positive change.

   That sense of optimism remains, stronger than ever.

   Through conversations with Duluth citizens, there is a focused, community-driven vision for our schools now. Through relationships with community leaders and organizations, we receive ongoing advice and support. Work with the School Board and leadership inside Independent School District 709 has resulted in a restructuring of our organization to strengthen curriculum and instruction for students. New state legislation and a successful education levy provide additional funds to help manage class size, support student achievement and update curriculum.

   ISD 709 educators are researching and adopting best practices that are having a positive impact on student achievement. Overall test scores and on-time graduation rates increased this year. Last summer, the School Board approved a new Bullying Prohibition Policy, and an ISD 709 citizens committee is working to further community conversations on this important topic.

   Detailed budget reviews, advice from local financial professionals, and annual audits help keep at least 80 percent of general-fund spending devoted to instruction and to the support of students. The general-fund reserve continues to grow, and the 2015 levy increase of about 1.5 percent is less than the maximum and less than the state average. With help from the ISD 709 Property Sales Advisory Group and the city of Duluth, there is a formal offer on the Central High School property.

   As we begin a new year, Duluth can be proud that much has been accomplished. And yet there is much still to do.

   One of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing Duluth’s schools — and school districts across the country — is the achievement gap between groups of students. Most commonly, gaps are evident based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and ability. As educators, as a community, we want all students to realize their full potential.

   In Duluth, most student groups that experience an achievement gap made gains this year, which is good news. Other groups not experiencing a gap made even greater gains and so in some cases the gap grew. Our goal for the long term is to improve student achievement for all students while making greater gains more quickly for students who experience an achievement gap.

   It can be done, and Laura MacArthur Elementary is an example of that. Through a tremendous amount of planning, an intense focus on quality classroom instruction, recognition of the need for cultural competency, and the alignment of adults toward a common mission and vision, the school has made great gains in achievement in just two years. This year the Minnesota Department of Education named Laura MacArthur a Reward School, meaning it is one of the highest-performing Title I schools in the state.

   Using what we’ve learned, and implementing it with integrity, I believe we can duplicate that success for students in all of our schools.

   There will be much to do in 2015. Last January we began a community conversation about the distribution of student enrollment during Think Kids. That conversation will continue in February and include months of research. The fiscal 2016 budget process, which already has begun, will continue to focus on managing class size, updating curriculum, and raising student achievement along with exploring new opportunities like world-language immersion. This winter, further steps will be taken to update policies and strategies related to bullying. Raising achievement for all students and closing the achievement gap will continue to be our primary mission.

   Strategies, budgets, research, legislation, and curriculum all play a role in education. And yet the most powerful driver of a child’s achievement often comes from the adults around them: parents, teachers, coaches, mentors. Rita Pierson, an educator whose often funny, always-heartfelt presentations remind us of what education is all about, said this, “Every child deserves a champion — an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” These are powerful words. Most of us know a teacher or adult who made a big difference in our lives, who encouraged and inspired us.

   As we begin 2015, let’s work to be that adult who champions the children in our community, who never gives up on them, and who insists each child becomes the best they can possibly be.

Bill Gronseth is superintendent of the Duluth public school district. He wrote this at the request of the News Tribune Opinion page.

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