by Jim Boyle
The Elk River Area School District hosted a pep rally of sorts for more than 850 teachers preparing for Tuesday’s start of the 2012–13 school year.
It included plenty of pomp and circumstance with the District 728 Marching Cadets fresh off a summer filled with parades and trophies. They provided entertainment midway through the Zabee Theater program to help welcome educators back and rev them up for another year.
“The city of Elk River is really proud of our school system,” said Elk River Mayor John Dietz, a member of the Elk River High School class of 1967. “I urge you to keep up the great work and have a successful school year.”
Superintendent Mark Bezek paid homage to the past successes of the school district and its staffs — recognizing high school student Josh Wolf, who was recently featured in Popular Mechanics; District 728 computer programmer Keith Stevens got the kidney transplant he needed to continue to live; and four professionals who earned teacher and volunteer-of-the-year honors this past school year. They are: Kristine Niznik of Rogers; Tracy Ratike, a media specialist at VandenBerge Middle School; Cindy Eversman, a kindergarten teacher at Zimmerman Elementary School; and Michelle Farnum, a special education teacher at VandenBerge Middle School.
But mostly Bezek and others who came to the podium focused on the future, starting with the new strategic plan that rolled off the presses this past year after a couple of years of intense work by more than 300 people in the district and community. The plan’s mission and core values will be the focus of much of the coming year.
Teacher Sue Romaine, administrator Jason Paurus and parent Julie Golden explained in powerful ways how they came to buy into the plan.
“I hope you embrace this (plan),” said Golden, a District 728 parent who served on the district’s core planning team. “I hope families will experience this, children will thrive, parents will be encouraged and our community will be better and what all of you do will be easier and with better results.”
Speaker and author Jamie Vollmer, a former public education critic turned ally, encouraged educators to stand up for the district in the community to help the public understand their needs and challenges.
“Whoever molds public opinion carries the day,” he said at one point in his keynote address. He indicated that what the community thinks about teachers and the schools will decide their fate.
“When kids come Tuesday 40 hours will be nothing,” he said. “Fifty, 60 hours for some will become routine. You stand before the most diverse, distracted, demanding generation of students the world has ever seen.
“Many of these children are victims of popular culture that has assaulted their physiology, fractured their attention span and given them and their parents a dangerously overdeveloped sense of entitlement. This is unbelievably hard. But nobody will know it unless we show them.”
Bezek said the district’s old strategic plan served the district well and added nothing is broken.
“We’re very good at what we do,” he said. “Those (rising) test scores don’t just happen. It’s the support from the community, support from the teaching and learning team, and you people in the classroom doing the work you need to do with the kids.”
But he made it clear the district can and needs to do better. And it will need help from the communities of District 728 in more than one way.
“We need a deep commitment, which I believe we have or we wouldn’t be getting the results we’re getting,” he said.
He said there are programmatic and financial challenges ahead, noting the first drop in enrollment in 15 years this past school year and a trend of declining kindergarten enrollments.
“Our radar is up,” Bezek said. “In the past we were growing 300 to 500 students a year. Now parents are demanding things. They want magnets, charter schools, immersion programs and they want services.
“They’re leaving for these reasons. We have to reinvent ourselves.”
One drain on the district has been all-day everyday kindergarten programs offered elsewhere. Such a program is a cornerstone of a levy referendum question that will go before the voters Nov. 6. The announcement of it drew huge applause from the teachers in attendance.
For it to be considered, voters have to first approve an operating levy renewal that generates about $6 million annually.
The Elk River Area School District faces a $5 million shortfall in two years even with passage of the renewal. The second question would knock down $3 million of that, add the $2.2 million kindergarten program and provide $800,000 annually for curriculum and technology.
“We believe we can manage a $2 million hole with efficiencies and fund balance,” Bezek said. “We didn’t feel we could say to the community, ‘Fix our whole problem.’ The important thing is we get a yes-yes vote or we go into cut-cut mode.”
The strategic plan is another ball that must be juggled.
“The plan is not a cure,” Bezek said. “It’s a road map. It’s a GPS. It’s a prescription.”
He said the challenge is showing people why this matters to the community and not just kids.
“We need to help them understand a critical fact about the 21st century,” he said. “Every single aspect of the quality of life is tied to the quality of local schools. We’re in a knowledge age.”
Vollmer said it’s the best of times, because it’s both morally right to educate all children and practical to educate all children. The ones who come prepared as well as the ones who don’t. The ones who work hard, and the ones who hardly work at all.
Dietz said he is proud to be an Elk and a home-grown mayor, and he felt a great deal of gratitude after he his and wife Jayne’s two daughters graduated from Elk River High School in 1998 and 2002, respectively.
“My daughters put in a lot of time and effort when they were here,” he said. “I am sure that you will make sure that any student who puts in effort will be successful. I’m sure those who don’t put in effort pose a real challenge for you.”
School Board Chair Jolene Jorgensen told the educators in attendance they inspire her every day.
“Public education always seems to be under attack, that we’re not doing enough,” she said. “You continue to come back and fight for those kids — each and every one of them.”