District is on a mission

• Pace of change in quickening as plans develop related to the strategic plan


by Jim Boyle


Implementation of the Elk River Area School District’s Strategic Plan has moved into a higher gear, causing impacted teachers and even one or two School Board members to question the speed of proposed changes and even some of the details the proposals.

That became evident at the Jan. 6 work session as District 728 administrators fielded questions and unveiled two specific proposals to pilot an online initiative called Thunder Academy and a move to create a hybrid model of delivering education that also infuses an online component.

Other initiatives to create more choice for students and infuse technology, world language and flexibility have spawned critics — most notably the staff that will be impacted by the proposed changes.

“You have had a million things thrown at you, but you know why,” Superintendent Mark Bezek told members of the Elk River Area School Board. “We’re moving fast. This is the direction we were given. And this is the excitement you have created with the Collaborative Leadership Team and the possibility for innovation.”

Bezek called attention to motion leadership that board members studied.

“One of the premises is you get going,” Bezek said. “You start making changes and learn as you go. Be big enough to change, monitor and adjust.”

The majority of the School Board has greeted the administration’s work with excitement.

“We’re looking at this from the 50,000 foot level,” said School Board Member Shane Steinbrecher. “Obviously, we don’t have every detail. You can’t afford to put the man hours to get at every one of them. But based on the information I see here and the 50,000 foot view, it makes sense to me and it’s best for students.”

School Board Member Holly Thompson is particularly pleased with efforts to attract and retain students in the district.

“Thank you for being innovative,” she told administrators for Zimmerman High School and Ivan Sand Community High School. “I’m excited to see your enthusiasm about trying to capture kids, keep them in our district and trying to be revenue-producing. We have got to start somewhere.”

School Board Chairwoman Jane Bunting expressed support for stepping out to try new things.

“It looks like we have a lot to learn, but that’s what comes with pilots. That’s why you do a pilot,” she said.

Bezek said the strategic plan lays out how to meet needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners and also demands that we live within a budget, which will be the challenge this spring when the district has to cut at least $2.7 million from its budget as part of the second year of a three-year plan to cut $6 million from its budget.

“The CLT is doing exactly what it has been working on for the last year and a half,” the superintendent said.

School Board Member Jolene Jorgensen asked if the district was bringing the community along in the process.

“There was a different strategic plan not too long ago,” she said.

Bezek countered by saying it was the community that drove the strategic plan, starting with the community cafes in May 2011 that were designed to get a wide demographic of people and then all the teams (core planning, action and measurement) of people that worked on the development of the strategic plan that the School Board approved.

“That work set the standard,” Bezek said. “The plan gave us the permission to move forward with this. The core planning team spoke for the people.

“We’re doing exactly what you told us to do. You’ve hired a cabinet, a staff, you’ve got professionals on the bus that are making recommendations, that followed your direction.

“Somewhere along the line you have to say: ‘We trust you,’” he said.

School Board Member Sue Farber suggested more information needs to get out about what has transpired as well as the answers to the questions board members have been fielding.

Bunting suggested creating some Q-and-A’s to answer the questions they have received. School Board members seconded that.

“Let’s not have them hunt,” Bunting said.

Changes at the elementary level to specialists’ time have created a lot of questions. Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Jana Hennen-Burr went over those details. Jorgensen questioned why district was pulling away from time with specialists when a goal to embed technology has been around for some time and remains the ultimate goal.

“This is a step,” Hennen-Burr said. “It’s not where we want to be as a system. It’s just one step in a five- to seven-year process. Our dream is to have a technology person in every building along with media specialists.

“But it’s a dream. It’s a dream that we can’t afford right now,” she said.

If approved, the next step needed to add a technology literacy course is to gather internal staff, identify district goals and find how to use resources to achieve those goals.

Farber said the district has already voted down an initiative to more significantly embed technology in the classroom, but that plan was voted down by the board because it was expensive.

“Here’s what is so hard,” Hennen-Burr said. “Someone is going to be impacted. Some of the people feel like we don’t value them, we don’t value the content, we don’t value the licensure. That’s so not it.

“It really was a charge to say what could we do differently,” she said.

At a glance: proposed specialist rotation

A six-day specialist rotation will allow for more flexibility and increase student opportunities in technology, world language (possible Year 2) and science (possible Year 2). Students would still receive course offerings in physical education, music and art in 2014-15; however, they would not have it as often – there would be a reduction in physical education, music and art. Here’s how it would shake out for 2014-15, if approved.

Elementary physical education and music will go from 68 hours per year to 56 hours in grades K-2 and 42.5 in grades 3-5. Elementary art will go from 34 hours per year to 29 hours.

These changes will allow for 29 hours of dedicated time to media literacy and technology in grades K-2 and 56 hours of media literacy in grades 3-5.

Students will continue to receive 15 to 20 minutes of recess each day.