Proposed changes to the Elk River Area School District’s educational offerings drew an audience on Jan. 13 at Elk River City Hall.
Council Chambers filled in and there were about 10 people who addressed the Elk River Area School Board during open forum, and more who spoke at a listening session earlier that evening.
Below is some of what was said by the individual open forum speakers.
Kathie Flood, a family and consumer science teacher at Salk Middle School, said proposed changes to the FACS program at the middle school level will have detrimental effects on students.
“The FACS curriculum that we have today is far different than the Home Ec. of yesterday,” she said, noting that family and consumer science is more than sewing and cooking.
“The focus in the sixth -grade program is not teach sewing as a trade or a hobby. Our focus is to learn to read technical information, to apply practical math skills such as measurement and fractions, to break a major project down into smaller more manageable steps (in the creation of a drawstring backpack) and to translate a one-dimensional manual into a three dimensional project. These are skills that will benefit them for years to come.”
The school district’s proposal would eliminate the seventh-grade year of FACS and move portions of the curriculum into other classes.
Flood said the void in seventh grade will make it difficult to develop and keep relationships that help students to delve into sensitive subject matter in eighth grade. Topics like healthy relationships, human reproduction, communication and self esteem are discussed.
“If there is a gap between sixth and eighth grade, we will have 20 days to develop a trusting relationship,” Flood said of the eighth-grade curriculum.
The first four weeks focus on consumerism, budgeting, banking and wise credit use, job skills, and applied math and reading skills.
Matt Johnson, a physical education teacher for Hassan Elementary School whose Elk River roots run deep, provided a break in the extended open forum session by asking people to stand up and stretch.
He then tried to bridge the divide between speakers and the Elk River Area School Board and District 728 Administration.
“My intentions are good,” he said. “I think everybody’s intentions are good. We all care about our children in this community, and I think it’s very apparent.”
The 1999 Elk River High School graduate’s mother (Teri) works for Zimmerman Elementary School, and his father Phil Johnson is a retired educator and coach for the district. Johnson had a speech planned but decided instead to speak from the heart.
To do it, he referenced a video he shared at the listening session with members of the Elk River Area School Board and a packed council chambers. (It’s now posted at bit.ly/1cqIAPP.)
“You saw I believe in technology,” he said. “Our kids, they know it, they love it. I know it needs to get better, but at the same time, I don’t think we can sacrifice the health and well-being of our children to make sure kids have more technology. I think it can be used embedded and integrated.”
He encouraged the district to celebrate its quality physical education program and quality health program and use them to be selling points of the district.
He also spoke personally of his grandfather, Walter Mag Johnson, a 1929 Elk River High School graduate who lived to be 94, and Teri, who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a youth.
“Every doctor has told her exercise has saved her,” he said.
He said during the presentation of his video that the Elk River Area School District’s phy. ed. program is 21st century in stature, where best practices are researched and implemented.
It’s a program that uses research and data to help shape educational strategies, he added. It integrates technology into the classroom using devices such as iPads, pedometers and heart rate monitors, and he used his video to show such examples.
During his presentation he highlighted national trends, which include a national campaign led by first lady Michelle Obama called Let’s Move and the NFL 60 effort that encourages 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
He noted how the American Heart Association, the American Pediatrics Association and the Center for Disease Control have voiced more concerns for obesity and sedentary lifestyles more than ever.
“Schools are uniquely positioned to provide physical education instruction, other physical activity opportunities and a supportive environment so students become physically literate individuals who participate in lifelong physical activity,” he stated on one of the slides.
Johnson said there is proven positive relationship with academic achievement, attention, concentration and on-task behavior.
He said one study showed that for every dollar spent on prevention, $3.25 is saved on health care costs.
According to the Physical Activity Council, which conducted 41,000 interviews on sedentary lifestyles, children who have physical education are 2 1/2 times less likely to live sedentary lifestyles as adults.
He said phy. ed. is no longer “old school” where dodgeball, elimination games and sports were the main focal point. It’s not unorganized physical activity, like recess.
He also showed slides on brain research that has found that physical activity changes the learning state into one appropriate for retention and retrieval of memory, that being active grows new brain cells and that aerobic fitness aids cognition. Balance is said to aid reading skills and exercise is known to reduce stress.
The Elk River Area School District’s Elementary Education program includes such activities as fitness Fridays, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, technology, lifelong fitness strategies, and track and field.
It even promotes literacy with Walk and Reads, in which students are tasked with reading assignments while walking briskly for exercise.
Bill Hjertstedt, the president of the Elk River Education Association, offered his perspective on the delimiters process.
He stated he was a member of the core planning team, but he said he would not be taking any responsibility for the delimiters.
“The delimiter process was not open and transparent, and these delimiter recommendations were designed by administrators without the knowledge or input of teachers,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you consult with the teachers who are experts in their respective fields before making these recommendations?”
Hjertstedt said the delimiter recommendations were “kept secret” until the morning of Dec. 18 “when well-orchestrated 5-10 minute stand up meetings were held at every school.”
“These meetings were scheduled just prior to the students arriving and seemed to be designed so no input or questions from teachers could occur,” he said. “Later that same day, the board heard these delimiter recommendations for the first time.”
Hjertstedt said state statute gives the School Board authority over programming and staffing decisions, but it will go against the district’s core values, which call for valuing people, respecting differences and making people feel connected and affirmed.
“Core values are more than words on a piece of paper, hung from a banner, recited at schools and at sporting events across the district, or posted on the district website,” Hjertstedt said. “Core values are something we demonstrate through our actions each and every day.
“The teachers will continue to look forward to the day when our voices will be valued as we work in partnership with parents, administration and the School Board to provide the best educational opportunities for our students.”
Mark Leland, a health and physical education teacher, spoke passionately about the need for a strong health curriculum and to consider how much is already being done to infuse technology with the help of an iPad program in health education.
“Within these classes, you’ll see students actively engaged in online learning with the use of virtual classrooms,” he said. “You’ll see them take on research projects that help them decipher their own meaning of what health truly is and how it defines them as they grow into adulthood.
Leland talked about obesity rates, well being and other points.
“When monitoring the mental health status of our youth in this country, we can’t afford to leave out issues such as depression, suicide, bullying and school violence,” he said. “Without the opportunity to learn about the consequences of decisions made about one’s sexual health, more students will face battles with sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies and a lifetime of emotional issues.
“On top of this, we continue to battle addiction in young people nationwide. Our students will be forced to make adult decisions about tobacco, alcohol and drugs without being fully informed on the dangers of them.”
Leland proposed the school district take a step back listen to parent concerns.
“I understand you have been doing that and have done a phenomenal job over the last couple weeks,” he said. “I hope that continues.”
He suggested that a different and better solution might be found. One he offered was to use study hall time slots for foreign language class, a wildlife art class or a total health and fitness course.
“If we want to provide a 21st century education, we need to look at how every minute of every day of every student is being spent,” he said.
Tim Moreau, a father and the husband of Jen Moreau who started the Parents of Elk River School District Facebook group, questioned the district’s consideration of new initiatives costing much and providing benefit to few students.
He said the district will save $120,000 by cutting K-5 specialists time and impact 5,800 students.
“They will lose either 24 or 52 days (depending on grade) of art, phy. ed. and music. That is two months of class. In its place will be a standalone technology class.
“Educational best practices state that technology is best taught when embedded in the curriculum,” he said. “Let the teachers embed the technology.”
He suggested making the focus of professional learning communities be technology and have peer coaches who excel at using technology help.
“Don’t make it a separate class,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the district might spend $138,000 for a biomedical program at Zimmerman High School.
“I have no doubt that this would be a good program,” he said. “Depending on registration, however, this program would impact between 50 to 100 students. 5,800 students lose so 50 to 100 can benefit – where is the equity in this decision?”
Moreau said the current proposals do nothing to reduce class size and create no incentive for these families to come back.
“In fact, if approved, there is a good chance that the district will lose more students than it brings in as disenchanted families will seek out more student-friendly options,” he said. “Successful businesses value their existing customers. They keep their existing customers happy rather than always chasing new ones at the expense of their current ones.”
Bev Jess, the parent of two kids that attend school in the district, said she became aware of what was going on through social media.
She decided to take an interest but found getting information tough. She has since began advocating for greater consultation with teachers and parents before decisions on delimiters are made.
“There are so many brilliant teachers, staff, parents and students that are willing to work to develop a plan that would better serve the district and all involved,” she said.
Laura Hjort, a chiropractor and mother of a student who attends school in the district, moved to the district five months ago from Milaca.
She said they moved here in part for the school system, but said she believes students need more phy. ed. and not less.
She shared how while growing up, “gym” was the class that she got immediate and positive feedback.
“(It) sounds corny,” she said. “But in a way, physical education really did save my life.
“I got immediate gratification as to what I was doing as opposed to other classes,” she said.
As a chiropractor, Hjort has given talks on physical education and movement and how studies show that sedentary lifestyles are shortening people’s lives.
Tonia Flander, a music teacher for Hassan Elementary, spoke on behalf of elementary music teachers.
“In order for a child to receive a well-rounded education, music and art need to be part of the their daily routines,” she said. “Music is not just artistic principles. The concept and skills learned in these areas help to create a foundation of knowledge that can be applied throughout their lives.”
She advocated for continuing the district’s strong programs and finding other ways to implement more technology.
“We all know students are using technology in their classrooms and at home on a regular basis,” she said. “What most students are not getting at home is time to create, critique, move, work collaboratively, improvise and perform musically.
“Creativity, expression improvisation, imagination, musicality, movement, teamwork, performance and interpersonal relationships are just a part of our curriculum that music fosters in each and every child.”
She said the proposed changes will impact both the number of performance opportunities and the quality of them. She said Veterans Day programs and countless concerts foster a strong sense of community. Beyond that, the performances also prepare students for their futures as adults.