Northern Minn. school struggles with turnaround planby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Waubun, Minn. — Minnesota's worst performing schools will spend the summer making dramatic changes.
The 34 districts will each receive federal grants of about a $1 million over three years. To get the money, they need a school turnaround plan in place by next fall.
Among them is Waubun High School, rebuilt eight years ago to include the latest technology in every classroom.
Despite the new technology, the predominantly American Indian school struggles to perform well on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test.
"We've got all the tools in place," Superintendent Mitch Anderson said. "What we're struggling with is when our students take the test."
Waubun-Ogema-White Earth is on the list of turnaround schools because students' MCA test scores have not shown consistent improvement to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Anderson says one test isn't a fair measurement.
"It's a one size fits all. They're measuring Waubun the same way they're measuring Edina," Anderson said, referring to the affluent Twin Cities metro area district. "To me it's apples and oranges, two totally different situations."
Nearly one in five of the schools on the state's turnaround list has a large number of American Indian students.
Anderson and others say big changes inside the school will do nothing to improve factors outside the school that drag down academic achievement. Chief among them is the chronic poverty that has plagued American Indian families for generations. It's hard to find a poverty measure where American Indians don't rank high.
Of the nearly 600 students at Waubun-Ogema-White Earth schools, 70 percent are American Indian and 85 percent qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, one measure of poverty.
On the White Earth reservation, about 30 percent of families are homeless, living with friends or relatives, according to the White Earth Tribal Human Services Department.
That makes it hard for students to focus on academics, Anderson said.
"We've got students that are here for a month, and then with their family situation now they're living with a relative up in the Mahnomen school district," he said. "So they're there for a couple of weeks and then they'll be back here. There seems to be a revolving door for a lot of our students."
The instability means students have different teachers and curriculums, sometimes several times in a year.
Business and economics teacher Ann Wothe said students deal with problems every day that are far more important to them than a test score.
"Some of our students have amazing challenges," she said. "Some of them don't know exactly where they're staying from night to night. Some of them, it's wherever they can find a couch," said Wothe. "It's kind of hard to focus on schoolwork when your big concern is having a roof over your head in the middle of the wintertime."
Wothe said there's no question the school needs to raise its test scores. But she sees the turnaround schools as an effort to throw a quick fix at a complex problem.
One of the fixes that has teachers upset is the likely removal of high school principal Helen Kennedy. Since she came to Waubun nine years ago, there are far fewer discipline problems, students now have after-school programs, and American Indian student graduation rates increased significantly, teachers say.
But the Waubun school board will almost certainly be forced to fire Kennedy to satisfy the federal requirements for a turnaround school.
"I don't think, in anyone's wildest dreams, would we have believed this could happen as the result of one test," Kennedy said.
Kennedy doesn't dispute that the school failed to improve its MCA test scores. But she thinks other measures are important, too. One of the most important for her is how many students graduate and go to college. In 2005, 71 percent of Waubun High's American Indian students graduated. This year that rate is up to 90 percent.
Kennedy is planning what might well be her last graduation at Waubun-Ogema-White Earth.
"I don't sleep very well at night," she said. "I worry about what's going to happen to me, I worry about what's going to happen to my family. I worry about what's going to happen to the school, I worry about the kids. Worry about a lot of stuff."
Losing established staff could be the worst thing for a school like Waubun-Ogema-White Earth, said Jean Ness, project director at the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. Ness helps develop high school curriculum for American Indian students.
Ness said American Indians have a long-standing distrust of public education, going back to the boarding school era when children were forced to go to government-run schools. Relationships built on trust are critical to student success, she said.
"It is very important to keep a consistent basis of strong teachers who believe in the kids and know their history and stick by them -- and the kids know they are going to stick by them," Ness said. "So longevity is extremely important in this kind of relationship building."
Research shows American Indian students are more successful when they have a mentor in the school, and when school personnel establish trust with parents, Ness said.
School Board Chairman Allan Haugo worries firing staff could take away the only stability some students have. But he said the school and the community have no choice but to embrace the change and use it to encourage more community involvement.
"There's heightened interest in how the kids are performing at school," Haugo said. "I think it kind of got everybody a little charged up to do something, from the teachers, parents and students."
- All Things Considered, 05/20/2010, 5:50 p.m.