Tag Archives: Eastern Carver County Schools

Endorsements: Stone, Wetterlin, and Laube for District 112 School Board

As a parent, I have struggled with the district’s rollout of standards-based grading and Empower. I wondered if I was alone, so I talked to some other parents, and discovered I wasn’t. Together, we started a group called Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools, devoted to making out schools, well, even better than they are today. Last spring, we did a survey that discovered that large numbers of parents (nearly half, in fact) were also struggling with Empower and standards-based grading.

Also last spring, students at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools organized to complain about their concerns with the rollout of personalized learning and Empower.

Finally, the district’s own community survey last year found that questions related to standards-based grading and Empower were (by far) the lowest scoring questions.

Three points of feedback from three different sources. All pointing in the same direction: there’s something wrong with how the district is rolling out standards-based grading and Empower. What has the response been?

Sadly, it’s been incremental changes only. Yes, there is some new functionality in Empower that is helpful. No, it’s still not “good”. Not even close.

Also sadly, the current school board does not appear to be sufficiently engaged in solving this problem. The system is blinking red, but no one is taking action. I’ve watched the meetings, and the only significant discussion on these issues took place in July, far too late to respond to what happened last year and make the sort of changes required for this year.

We need to step back, take a fresh look at the rollout approach and be prepared to fundamentally change directions. To do so, the School Board and district leadership are going to have to break out of their dependence on self-selected task forces and seek broader input from the community. None of the incumbent school board members have expressed a willingness to do what is needed to bring this process back to where it needs to be.

Fortunately, we have three qualified challengers who can bring a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives to our School Board.

Jenny Stone is a former District 112 teacher who left in part because of the district’s approach on some of these issues. Her performance at the League of Women Voters forum demonstrated a complete understanding of the sort of issues the Board will face over the next four years.

Delane Wetterlin is a former district employee who worked for years in our schools and understands what’s going on both in the classroom and behind-the-scenes. She is concerned about how we are measuring progress under standards-based grading, and vows to make improvements.

Cecilia Laube is the head of the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) and as a Chilean immigrant, she would provide a voice for diverse populations that is missing on the Board today.

All three of these candidates have prioritized improving school district communication as well, which is another area of serious concern.

And what about the fourth spot on the ballot? If you’re picking among the incumbents, I would urge a vote for either Fred Berg or Tim Klein. Berg is a retired teacher who could stand to regain some of the skeptical nature he showed before joining the Board eight years ago. Klein has shown a keen analytical eye, particularly on fiscal matters, that he should apply more critically to the issues discussed above.


A balancing act for District 112?

The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) has put its E-8 and high school facility task forces on hold until fall, as the two groups wait for a refresh on demographic projections for the next decade.  A faster than expected recovery in residential construction as well as the Legislature’s recent approval of all-day kindergarten for all students may spark discussions of new facilities earlier than anticipated.

While specific decisions on boundaries and possible new school construction will now wait until 2014, the issues the task forces were wrestling with remain.  On the elementary school level, a permanent home needs to be found for La Academia (the District’s rapidly growing Spanish immersion program) and the Family Learning Center, overcrowding in the three western schools (Victoria, Clover Ridge, and East Union) has to be addressed, and a likely shortage in kindergarten rooms resulting from the Legislature’s approval of all-day kindergarten must be resolved.  At this level, the issues boil down to a numbers game — finding a way to make sure that there is sufficient building capacity to meet enrollment and then drawing boundaries in a way that make the most sense for the District as a whole.

On the high school level, the issue is more difficult and more philosophical.  There’s enough capacity in both high schools to last the District for the next decade.  Chanhassen High School has (and is projected to continue to have) higher enrollment than Chaska High School by 200-300 students and Chaska High’s population is significantly more diverse (on a percentage basis, there are nearly three times as many non-white students and students receiving free or reduced lunches compared to Chanhassen High).

Although the Chanhassen facility is newer, the two schools now essentially provide the same amenities, with the exception of a “black box” theater, after the District has invested nearly $3 million in renovations to Chaska High since 2011.

The feeder system for the two high schools is based strictly on city lines — something that was strongly promoted by city leaders in both Chanhassen and Chaska and is easy to explain and understand.  Could this change?  Well, it’s possible.  The unbalanced enrollment and demographics between the two high schools is an issue which some feel should be addressed.  Does drawing boundary lines based on city limits do the best service to all of the children served by the District?

How could things change?  Well, some have suggested moving away from city boundaries for the high schools and moving to an elementary-school based feeder program (3 or 4 elementary schools could be designated to feed into each high school).  Other thoughts on balancing include using different geographical boundaries to split the District among the two high schools.  But there’s also plenty of folks who would favor keeping things just as they are today.

What do you think?  Take the polls below, and leave your thoughts in the comments.

Survey says: District 112 evaluates referendum options

The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) School Board has begun weighing potential referendum questions for this fall’s ballot.  This would be the first ballot question since 2011’s failed technology levy, as the District passed on putting any questions on the 2012 ballot.

It’s a virtual certainty that there will be one referendum question on the ballot, as two operating levies representing $8.7 million in annual funding (or just under 10% of the District’s general fund) expire after the 2013-14 school year, meaning that they must be extended this year, or significant cuts would be required.

But it’s the potential for other questions is where it gets interesting.  As noted in this week’s Chaska Herald, the District has surveyed residents on a number of possible referendums in recent months, including:

  • A $2.3 million technology levy (54% support/strongly support in the survey)
  • School security facility improvements (64%)
  • Dedicated facility for early childhood education (55%)
  • Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver (46%)
  • New swimming pool (38%)
  • Theater facility at Chaska High School (38%)
  • Construction of a domed athletic facility (38%)
  • New soccer/lacrosse fields (28%)

The last four items on the above list are dead on arrival.  And, despite the favorable survey results for the technology levy, going back to that well again may not prove to be wise.  That leaves us with three items for consideration, and let’s look at the case for and against each of them:

School security facility improvements:  FOR: These changes would largely update some of the older schools in the District to reconfigure and update entrances and other security features.  An example of such a change would be at Jonathan Elementary, where the front entrance of the school would be changed to funnel visitors through the office instead of into the school’s main floor hallway. AGAINST: Since Newtown, District schools have made staffing adjustments as required to help monitor entrances that are antiquated in their design.  Could these processes be continued less expensively than making facility upgrades?

Dedicated facility for early childhood education:  FOR:  Today, early childhood programs are spread across multiple facilities in the District (including Chaska High School and Bluff Creek and Chanhassen Elementary Schools).  The District’s E-8 Task Force has been looking at different options for siting early childhood programs, but the enrollment crunch at the elementary schools and the possible changes in high school boundaries puts these programs in the lurch.  A dedicated facility would provide stability for these programs, which could increase utilization and improve efficiency (staff today frequently has to travel between buildings). AGAINST:  Having multiple locations for early childhood programs can also be an advantage, as it can also drive enrollment.  A Chanhassen resident, for instance, may not be interested in driving their child westward in the morning to a centralized facility but could take advantage of programs currently in Chanhassen elementary schools.  Also, if a new elementary school is built, might existing space (like the Kindergarten Center) be adapted instead?  This is also a potentially expensive project, depending on location and size.

Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver:  A new elementary school in the western portion of the District is inevitable at this point, based on the sudden burst of new residential development in Southwest Chaska, Carver, and Victoria this year as well as legislative actions like the move to universal all-day kindergarten.  And while the District can likely muddle along with the current facilities for three to five more years, the right time to buy land for a new school may be now.  Why?  Historically low interest rates and low property values.  Waiting to buy the land until the school must be constructed could cost District taxpayers millions in increased expense and interest.  It’s also fairly standard practice to secure land before securing the funding for construction, so as not to be delayed when you actually do need to build the school.  For instance, the District acquired the future Chanhassen High School property via a levy passed in 2004 — five years and an additional referendum before the building was built and opened.  AGAINST:  Why spend a significant amount of money on buying land until it is absolutely necessary to do so?

It’s unlikely, of course, that District would put all three of these items on the ballot in addition to the operating levy renewal.  How should the School Board and Superintendent Jim Bauck proceed, then?

The reality is that none of the referendum questions is likely to succeed without a coordinated and coherent presentation of the facts behind the need for the referendum.  The District failed on that count with the 2011 technology levy.  From that perspective, the security upgrades have the easiest story to sell.

But if we’re truly interested in financial responsibility, the notion of buying land for the new elementary school needs to be on the table as well.  Being able to acquire land now at favorable terms makes sense, since we know that the school will need to be constructed at some point in the short- to medium-term.

Past School Boards have been very cautious about putting referendum questions on the ballot, even those that do show majority support.  Even though the concept of buying land for a new elementary school shows mixed support in the survey, it may well be the right thing to do.  And the District should fight for doing the right thing by its citizens and taxpayers.

[Photo is Family Feud host Richard Dawson, from back in the day.]

Looking for a Republican suburban woman and other thoughts

MinnPost ran a story last week on prospective GOP candidates for Governor.  Of note in that story was a quote from prominent Republican operative Ben Golnik lamenting the fact that “the ideal candidate — a female from the suburbs” wasn’t out there.  As such, I found it interesting that the name of State Senator Julianne Ortman didn’t come up.  Ortman’s resume — in the Senate over a decade, former Deputy Majority Leader, a caucus leader on tax and legal issues — stacks up comparably against many of the other named contenders.  And she’s one of the Senate GOP’s better communicators, as evidenced by her continuing high profile despite not holding a formal leadership position anymore.

I have no idea if Ortman is interested in higher office — perhaps she’s signaled she’s not, which is why she didn’t make this piece.  But it seems that for many, the list of women available for statewide runs in the Minnesota Republican Party ends with Laura Brod now that Amy Koch is out of the Senate.

Given that the current list of prospective candidates all have significant question marks as it relates to their ability to either earn the Republican endorsement or win a general election — Sen. Dave Thompson might be too conservative for a statewide election, Rep. Kurt Zellers was widely criticized for his leadership (or lack thereof) last session as Speaker of the House, Sen. David Hann was an also-ran in the 2010 race for Governor, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has perhaps spent too much time on gun issues for the base’s liking, and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has already lost one statewide race (Attorney General in 2006) — it seems maybe the list of usual suspects should be expanded.  But, of course, I doubt the Republicans are looking to me for advice.

Here are some other things happening in the community:

  • In case you haven’t already heard, two new restaurants opened in Chaska in the last week or so:  BullChicks in Chaska Commons, and Egg & Pie Diner in downtown.  I’m hearing positive word-of-mouth on both.
  • The two facility taskforces convened by the Eastern Carver County School District continue to make progress.  The High School taskforce is wrestling with the question of balancing programming and demographics between Chaska and Chanhassen High Schools.  Meanwhile, the Early Childhood through Middle School task force is working on finding the best way to deal with overcrowded schools on the west side of the District as well as finding a permanent home for the La Academia Spanish immersion program.  I am a member of the Early Childhood through Middle School task force  and I can attest to the difficult challenges that lie ahead here.  Over the next few months, there will be opportunities for public input on potential changes — I encourage you to keep your eyes open and attend those sessions when they occur.

Hawks and Storm jump to newly formed Metro West Conference

District 112’s athletic and activities programs will jump to the newly formed Metro West Conference, which will begin play in the fall of 2014.  Chanhassen and Chaska High School will join Bloomington Kennedy, Bloomington Jefferson, Robbinsdale Cooper, St. Louis Park, and Richfield in the new conference.

The new conference will provide the Hawks and Storm with opponents closer geographically, similar in enrollment, and many of them (like the Bloomington schools and Robbinsdale Cooper) are multi-high school districts.

Chaska and Chanhassen both leave the Missota Conference, which will also lose Shakopee and Farmington at that time as well (both of those schools are moving to South Suburban, effectively taking the place of Bloomington schools).  The Missota will be down to four schools at that time, and if it fails to add more schools it will be broken up by the Minnesota State High School League.

Creation of the new conference has been rumored for quite some time, as District 112 ran into significant opposition from schools in the Missota over issues like the combined girls hockey program.

You can read the full press release on the District 112 website.

Chaska High School on lockdown after threat [UPDATED]

A threat received this morning has prompted Chaska High School to go into lockdown.  Students and staff that were in the building are being kept there.  Buses were diverted to Pioneer Ridge Middle School, which has also been placed on lockdown as a precaution.  CHS students and staff not at school are being encouraged to stay at home until the all-clear is given.  No injuries or unusual activity have been reported.  All students at CHS and PRMS are safe.

For continuing updates, follow these links:

Chaska High School website

Chaska High School Twitter feed

Pioneer Ridge Middle School website

[UPDATE, 10 a.m.]:  All Eastern Carver County schools are in external lockdown, meaning all doors are locked and no visitors are being allowed.

[UPDATE, 10:15 a.m.]:  Per the District’s Facebook page, external lockdown will be lifted for other Eastern Carver County district schools at noon.

[UPDATE, 10:30 a.m.]:  Several CHS parents have reported receiving e-mails indicating that the school will be closed for the day, and students inside the school will be released around 10:45.

[UPDATE, 10:45 a.m.]:  All after-school activities will go on as scheduled.  The Family Learning Center is closed for the day.

[UPDATE, 1:15 p.m.]:  The District’s webpage indicates that the Chaska police has cleared the building and it is free of threats.

Brick City Blog Endorsement: Jeff Ross and Amy Logue for District 112 School Board

The race for School Board in Eastern Carver County Schools has been mildly disappointing so far.  As a Chaska resident, with five Chaska citizens running for the three open spots on the Board, I was expecting a lot of interaction from the candidates.  Less than two weeks before the election, though, I haven’t been door-knocked or received any literature from any of the candidates.  There’ s a smattering of road signs, and the usual Q&As in the Chaska Herald.  People I know who are usually pretty plugged in to these elections have been left scratching their heads about who to vote for.

Based on my research, there’s one candidate who clearly stands above the others and that is Jeff Ross.

Ross works as key executive in a start-up biomedical firm, and has a doctorate in biology and genetics.  He speaks intelligently and with purpose on the critical issues that face our District.  His real-world business experience will help the District address any future potholes in the budget process.

Most importantly, though, he has a defined vision of where he wants to the see the District go:  enhanced partnerships with business, return-focused investment in technology, better two-way communication with all citizens in the District, and continued emphasis on science and technology across all grade levels.  That vision is one of the key factors that distinguishes him and is one of the key factors voters should look for in a School Board candidate because ultimately it is the School Board that sets the strategic direction for the administration to follow.

I’m also planning on voting for Amy Logue.

Logue has a strong history of dedication to the District.  She rightfully identifies the 112 Foundation as an opportunity to augment the District’s budget that is not being utilized to its full potential as well as the critical importance of school libraries and media centers to the educational experience.  Logue speaks smartly to potential benefits and possible pitfalls with the upcoming changes in teacher evaluation and compensation (Ross does as well) and the critical need for the District to do a better job of soliciting feedback from parents and residents.

I encourage you to vote for Jeff Ross and Amy Logue on November 6.

Let me talk briefly about the other three candidates.  All of them are qualified to be on the Board, and they each bring their own strengths to the table.  As of this moment, I’m still undecided who I will vote for for the third open position.

Larry Doran deserves credit for pointing out what no one else wanted to talk about in this campaign:  the feeling among a portion of the community that Chaska High School was getting the short end of the stick when compared to Chanhassen High School.  And while that feeling is, in my opinion (and Doran’s as well), more perception than reality, we need leaders who are willing to address that issue head on and tackle it.  Doran’s record as the President of the Chaska High Booster Club shows that he is well-positioned to build those external partnerships that will be required to supplement the District’s budget.

Jim Leone and Heather Nelson are the two incumbents running for re-election.  They can take pride in the strong academic performance  the schools have delivered in recent years as well as the selection of key executives — Superintendent Jim Bauck and Finance Director DeeDee Kahring are top-notch professionals.  Leone has spent the last nine years on the Board, and his experience has helped guide a Board filled with a lot of newcomers.

Nelson’s background in science and technology is similar to Ross’s and she brings real passion to the table for improving the District’s efforts in that area.

However, Leone and Nelson have to bear responsibility for the District’s muddled technology referendum campaign last year.  The District’s technology future is still largely up in the air because of the way that issue was handled.  For Leone to express his puzzlement at why some people don’t think the District does a good job of communicating when the District doesn’t do things that it could easily do like publish full minutes of their Board meetings on their website, for instance, causes me to express puzzlement.

District 112 decides not to pursue referendums in November

This week’s edition of the Chaska Herald chronicles the decision of the Eastern Carver County School District not to place a referendum on the November ballot.

There was the potential for two questions to appear on the ballot.  The first was a renewal of existing operating levies that expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year.  These levies, which represent nearly 10% of the district’s annual operating budget, will certainly be placed on the ballot next year.  The District is still trying to determine whether or not to ask for what they call a “cost of living adjustment” on the operating levy, slightly increasing the per-pupil amount to adjust for inflation over the 10-year life of the levy.

The second potential question was a technology levy.  Last fall, voters rejected a $2 million annual package designed to upgrade the district’s technology infrastructure, replace aging equipment, and implement new technology-based learning programs.  For several months, District administration and the School Board have been kicking around two versions of a new technology plan — one costing $5 million annually and one costing $2 million annually — which they would seek funds via referendum to fund.  The Herald story on the discussion surrounding putting this issue on the ballot revealed two encouraging points.

1. ) The District takes seriously the amount of educating that needs to be done if a technology bond issue is going to pass.

Despite the good efforts of the Vote Yes! committee, the District didn’t give them a great hand to work with.  The District was slow to make available information that was easy for voters to digest.  That delay in getting information out allowed referendum opponents to frame the debate in their terms and left the District administration and committee to answer for decisions made years earlier.

The other thing that’s important to realize here is that it important to have a real discussion of how technology enhances learning.  The generation who are parents now didn’t grow up (by and large) with schools wired to the internet, electronic whiteboards, or tablet computers.  Parents today have also likely seen technology projects  in their work or personal lives that were supposed to deliver great result that just ended up being sorta “cool” but not making any real impact.

The idea that the District is going to put together demonstration labs of this new technology is encouraging.  First, it will give District personnel real-time opportunities to try these technologies out and see in fact how they impact student learning.  Second, it will give them the ability to demonstrate this impact to voters in the District so they can see how it improves the classroom experience.

2.) The District is reconsidering the idea of providing devices to all students at a certain grade level.

This is a real point of contention with many parents in the District, and not just ones who are politically predisposed to be against any sort of tax increase.  Parents are uncomfortable with this on many levels, and in my opinion, this just isn’t the time to go down this route.

The District should instead focus on making it easier for students to use their own devices in the school environment as well as increasing availability of devices for students who don’t have computer resources at home — whether it is expanded computer lab hours after school or on weekends or lending out devices to students as needed for projects.

One other key takeaway from the article:  We see again in this story the struggles that our school districts are going through in dealing with legislative uncertainty.  If we want our school districts to be good stewards of taxpayer money, then legislators in St. Paul and the Governor need to stop using K-12 education as their piggy bank when the state budget needs to be balanced.

Why are so many students open enrolling out of District 112?

Minnesota was one of the pioneering states in public school choice, with open enrollment — allowing parents to enroll their children in any public school district in the state — beginning in the 1990-91 school year.  A few year later, Minnesota instituted  charter schools, further increasing public school choice options for parents.

As such, school districts found themselves competing for students.  And while much of the attention about open enrollment has been centered on its impact on athletics, it’s important to look at the other impacts of open enrollment on the schools in the Eastern Carver County School District (District 112).

The most recent numbers available cover the 2010-11 school year, and they show that District 112 lost a net of 783 students (about 8% of base enrollment, or about two sections per grade level) to open enrollment and charter school options.

Over half of the total loss of students went to the Minnetonka school district (409 students net), while there was a 109 net student loss to the Eden Prairie school district.  An additional 264 students opted to attend five prominent charter schools.  These options in total essentially represent the entire gap — all the other school districts and charter options net out to a total loss of one student.  District 112 did have positive net balances with some area districts — Central, where 112 gained a net 27 students, as well as Belle Plaine (+22), Shakopee (+20), and Waconia (+19).

Why are so many students opting out of District 112?  Well, looking at open enrollment in general — districts that tend to gain students on net tend to have the following characteristics:  higher test scores, higher per-pupil spending, higher enrollments, and lower percentages of low-income students and minorities.

Do those factors explain what’s going on in our district — specifically, in comparison to Minnetonka and Eden Prairie?

It is true that Minnetonka and Eden Prairie have produced higher test scores in recent years than District 112.  Minnetonka, over the last three years, has achieved average math proficiency (across all grades tested) 12 points higher than District 112 and reading proficiency seven points higher than District 112.  Eden Prairie also outperforms District 112 slightly (four points favorable in reading and two points favorable in math).

Per pupil operational spending is higher in Minnetonka (about $800 per pupil) and Eden Prairie (about $400) as well.  Enrollments between the three districts are roughly equal.  There are some significant demographic distinctions between the three districts.  Minnetonka is less diverse (five percent fewer minorities than District 112 and 16 percent fewer than Eden Prairie) and wealthier (eight percent of students of free or reduced price lunches compared to 18% in District 112 and 19% in Eden Prairie).

Are there other specific factors that could be at play here?  Definitely.

First, migration to Minnetonka schools can be more natural for Chanhassen residents.  Already, part of the city is part of that district and many of the district’s schools are in close proximity to the city limits and are near major highways (MN-7 and MN-62).  Open enrollment is far more prevalent in cases where good options are nearby.  It’s worthwhile to note that few students are making across-town journeys to attend school.

Second, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie schools have worked hard to develop unique offerings that appeal to certain constituencies.  Minnetonka has established Chinese and Spanish immersion programs that involve children from kindergarten through middle school, as well as a strong gifted and talented program and an international baccalaureate program at the high school level.  Similarly, Eden Prairie has Spanish immersion and were early adopters of gifted and talented programs nearly 40 years ago.

What must our district do to reverse some of these trends?  For starters, keep a continued focus on improving academic performance.  Closing performance gaps between the two high schools is a major factor here, as the perception of a large academic gap between the two schools drives parents to take their children to another district.

Next, stay committed to new programs.  District 112 is starting a Spanish immersion program for kindergarten and first-grade students this fall.  This program should be expanded and enhanced as the children grow so that it fully functions all the way to the middle school level.  At the high school level, the Integrated Arts Academy debuts this fall as well — providing specialized classes in visual, horticultural, and culinary arts in addition to the normal high school curriculum.  We should evaluate these programs and work to create other new programs if successful — Chinese immersion or a science and technology focused middle or high-school program might be places to look next.

Finally, as a community, we’re going to need to have a discussion on what we do now that our district is transitioning out of a period of rapid growth and into a more stable enrollment period.  Over the next few years, the debt service portion of your property tax bill will begin to decline, as the bonds used to construct schools over the last two decades begin to be paid off.  Will we do what districts like Minnetonka and Eden Prairie did, and re-invest some of that money by increasing the operating levy?

Chaska-Chanhassen HS math test score gap narrows again

Standardized test results from the 2011-12 school year were released Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Education.  We’ll have several posts to break down the results, but let’s start by looking at the high school level.  The gap in math performance between the two high schools has been a major concern since the first test results were released in 2010 and showed a 27-point gap between the two schools that was largely driven by Chaska High School’s disappointing 43.6% result.

The 2011 results showed substantial progress, as the gap narrowed to 17 points, and the 2012 results show yet another strong gain, as the gap has now shrunk to about six and one-half points.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education

The 20 point narrowing of the gap over the last two years can be explained by a 15-point improvement in math performance at Chaska High School and a five-point decline in performance at Chanhassen High School over that time.  What is particularly notable is how the 2012 results show that Chaska High was able to pull away from its state average level performance, improving by 10 points in an environment when the state average declined by six points.

From a reading perspective, both schools continued to show performances above state averages.  Chaska High’s reading performance dropped back to historical levels after peaking at 91% last year.  In fact, the nine-point gap in reading in 2012 is larger than the gap in math.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education

%d bloggers like this: