STEM Favored?

From the Sun Post on Thursday May 12;

If Robbinsdale District 281 Schools plans to expand its elementary program offerings in the fall of 2012, it’s pretty clear that a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program would be a safe bet.

Public feedback was taken on expansion program preferences in an April 27 meeting at the Education Service Center in New Hope. About 50 people attended the meeting.  73 percent of the people who registered their opinions in a straw poll at the meeting said they agree or strongly agree that a STEM program should be offered.  72 percent of respondents also agreed or strongly agreed that best practices of gifted education should be incorporated into a STEM magnet program, if one is offered.

While stressing that the School Board has not yet decided on whether to expand its elementary magnet programs, Superintendent Aldo Sicoli conceded that “STEM is very hot nationwide and statewide.”  “I want to be clear: I am not recommending this now,” Sicoli said. “It’s one option to put on the table with everything else. We may have a recommendation at some point.” In response to some questions from the audience, Sicoli said the open enrollment feature would have to be included to make a magnet expansion program financially feasible.  “It’s not financially feasible with only resident students,” Sicoli said. “When you open a building, there is an additional cost.”  One of the assumptions for any expanded magnet program would be that a portion of the seats would be reserved for open enrolled students from outside the district, according to Lori Simon, District 281’s executive director of education services.

Assumptions?  The estimate we’ve heard is that anywhere from 17% to 33% of the seats will be reserved for students who are not currently attending a RSD 281 school.

Six budget subcommittees have been studying ways in which the district’s revenue could be enhanced by increasing enrollment or by slowing the rate of decline, Simon said.  “We’re taking a proactive long-term approach,” Simon said. “It gives us an opportunity to bring in and develop magnet specialty programs to increase revenue and provide more choice.” The types of programs under consideration earlier were narrowed to two options deemed most viable: expand the district’s Spanish Immersion program, or create a STEM magnet.  The numbers of students not chosen by lottery to attend Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School have grown, Simon said. In the 2006-07 school year, 126 students were not selected; in 2009-10, 171 students were not selected.  Of the students who are not selected each year, an average of 45 percent leave Robbinsdale Area Schools and enroll in classes elsewhere, Simon said.

So if non-resident students get in ahead of resident students, these families are going to want to stay?

District 281 can either stand by and watch other school districts lure its students away, or “we can try to play the game more aggressively,” Sicoli said.  At a work session Feb. 14, the District 281 School Board indicated that if a new magnet expansion program is offered beginning 18 months from now, Olson School in Golden Valley probably would be the preferred location, rather than the vacant Pilgrim Lane School in Plymouth.  A subcommittee studying expansion possibilities earlier recommended that the district focus on the Olson facility for future expansion, though the decision doesn’t rule out Pilgrim Lane as another site for a program in the future, Simon said. “Olson is in very good condition and is ready for occupancy almost immediately,” Simon said. “Pilgrim Lane needs substantial work to be occupied by students. At this time, Olson is the most financially viable situation.”  Simon said earlier the difference in capital improvement costs between the two buildings is just under $10 million.

Good, now let’s sell the Pilgram Lane property! Anyway, despite the STEM program being “favored” residents were divided on the magnet idea as a whole;

One attendee who identified himself as a district teacher and resident, said he believes people are using the district’s programs in the primary grades and then enrolling their children elsewhere for secondary school.  “What percent of RSIS students leave District 281 after their RSIS experience is done?” he said. “What is our retention rate after grade five?”  Another resident said he believes the choice between Olson and Pilgrim Lane as the potential site for a possible magnet program “pits one group against another.” “This is not a fair and appropriate use of tax dollars,” he said. “Everyone should benefit.”  Another speaker agreed, saying, “I’m scared about the lack of opportunity for everyone’s kids. What can you do for everyone?”  Still another said, “The lottery scares me. We’re creating an elitist program.”

Sicoli said it is not the district’s intent to pit one group against another.  “The key piece is we’re trying to retain and recapture our students,” Boardmember Patsy Green said. “Area districts are doing a great job of capturing our students. There is definite interest from outside the district from people who want to come in. Why not be the district of desire?” One speaker said her son was enrolled at Meadowbrook School in the Hopkins district, and if he hadn’t been accepted for RSIS he would have continued his education in the Hopkins district.  Another speaker talked about a District 281 family that wanted their child to go to Zachary Lane Elementary, but received no guarantee his siblings would be accepted there, so the whole family open-enrolled into the Wayzata district.  “We could be more family-friendly,” Sicoli said. “We have that [sibling preference] at RSIS, but not at other schools. I will do what I can do to get that changed.” “We are in the kid business, and we need to help students,” Sicoli said. “I don’t care about a kid’s zip code. My hope is that every family here wouldn’t want to leave [District 281] for academic reasons. I want us to be so good that it wouldn’t even cross your mind to leave.  “We’re in education, not in the banking business. We have to provide the best education possible for all our kids.” Plymouth resident Aileen White said she believes District 281 needs to market itself better and “change the way people think about us.”  “Once people get into our schools, they love our schools, our PTAS and our staffs,” White said.

Market itself better?  Is that the district’s biggest problem?  And how do we do that?  We respect Ms. White’s opinion but we think the best marketing is to produce GOOD RESULTS, not come up with catchy phrases or mission statements.

Another parent said that it all comes down to parental involvement. Parents who are active in their children’s school generally have children who are successful in school, she said.

There you have it folks; direct your comments, questions, and concerns to the school board.

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