Archive for May, 2012

Van Heel Won’t Run Again

May 29, 2012

Barb Van Heel has announced she will not be seeking another term on the Robbinsdale School Board. From the Sun Post;

Barb Van Heel, chair of the Robbinsdale District 281 School Board, announced May 21 that she will not seek re-election in this fall’s election. Van Heel, a Robbinsdale resident, has served on the board since 2002. She has been chairperson for the last two years.

“This decision has been a difficult one,” Van Heel said. “I want to thank all the people who have urged me to run for re-election.  I want them to know I took their comments seriously and thought about this decision very carefully.

“But, after much reflection and many discussions with my family about the time and physical and emotional energy it takes to do board work, I know this decision is the right one for me and my family. “I am grateful to the voters who gave me the opportunity to serve for what will be 11 years at the end of my term.”

During Van Heel’s decade-long tenure  the board has closed schools, passed a referendum, hired a new superintendent and is opening a new magnet program in the fall. “I’m happy and pleased I had the opportunity to serve on the board,” she said. “It was a worthwhile thing to do.”

The mother of four married children, Van Heel had one grandchild when she first was elected and now has gained four more grandchildren during her time on the school board. Even though filing for the school board doesn’t open until July 31, Van Heel said she wanted to make her announcement before school is out, so people can start thinking about running for the school board.

“I really want to encourage people to come forward,” she said. Van Heel is encouraging people who might be interested in serving on the board to attend  a forum for potential school board candidates, 7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 20, in the third-floor board room at the Education Service Center, 4148 Winnetka Ave. N., New Hope.

Topics will include an overview of the district, what school board members do, school board roles and responsibilities, the everyday impact of being a school board member, and the process for being a candidate.

A question and answer session will follow the presentations. Anyone interested in attending is asked to call Judy Lund at 763-504-8012. In addition to Van Heel’s term, the terms of board members Sherry Tyrrell and Helen Bassett expire on Dec. 31, 2012. They have not announced whether they will be candidates for re-election.

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More on Discipline and Classroom Problems

May 11, 2012

The Sun Post did a follow up on problems at RMS and PMS;

Parents of honors students at both District 281 middle schools came to a Listening Hour April 16 to express concerns about discipline issues at Robbinsdale Middle School.

Questions also were raised about the accelerated programs.

“There are huge discipline problems at RMS,” said parent Marna Gisvold. Jennifer Reynolds of Plymouth, another parent, agreed. “We need to bring it up,” Reynolds said. “Our students have a hard time getting to class because of issues in the hallways. They’re late to class because of things happening in the hallways.”

One father said his daughter is afraid to use the bathroom during school hours because of “things she has seen or heard.” “That issue needs to be addressed,” he said. “People aren’t comfortable. They need to look at why it’s happening.”

Another parent, who said she witnessed three incidents “in front of my face within 10 minutes” of being at the school, said, “It’s scary. The school needs a better reputation. It’s going down the slope. It needs to be great.” Supt. Aldo Sicoli said RMS Principal John Cook is working with Lori Simon, District 281’s executive director of educational services, on classroom management.

“John wants to talk about that; he wants ideas,” Sicoli said. “We’re not pretending we have all the answers to everyone’s concerns, but we do take them 100 percent seriously.” On his visits to the school, Sicoli said he has seen “very little that seems really bad.” “What’s reality and what’s perception?” he said.

However, Aileen White, a parent from Plymouth, said: “No one asks the substitute teachers and the EAs (educational assistants) what they observe. They are the silent people in the hallways. They see and hear what’s going on.”

Boardmember Helen Bassett said she considers it “really unfortunate” that discipline concerns are raised at the same time that a school is talking about program changes. “The issue of discipline in schools is a critical issue,” Bassett said. “To have discipline issues threatening program changes is extremely troubling to me. There is a core level of respect we expect from our students.”

Anything less, she said, “is just not acceptable in a school setting.” Of the 1,273 students at Robbinsdale Middle School, the International Baccalaureate program serves 88 sixth-graders, 112 seventh-graders and 128 eighth-graders.

Some of the school’s parents last week said they are concerned about changes proposed for next year that will split the teams of honors students. “This program is a draw to this school,” said Kitty Beal of Plymouth. “It is very well respected.”

She said parents are attracted by the desire for their students to experience the international flavor and critical thinking components of the program, which also has rigorous academic expectations. “I worry that RMS might lose some of its best and brightest [students],” Beal said.

However, Supt. Sicoli assured the parents that the program’s guidelines have not changed, nor will the rigor be lowered. “The only change is that some friends might be on different teams,” Sicoli said. “Some people are fearful that their students will be in more classes with students who are not serious about education.”

But, he added, “There will be more teachers teaching [honors classes] and that’s good for the school. It brings up rigor in all the classes.” Aileen White said parents were invited to a meeting with the principal last month. “Everybody went with open ears, but none of our questions were answered,” White said.

Marna Gisvold agreed. “No one asked us for input,” Gisvold said. “We thought we were being asked for input, and we got shut down.” Murray Levitt of Plymouth said he chose IB rather than Advanced Placement classes for his student.

“But a number of things have changed in the last two years,” he said. “One thing was the team concept and the support they gave to the kids.” He also cited frustration over the administration’s announcement of changes for next year, which was made “long after registration closed for Plymouth Middle School,” so parents who might have chosen to transfer their children no longer had that option.

“The district could have been more thoughtful so parents can make their decisions in a timely fashion,” Levitt said. White said she believes communication regarding proposed changes was targeted to current participants.

“Why weren’t all grade levels involved?” she said. “Why not fifth-graders? They are big stakeholders. The lack of communication upsets me beyond all belief. Stuff is being decided behind closed doors. It’s a slippery slope. They need to begin communicating with us in a timely and appropriate manner.”

Gisvold asked whether the district would consider reopening the Sandburg building to accommodate the growing number of middle school students in both buildings. No thought has been given to doing that, Sicoli said.

“I’m not opposed to smaller middle schools,” he added. “It would be a good thing. These are large middle schools and that does present a challenge.”

Plymouth Middle School parents are concerned about class sizes in pre-Advanced Placement courses. “That is a huge concern,” said Marie Peavey of Plymouth. “Larger teacher to student ratio means decreased personal attention to students.”

The school has an enrollment of 1,290 students. Last year, pre-AP classes at the school had an average of 31 students per class, she said, noting that next year, the average size will be 36 students.

“Those numbers are just too large,” Peavey said. “They only make sense in a high school or college lecture class, not in middle school. Sixth-graders need more interactive learning.”

Sicoli said he hasn’t been aware of larger pre-AP classes at Plymouth Middle.
“We don’t have the same class size throughout the school, but we’re not aiming for 35 [students] in the fall,” Sicoli said. “We’re not in that bad fiscal condition in this district.”

When District 281’s referendum passed two years ago, class sizes were reduced, Sicoli said. They were raised very slightly when budget cuts were made during the 2010-11 school year.

The district also allocated additional administrative staff to middle schools at that time, Sicoli said. He assured parents that the school board has not raised class sizes, and that some money is held back for “hot spots” that occur at the beginning of the school year. Principals are encouraged to ask for more staff if they need it at that time, he said.

“Usually we say yes,” said Sicoli, who added that the school board sets class size, but how it’s implemented is a decision made by individual principals.

According to Dennis Beekman, District 281’s executive director of technology, class size in grades 6-8 core classes (English, math, science and social studies) ranges from 20 to 36 students, and that is comparable to other metro area public middle schools.

Sounds like a zoo.

RMS Parents Want an Investigation

May 6, 2012

Here’s an interesting article from the Sun Post. It;s interesting how there is no author listed;

Parents who came to a Robbinsdale District 281 School Board Listening Hour April 16 provided disturbing input about serious discipline problems at Robbinsdale Middle School.

Some students are afraid to use the bathrooms during school hours. Others report being late to class because of disruptive and intimidating activities in the hallways. We’ve been told that teachers and students are subjected to verbal abuse and physical threats.

We strongly believe those reports need to be investigated immediately. Anytime there are 1,300 teenagers in a building, there will be discipline problems. But parents must have a reasonable expectation that when those teens are in a school building, there are teachers and administrators who know how to deal with those problems.

The reports given to three School Board members and three District 281 administrators at last week’s Listening Hour weren’t opening-day problems. Eight months into the school year, the problems persist.

These aren’t one or two isolated reports of discipline problems. There are too many similar reports, and they are too consistent to be ignored.

Parents have a right to expect that when their children are in school, they are safe. And teachers, too, should have an expectation that they are able to do their jobs without fear of bodily harm or gross disrespect from students at the school. That expectation was not borne out by the testimony parents gave last week.

Yes, it’s near the end of a school year, but that is no reason not to take immediate action. The problem is too serious to delay until another school year begins. Input should be solicited from people in the trenches – including students, teachers, aides, hall monitors, food service staff and custodians – and what they say should be taken seriously.

District 281 has dedicated itself to erasing the achievement gap and offering a variety of program choices to attract new students and bring back those who may have left the district. But all the glitzy new programs mean nothing if students are afraid to use the lavatory in school or are fearful of what will happen to them in the hallways. And the dedicated staff people who teach in those programs aren’t going to stick around in a district that does not value them enough to ensure their safety and well-being.

Students who cannot follow the rules and maintain respect for their school, its staff members and their peers need to experience the consequences of their actions, no matter who they are, how old they are or what school they attend.

District 281 needs to take immediate action to ensure that students follow school rules, and that there are immediate consequences for those who don’t.

Anything less is an affront to the community members who are supporting their schools with tax dollars and who have entrusted their young people to the care of educators and staff people they assume are trained professionals.