From: Darrell Downs
These are hard times for Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS). Students are leaving. The district is failing on state academic goals, and there appears to be no plan of action for the future. Short of a state takeover or a major shift in board priorities, area public schools are headed for disaster. It did not have to be this way.
Key ingredients of an outstanding public system already exist. We have excellent teachers and engaged communities in support of public schools. What we haven’t had is district leadership that heeds the lessons of recent history.
Lesson one: Families exercise their freedom of school choice.
There is much to be proud of in WAPS, but failing to compete with private and charter schools has caused families to leave. WAPS predicted that 19 fewer students would attend in fall 2018. At last count, WAPS had underestimated the departure by nearly 1,000 percent. This represents approximately 180 to 200 fewer students and at least $2 million less in state aid per year. This “exodus,” as the Winona Post called it, will worsen as WAPS recently downgraded its expected share of area kindergarten-aged students from 41 to 35 percent.
Had the previous School Board weighed the impact of school closure on area families before its decision, it might have reached a different outcome. It moved ahead despite repeated warnings by citizens that closure would trigger a host of interrelated problems that would push families away from the district.
Citizens were right. WAPS later admitted that school closure, along with other reasons such as dispersing STEM programs, dissatisfaction of the school environment, safety and behavior issues, and simply the “different atmosphere” were all pieces of a puzzle explaining the student exodus. Sadly, the previous board’s indifference to the impacts of closure led to the abandonment of more than 180 students, their families, and their communities. If our public schools recover, it will come with the current School Board’s ability to atone for the damage of its predecessor and, at the same time, finding a way to welcome new families to the district.
Lesson two: Reducing expectations does not empower learning.
The Winona Post reported that WAPS achieved none (as in zero) of Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce academic goals. Maybe the goals are too ambitious, maybe there are better goals, but putting a thumb on the scale to lower expectations is just institutional-grade inflation. It has no effect on student achievement.
It would be more meaningful to aim resources at instruction. With WAPS spending nearly 25 percent more on administration than comparable districts, it is clearly possible to re-prioritize. The previous board was not willing to make that choice. If the current board could shift even modest amounts of resources back to classrooms, it would have far greater impact on learning than lowering expectations.
Lesson three: Board decisions affect school behavior.
The Winona Post also reported that WAPS is suspending minority students at rates eight times that of non-minority students. This is a shocking statistic. Does that mean that minority students are eight times more unruly than non-minority students? Or is this a matter of minority students getting disproportionate oversight by district staff? It’s good that WAPS is trying to understand the problem. It would be better if the School Board would own up to its own role in creating conditions that could invite bigotry and violence in our schools.
Moving toward a public-school system that warehouses students in consolidated schools, limits classroom support, expands student time on buses, and unwittingly urges families to leave public schools are all steps toward a more impoverished school system that is less prepared to deal with any problems, let alone those related to student behavior. You don’t have to be an expert to know that if you treat schools like overcrowded prisons, the students might start acting like prisoners.
Lesson four: Teachers have a stake in this, too.
Any real recovery in WAPS will involve them. This is not to minimize the importance of families and area communities, but teachers also pay a steep price for district mismanagement. Teachers are blamed for student achievement and disciplinary issues, transferred and terminated under reactionary closure plans, and maligned at the bargaining table by a district that doesn’t even budget for fair compensation increases. Teachers have an interest in a WAPS’ recovery.
It’s also likely that teachers have valuable insight on why so many students are disappearing as they rise through the grade levels. From 2001 to 2017, the high school population dropped by nearly 37 percent (36.9). The story is similar for the middle school, where its population peaked in 2003 (when it received fifth graders) then dropped 27 percent (26.8) by 2017. Pre-2001 declines in school-age population could account for some of these declines, but with remarkably stable elementary enrollment from 2001 until the exodus in 2018, it is clear that the district is failing to keep students in the system. The current School Board might try to learn from our teachers and parents about how best to retain students in the district — call it a retention plan.
Teachers, especially those at the elementary level, are keenly aware of what young families are looking for in a school. Ambivalence, at the School Board level, to what private and charter systems offer students and families is unaffordable. The previous board chose to ignore the value of elementary schools as gateways to the public system with disastrous consequences. The new board might try asking teachers and parents what would be ideal and then do their best to reach it — call it a recruitment plan.
I don’t know how teachers and parents would envision excellence in WAPS, but it is clear that recent district leadership has not been interested in the question. If the current board can work with teachers and families — instead of consultants — to put excellence on the map, we stand a better chance of getting closer to it.