Out of about $5.3 million in federal COVID relief funding, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) plans to put about $679,000 toward developing a department and coaches to support student success. The coaches would support students and families of color, low-income students and families, those who have immigrated, those who are experiencing homelessness and those impacted by mental health. 

Meanwhile, there were previous calls from some community members, staff and students to create a cultural liaison position, including a proposal for doing so from the district’s previous diversity and equity committee and another proposal from a student. Recently, some community members have advocated at School Board meetings this fall for the district to establish a more specific cultural liaison position. The cultural liaison would be a person of color with lived experience who would specifically support students and families of color. Community member Ruth Charles spoke at the November 4 School Board meeting of her experience as a mentor at the high school that showed her the need for students of color to have mentors who are people of color. At a September School Board meeting, community member Mary Jo Klinker said she would like one of the student success coaches to work with students of color, and community member Allison Quam agreed. Community member Greg Johnson said he supported funding cultural liaisons. 

When asked for her response to these public comments, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said, “That is our goal. Because we understand how lived experiences and similar experiences can help somebody coaching students going through the same things.” She reiterated that the goal is to hire people with lived experiences similar to those of the students they would work with. 

Currently, the district is waiting for the state’s final approval of its plan to spend the federal ESSER funds. 

WAPS recently surveyed students and families about what traits they would like the student success coaches to have. The survey included questions about what is working well at school; what could improve; the top three characteristics wanted in a student success coach; the knowledge and experience wanted in a student success coach; how important it is that those who fill the positions represent the survey respondent’s culture, race or ethnicity; how the survey respondents define their culture; the top three responsibilities for the student success coaches to focus on; and the top three priorities of the success support department. 

Community member Maurella Cunningham expressed concerns in a public comment at the School Board’s November 4 meeting about the survey, noting that she felt some of the language and questions in the survey were confusing and left to interpretation. 

In an interview, Cunningham said she also has concerns about the survey results. It would be valuable to break the results down by race, she said, as the majority of the district’s population is white and, therefore, responses may not reflect the needs and desires of students of color. 

The district will also host a focus group this week, and the feedback will help develop a job description for the coaches. 

Freiheit said over 30 people volunteered to participate in the focus group. She does not know whether people of color will be part of the groups, she said, as she had not seen the list of participants. 

Community member LaShara Morgan plans to take part in the focus group. Both a student success coach and cultural liaison position are needed, she said, but she feels they are different. She would like the district to hire someone with lived experience who students of color would be comfortable with and could relate to. When she was a student, it was difficult to not have an adult at school who looked like her and listened to her when she was bullied due to race, she said. She wants whoever is hired to be that person for students now, she said. “I’m hoping that there’s some action behind this,” she said of the focus group. “I’m hoping that we can all come together and sit and actually listen to the concerns and listen to what the parents and the students are wanting … to truly listen, and not tell us what they think the concerns are.” 

Cunningham is also planning to participate in the focus group. She said she hopes at least one of the positions is a cultural liaison who is a person of color who would specifically support African American students and families.