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2018 Stillwater School Board – Liz Weisberg

2018 Stillwater School Board – Liz Weisberg

The St. Croix Valley Gifted family-friendly candidate event is Sunday, 9/30 at Teddy Bear Park. Please check the event page for scheduling info, plus links to other candidates’ responses and voter registration support.


1) School Board goals adopted 8 Feb 2018 begin with these statements:

The Stillwater Area Public Schools’ Board of Education ensures outstanding learning opportunities for the social, emotional and academic growth of every student in our school district through authentic partnerships and meaningful communication with our community, parents and students. Every decision is made with a commitment to equity for all students and for future generations impacted by our actions.

What do these statements mean to you as a candidate for school board? What do these statements look like when board members put them into action?

LW: I agree wholeheartedly with the intent of this statement. I do not agree that we are currently doing our best to meet the board’s adopted goals as our Elementary Reading MCA scores have shown. Andersen Elementary suffered the largest decline in test scores last year. Due to the recent school closures, all schools were promised more support. According to district documents, all schools were promised at least one mental health support person all day every day. Andersen had a .2 School Psychologist, no Behavior Specialist, and a .5 Student Advocate. Parents alerted district personnel throughout the school year that support services were inadequate. A meeting was finally held at Andersen in April when the school year was basically over. The district responded by blaming the problems on lack of state funding and lack of taxpayer support. The Reading MCA scores at Andersen dropped from 80.9% proficiency to 62% proficiency from the 2017 school year to the 2018 school year. This is unacceptable and demands immediate attention.

I was disappointed this spring when, once again, the administration ignored the pleas of parents to investigate a reading curriculum that would reach students we are currently not reaching. I believe we need to invest in a research-based approach to teaching reading. To ensure our students are reading proficiently at grade level, we need to teach our young readers how to decode words using intensive phonics instruction in the early grades. In order to best serve every school in the district, I plan to tour all schools and spend time with teachers and parents in order to gain a specific understanding on how we can best improve the academic support in every school in district 834.

 

2) Community-building and outreach to the communities this school district serves are an ongoing priority among local voters. In the recent two years since the last board election cycle, Stillwater Area Public Schools leadership has undertaken several initiatives (focus groups, advisory teams, communication efforts, new events, etc.) aimed at community engagement, matters of transparency, student mental health supports, understanding community priorities, developing partnerships with area business leaders, etc. In what ways do you believe these efforts have been effective? In what respects does the school district have room to grow and/or adjust course?

LW: I do not believe these efforts have been effective. I believe the district has much room for improvement with community engagement. I was on both the Innovating Small Schools Committee and the Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee in 2014. I was proud to be asked to participate in both committees. The Small Schools committee was tasked with reducing expenses at Withrow and Marine, and developing a unique focus for each school to attract more students to this district. We presented our recommendations to the board, and they were simply ignored. The Long-Range Facilities Plan was the basis for our most recent bond and, in theory, promoted investing in all schools in order to attract more students to our district. Mere months after the bond was approved, our district voted to shrink our district by closing three schools.

When I taught at Withrow and Marine, we shared staff meetings. In several of the staff meetings the district claimed teachers were able to have input, we were not allowed to speak. We were asked questions and asked to write our answers on a sticky note. We were then told to place our note on a larger sticky note and that would be taken back to district as feedback. Many community members I have spoken to said this was a common practice at district meetings they attended as well. This is not engagement. We have a vibrant and intelligent community that desperately wants to be heard. I do not know how we can continue to expect community involvement in important planning if we consistently silence or ignore their recommendations. This district continually blames “instability” for the reason that we have certain recurring problems. They do not consider that they promote instability when they do not implement plans that have community support.

 

3) Since 2013 (Minnesota Statutes, section 120B.11), school districts must develop a World’s Best Workforce (WBWF) Plan and Annual Report for each school year. For Minnesota to remain competitive, we must have students who are college and career ready, and who are poised to lead the state’s workforce. Per MDE, Minnesota’s overall population is aging and seventy percent (70%) of jobs will require more than a high school diploma by 2018. School boards have responsibility to establish the advisory committee of community members that develops their district’s WBWF plan and related goals.

In your opinion, what skills are important for students to build across their K-12 education as preparation for the 21st Century society and workplace?

LW: The five goals of WBWF are:

*All children are ready for school.

I fully supported the Long Range Facility Plan to have preschools in all schools. I also believed the evidence the committee was presented that stated students have a higher likelihood of remaining in our district if they begin at the preschool/kindergarten level.

*All third-graders can read at grade level.

I believe we need to investigate a new way of teaching reading in our elementary schools in order to increase our proficiency rates. I feel we need a more research based approach rooted in phonics. Reading is the key to success in all other subjects. If we do not have strong readers, we will not have successful students.

*All racial and economic achievement gaps between students are closed.

Research overwhelmingly supports smaller class sizes as the best way to reduce achievement gaps in schools. The district’s own Vision 2014 Appropriate Class Size Report (.pdf) completed in 2011, supports this. Increased funding to hire more teachers is a substantial barrier to achieving this goal. We will be unable to pass future levies to hire the needed additional teachers without the support of our community. We will not continue to have the support of our community if we continue to break promises. The lack of building space for smaller class sizes is also now a barrier due to the closure of three schools.

*All students are ready for career and college.

I believe we should be doing more at the high school level for students who do not plan to attend college. I believe we should offer more vocational training and partner with the community to establish apprenticeships. I also believe that we should offer more opportunities for our students to learn “‘life skills.” When my children attended Stonebridge, there was a time in the day for students to complete “contracts.” These contracts ranged from solving puzzles and riddles to writing checks and balancing bank statements. Students met with their teachers to set goals and then worked for a prescribed time to attempt to reach those goals. I hope this program still exists. If it does not, I hope it can be reimplemented.

*All students graduate from high school.

Our graduation rates have remained relatively flat for the last four years. We had a 92.5% graduation rate last year which is basically the same as the last four years shown on our MDE report card. This is 10% higher than the state average, but we still have room for improvement.

 

4) Conversations about equity and K-12 education are happening across the country. Minnesota’s federally approved ESSA Plan includes a list of 10 Equity Commitments. Access to services (counseling, student advocates, ELL and GT services, reading and math supports, etc.) and classroom supports receive attention through an equity lens. St. Croix Valley communities and district schools are seeing rapid growth in cultural, socio-economic and linguistic diversity.

What importance does equity have in the day-to-day classroom experiences of educators and students across the Stillwater school district (primary and secondary)? What should voting residents of this school district understand about the role equity plays in the well-being of our communities and in helping students develop the skills you identified in question three?

LW: Equity has a very important role in the education of our students. I recently watched a documentary in which a teacher explained the difference between equity and equality to her students. Several students were given roles as patients in an emergency room. Each pretended to come to the emergency room with a different complaint. The complaints ranged from terrible headache and food poisoning to shark bite resulting in loss of limb. The teacher gave them all the same medication and declared them cured. The students complained that she was not a good doctor because one medication does not solve the needs of all patients. Such is the case with equality and equity. Simply allowing access to the same educational experience is equality. Providing a teacher who can address students’ personal needs, is equity. We need to assure that our teachers have the support to create that equity in their classrooms. Equity is personal. To offer what students need, teachers must have the time and resources to devote to each student.

Voters need to demand this district stop trying to divide our community. For years, this district has promoted an “us” versus “them” mentality. The community has been told one school’s success causes another school to fail. This must stop. The success of one school benefits our community as a whole and should be celebrated. At the same time, problems at another school affect us all and we should address those needs together. I do not believe our schools have to offer an identical format in order to provide equity. The same format means they are simply equal. We need to offer programming to address the needs of all students. They do not all learn in the same way and should not be taught in the same way. We need to allow our elementary schools the freedom to pursue unique educational philosophies. I believe this will attract more students to our district which will increase our funding. Increased funding will allow us to offer smaller class sizes to help decrease the achievement gap.

 

5) Advocacy on behalf of Stillwater School District is among school board duties. Board members are charged with using ongoing, two-way communications to build trust and support among community, board, superintendent, staff, and students. They also are responsible for addressing issues that affect education on local, state, and national levels. The district’s 2018 Legislative Platform includes two named advocacy priorities concerning boosts in State funding toward the special education cross-subsidy and pensions that impact the General Fund. How have past experiences prepared you to fulfill these assorted advocacy duties as a school board member?

LW: My undergraduate degree from Baylor University is a Bachelor of Business Administration with a double major in finance and economics. Prior to the birth of my children, I was a Mortgage Underwriter. I analyzed financial documents to determine a buyer’s qualification for home loans based on specific formulas. I examined residential appraisals to ensure the property was a sound investment. While I realize the world of school finance is extremely complicated, I have financial experience in looking closely at numbers and look forward to the challenge of seeing how the pieces all fit together.

As a member of different committees in the Stillwater School district, I advocated for this community in developing specific plans for the growth of our schools. As a teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of the needs of students within the classroom. I understand how crucial it is that we have a healthy working relationship with our state representatives. I look forward to the opportunity to help strengthen those important relationships.

 

6) During the 2017-2018 academic year, this MCGT chapter conducted a Community Feedback Initiative to gather local input about access and availability of GT supports at St. Croix Valley area schools. Local sentiment can be summarized in this statement from page one of the resulting report:

Broadly speaking, local access to GT services in K-12 is unpredictable and inconsistent; identification offers no promise of supports, services, or programs.

The feedback we collected shows agreement around core concerns: student access to and continuity of GT services and supports (academic and socio-emotional learning) across K-12; whether promises about the type(s) of GT services to be delivered are kept or broken; and whether instruction strategies and decisions (procedures, personalized learning, acceleration, etc.) utilize evidence-based practices and reflect deep understanding of common GT attributes vs. being rooted in stereotype.

Where do GT learners fit within district priorities and accountability (under Minnesota’s ESSA plan) to demonstrate year-to-year growth and to provide personalized learning for all students in elementary and secondary classrooms?

LW: I have spoken with parents who currently have students in Stillwater’s GATE program. The parents I spoke with do not believe their students’ personalized learning needs are a high priority to this district. In reading the Community Feedback Initiative, it seems many parents share that feeling. The district website still lists Oak Park Elementary as the home of the GATE program. Since this is the second year the program has been at the middle school, I think this speaks volumes about how much attention the district has paid to the program. One problem the Initiative referenced that stood out to me personally was the elimination of multi-grade groups at Stonebridge. Thankfully, my older two children were able to benefit from this program before it was eliminated. The more we destroy unique programming, the more we will continue to lose families to districts that offer what we do not.

I do not believe enough thought was put into moving the GATE program from Oak Park to the middle school and I believe that will have an adverse impact on the future of the program. I am relieved to hear that some families are content in the new surroundings. However, the lack of play equipment and a single playground combined with the much larger age difference of students at the middle school has also been a barrier to growth of the program. In reading the report, it seems there are many inconsistencies in implementation. I know from personal experience that elementary classrooms were limited in what they offered to students identified as G/T that elected not to attend the official program. If we continue to ignore the needs of this valuable group of students and parents, I am afraid we will lose them as well.

I have heard from community members interested in investigating the possibility of moving the GATE program back to Oak Park to expand the program beyond its current capabilities. I am very interested in pursuing this discussion. I have heard many exciting ideas for returning Oak Park to its designed capacity as a neighborhood school building. I am not saying I have a plan that I will push through at all costs. I am saying that I want a genuine discussion open to many perspectives to decide both the direction of the GATE program and the future of the Oak Park building. I think we must think creatively as a community to attract more students to this district. Surrounding schools are offering options that local families are demanding. We need to listen and respond to those desires.

 

7) School Board Members must balance the work of being both listener and ambassador. What would you tell prospective families and/or voting community members who don’t have students currently enrolled about Stillwater Area Public Schools?

LW:  I understand the problem behind this question. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to convince a resident of Marine, Hugo, Grant, or the Oak Park community who does not have a child in the district, to allow more of their money to be spent on a district that betrayed their neighborhood. Our district still claims it runs from Marine to Afton, but this is no longer true. The district has eliminated schools in three communities that were promised improvements to their neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, the mistakes of the board and administration will hurt our children the most. We no longer have the capacity to offer the one thing most research agrees increases success in the classroom. We no longer have the physical space to lower class size. Our remaining buildings are full and it was indicated at the 9/13/18 board meeting that we only have the ability to add six classes to Brookview Elementary. We have simply put ourselves in a position where we cannot grow anymore with our current open schools. Despite the demographic data presented by the administration, we currently have district-wide growth. Yet, with our current building capacity, we have no ability to capitalize on that growth. The only way to increase our funding is to attract more students. We must have room to grow.

The most difficult job of the next board will be to regain the trust that has been lost. No matter what goals we have for the future of this district, they cannot be achieved without the full support of the community. If the community cannot trust the district to honor promises and be good stewards of taxpayer money, no levy or bond will pass. Our schools and our students, and ultimately, our community will all pay for past mistakes. If elected to the board, I will do everything in my power to regain community trust. I will ask hard questions. I will conduct business in the light of day. I will not make decisions that I later feel the need to walk away from. We have creative and intelligent families and teachers in this district who do amazing things every day. We offer academic programming, special education, emotional support services, music, and athletic programs that enrich all of our lives in the valley. Other area schools simply cannot offer what we do. We cannot continue to put that in jeopardy.

 

8) Why should voters consider you in particular as they choose among candidates for Stillwater Area Public Schools’ open board seats?

 LW: For the last several years, I have invested much of my time learning about this district. I have taught in every elementary school with the exception of Brookview. I continue to connect with teachers throughout the district and I know that many do not feel they have currently have a voice. I know many parents and community members feel the same way. We cannot move forward as a district if our teachers and families cannot trust the board and administration to do what they say. I will do my homework. I will ask many questions. I do not know why our district views questions with such hostility. Asking important questions does not imply mistrust. It simply implies more information is needed to make an informed decision.

When I was in graduate school, one of my favorite classes was educational psychology. I was always excited to attend class to discuss an article or chapter I had read. I would arrive in class eager to share my perspective. However, I always left class amazed at comments or observations my classmates or professor made that had never occurred to me. That is the beauty of being open to true communication. Solutions to problems never before imagined can come from collaboration. We cannot continue to shut this community out of important decisions. I would be honored to have your vote to begin this important work.