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School schedule put on hold

Parents, teachers voice complaints over communication, proposed move for sixth grade, and curriculum/elective options at Memorial

by Tom Coombe

Facing parent and staff pushback and opposition, school board members delayed adopting a proposed 2023-24 schedule for Ely’s Memorial Building.

The board put the move on hold after hearing complaints and concerns about communication and specifics about the plan, which includes putting sixth-graders back in a contained classroom rather than moving from class-to-class throughout the school day.

“Why not take some more time so everybody understands why we’re doing this,” said board member Tom Omerza.

Action will be delayed until at least June 12, the date of the board’s next regular meeting, and some board members indicated they were willing to wait further in order to get the concerns resolved.

The decision came after a series of speakers, from an audience that filled the board’s meeting room, pressed for a delay.

Megan Anderson, who formerly served as high school principal but returned to the classroom this year and is one of the sixth-grade teachers, charged “the switch has not been discussed, planned for or set up for implementation in a way that can be successful.”

She said data goes against keeping sixth-graders in a contained classroom and that “having different teachers and having interactions with different students are all great things for our kids and part of the middle school culture we worked so hard to create.”

Anderson also said that “teachers are being underappreciated and not valued” and told the board that communication has broken down internally.

High school math teacher Janelle Hart said she was concerned “about the lack of electives on this schedule” and that the district is “losing important classes” including financial literacy and math.

Molly Olson, who teaches math and leads the gifted and talented program, said the schedule “does feel a little rushed to us,” noting it was distributed just three days earlier.

Sixth-grade teacher Kaley Hotaling said she believed students would benefit from the proposed switch, but that she’s “not comfortable moving forward without a plan for success.”

“Right now, parents are confused and frustrated and I would say staff are as well,” said Hotaling.

High school science teacher Nate LaFond raised issues with the dropping of a physics course and putting 25 chemistry students in one section instead of two.

LaFond also complained that science teachers’ input hasn’t been accepted by administrators.

“When we’re not heard or when we’re heard or disregarded and if that’s the perception of staff it’s very difficult to give the students the education they deserve,” said LaFond.

Parent Ryan Anderson, the husband of Megan Anderson, spoke for the second consecutive meeting and raised concerns both with the sixth-grade proposal and the ability for community members to engage with the school board.

“I think a lot of us as parents were pretty surprised and concerned when this came up,” said Anderson. “I think there are some large concerns.”

Anderson also said that board meeting agendas contain little detail and that the meeting format - which allows community speakers to talk for five minutes but with no response by the board - limits the opportunity for communication.

“We have a hard time as a community to engage with the school board here,” said Anderson. “We’ve lost the ability to engage as a community in the process of the goings on at the school... We’re not receiving that communication and we need it.”

Jeff Carey, who is completing his first year as Ely’s grades 6-12 principal, told the board he supported a move to table given the concerns raised this week.

He also offered a rationale for the change, noting “What Ely does and what most schools do is the schedule of it. Most (sixth grade) are self contained classrooms and part of the elementary, not here.”

“We are missing out on some math and some English that we probably wouldn’t otherwise in a self-contained setting,” said Carey. “And in my opinion, we probably shouldn’t be teaching Minnesota history for an hour a day. It’s a rearrange of priorities.”

Carey told the board “if you want to continue doing it that way, I’m fine with it.”

Board chairman Ray Marsnik, a retired teacher, said he was a proponent of a departmentalized set-up for sixth graders, noting positive experiences during his 35-year teaching career.

“It allows more than one teacher to have firsthand insight into the problems a student may be having,” said Marsnik.  “These teachers can work together to help resolve behavioral issues or learning struggles. Also teachers can focus on teaching a certain subject. Preparation is a lot less.”

Board member Hollee Coombe said some of the concerns may have been fueled by inaccurate information related to curriculum plans for next year, and that further time for discussion and presentation of further details would help resolve several issues.

Outgoing superintendent John Klarich also weighed in, endorsing the plan to add more time for math and English as proposed in the new schedule.

“We need that 90 minutes in English and math,” he said.

Klarich said some of the concerns might also be soothed by adding another teaching position if the budget allows.

This marked the second straight meeting that parents and staff filled the meeting room.

Two weeks earlier, several speakers asked the board to delay hiring Anne Oelke as superintendent until further information could be shared.

Board members declined and hired Oelke, who will add superintendent duties on June 1 to go with her job as elementary principal.

That move had been in the works for almost a year, following July board action to enter into a  superintendent mentorship arrangement between Klarich and Oelke.

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