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Waubun school to get $1M makeover

The Waubun Secondary School is poised to take part in the most sweeping statewide crack at school reform in recent years.

The state will pour as much as $1 million of federal funds into the school, one of 34 slated for a makeover. And the feds want it done by next school year.

School leaders await more details about what approach the state will take. The wait is a bit nerve-wracking: Radical measures such as closing schools or letting go of at least 50 percent of the staff are on the state's roster of possible interventions. But school officials say they're quelling anxiety and embracing the possibilities.

"We look at this as more of an opportunity than a slap in the face," Superintendent Mitch Anderson said.

Minnesota won a $34 million School Improvement Grant, federal stimulus funding earmarked for turning around low-performing schools. The state identified the schools it will target based primarily on standardized math and reading scores.

Patricia King, the state's director of school improvement, said the reform effort is unprecedented in its reach, price tag and deadline: "It's going to be a very tight timeline. The expectation is to have everything in place by the first day of school."

A state evaluator, with some help from school staff, will pick from four overhaul models: closure; conversion to a charter school; the turnaround model, which involves firing at least half the staff; or the transformation model, a combination of more instruction time, incentives for effective teachers and other steps.

Anderson said he expects the school will go with the last model. Closure isn't an option with no other high school close for students to attend.

In a district that's cut $1 million out of its $7.8 million budget over three years, the federal dollars can really come in handy.

Staff acknowledges efforts to improve math and reading test scores have not yet delivered. Last year in math, for instance, about 27 percent of Waubun Secondary students scored proficient,

compared to 40 percent districtwide and 64 percent statewide across grades.

But, officials say, the school, where almost 70 percent of students are American Indian, has made strides under Principal Helen Kennedy - even in one of the state's poorest counties. Its attendance, graduation rate, discipline and morale have improved. Half the juniors and seniors now take the ACT compared to only a handful when Kennedy joined the district in 2001.

"Kids still kind of fight the hard work and the hard thinking," said Kennedy. "But we continue to raise our expectations for them."

In a statement, the teachers union said it welcomes feedback from state evaluators: "Maybe they would be able to see ways we can improve that we have not thought of as a district."

Still, teachers and staff are nervous, said Anderson, especially after news last week that a Rhode Island district fired all teachers in a high school undergoing restructuring with federal dollars.

"There's always anxiety about the unknown," Kennedy said, "and there's a lot of unknown."