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Waubun students concerned about changes

A number of Waubun School students attended the public hearing Tuesday in hopes of getting their most pressing questions answered.

Waubun School junior Brooke Klemetsrud has been looking forward to her senior year, after all it's supposed to be the best year and the most exciting time of high school.

But she and her fellow classmates are wondering how the upcoming changes under a federal overhaul program will affect their student body.

"I just don't want all the negativity to hurt the student population, enthusiasm and drive for their studies," Klemetsrud said.

At a public hearing the Waubun-Ogema-White Earth School Board held Tuesday night, Superintendent Mitch Anderson explained how the School Improvement Grant -- federal overhaul program -- would affect Waubun School.

More than 150 students, faculty, parents and members of the community who filled the school's cafeteria, came to ask questions and suggest improvement options.

Waubun School has been identified as one of the worst performing schools in the state based on its standardized test scores.

As a result, a share of the School Improvement Grant, which grew by more than $3 billion this year due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be used to overhaul the school. Waubun will receive about $1 million over the next three years.

The Minnesota Department of Education will assign a consulting firm to visit the school and assess its need before recommending one of four options to the board.

The four options are: the turnaround, transformation, start-up model or closing the school.

The consulting firm will most likely visit the district after testing season ends in late April and will be at the school for two days.

Some members of the public were concerned how an assessment could be done that quickly.

But Anderson said the board will have the final say after hearing recommendations by the consultants.

Under the transformation and turnaround models, the principal will have to be removed. The staff will have to be terminated and no more than 50 percent would be rehired.

Members of the school board were hoping to explain to the public how that's possible in Minnesota with its tenure laws, but they haven't received that answer from the Minnesota Department of Education yet.

Under the start-up model, the school would have to close and re-open as a charter school.

Joan LaVoy does not want the board to strike that option completely. She would like to see them look at the pros and cons of a charter school, which is also known as a theme school, before taking it off the table.

"Nobody wants to see Waubun School close down," she said. "...You're talking about a golden opportunity, a time to make big changes."

Anderson said re-opening as a charter school by the beginning of next year would be impossible. But since the overhaul will be done over three years, the school could switch models in the middle of that time period.

Anderson emphasized that suggestions from the public will be crucial throughout the process and that pointing fingers at who may be to blame for this "black eye label" won't contribute to any progress.

"One thing that's really bothersome right now is the 'blame game,'" he said.

Sometimes it's the students for not trying hard enough on the tests, the teachers for inefficient instruction, or the parents for not being involved, Anderson said.

To move forward and see progress, the school board is asking for the public's support. School Board Clerk Tammy Winter, who's also a parent of three Waubun high school students, repeatedly encouraged community members to contribute ideas.

Others were concerned at the negative online comments floating around regarding the label Waubun School now carries.

Danielle Clark is a parent who asked Anderson to clarify some of those comments. She said anonymous Web users suggested that Native American students are not performing as well as other students of different ethnicities.

"A lot of those comments were uncalled for," Anderson said, adding that some Native American students outperform others. "Social networks are tough to control."

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor also spoke at the meeting encouraging parent participation. "The tribal council wants to listen to the parents and support the parents and stand by the parents," she said.

"We need to be really involved with the education of our children," Vizenor added. "Let's get through this, let's make significant reform for the benefit of our children."