MARSHALL - With the start of the third flexible learning year (FLY) scheduled to begin Monday for 25 school districts in southwest Minnesota, nearly 1,600 teachers, administrators and other school personnel gathered for a joint staff development day Thursday at Marshall High School.
The collaboration is part of the three-year FLY initiative application approved by the Minnesota Department of Education in March 2010 which allows the 25 school districts to begin classes before Labor Day.
Administrators in the consortium not only realize the benefits of staff development and of aligning the FLY schedule with that of the Minnesota state college system, they also believe that the utilization of 10 additional educational days before, rather than after, the high-stakes, state-mandated testing would help increase student achievement, which is the ultimate goal.
"All the research tells us that real, structural change takes time to implement," said Klint Willert, Marshall Public Schools Superintendent. "It's between five and seven years to make a change that is implemented stick and last. That's why our commitment has been, and will continue to be this next year, focusing on the professional learning communities."
Through funds raised together, with each district paying $10 per student annually, the FLY schools are able to secure quality resources, including nationally-recognized speakers Todd Whitaker and Cassandra Erkens on Thursday, that otherwise wouldn't be possible.
"When you have 16,000 or 17,000 students total between all the districts, you have $160,000 to $170,000 collected to fund everything you do throughout the whole year, not just today," Minneota Superintendent Dan Deitte said. "There's no way Minneota could afford to bring in this quality of staff development. But when you pool it all together, we can provide it for everybody. It's truly a collaborative effort."
Having learned by experience from two years ago, Deitte said improvements were made for the 1,500-plus professionals.
"One of the things we learned from the first time we did this, which was over in the Morton area, is we had everybody in the same room at once," he said. "It was just so many people, it was difficult. So we were able to get them in rotations of three this time."
While one group interacts with Whitaker during his "Teaching Matters" presentation, another is listening to Erkens presentation on "Assessment and Grading of Student Learning.
"Todd is very entertaining, but everything he says is real," said Jean Mather, sixth-grade language arts teacher in Marshall. "I have taken some classes with his books. He's not as funny in his books, but his message is very simple and very practical. It's the truth. He understands what we go through as teachers."
The third session in the day's rotation consists of built-in networking time for staff.
"Our staff can share ideas and things that they do within their respective curriculum area to improve their classrooms," Willert said. "It's an opportunity for staff to learn from each other because we know that we have a lot of talent and expertise in the region. It just capitalizes off of that."
More than 10 people shared strategies for essential learning outcomes during a language arts session Thursday afternoon.
"We use a more individualized instruction for kids," Mather said. "That's where a lot of teaching is going to. You're teaching concepts, but (ICU, which MPS implemented recently) is about what each child needs."
Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske was quick to note that teachers in some content areas, such as agriculture, are left without valuable professional support since they have a 1-person department.
"So when we have these networking sessions, it gives them a chance to get together with other ag or job-alike people from other schools," Fenske said. "It's a huge benefit."
Fenske also pointed out the role of teacher leadership during a staff development like this.
"A lot of teachers stepped up from different districts and facilitated these groups," he said. "It's a good opportunity for them professionally as well."
Deitte believes the reason the collaboration works so well is because there are "no turf wars" between districts.
"It's about everybody coming together and making sure we're providing all these students and staff with this," he said. "We assume that if we provide the staff, it's going to then flow to the students. So, we really are affecting over 17,000, 18,000 people."
Amidst discussions for a new three-year FLY application, administrators seem confident they are heading in the right direction.
"Our effort has been very research-driven about what's best for students," Willert said. "I know there's a lot of questions out there about impacts on resort industries and impacts on hotel visits and family vacations, but frankly, I think that's the wrong question to ask. We have to ask 'what is the impact on student achievement and student results,' because ultimately, five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the road, that's what's going to make the economic difference for the state of Minnesota or for southwestern Minnesota."
Each community involved is required to hold three public meetings, but ultimately, individual school boards, many of which may include brand new representatives, will make the FLY decision for each district.
"With the school board elections now coming up, there might be a change of heart," said Loy Woelber, Superintendent at Westbrook-Walnut Grove and Tracy Area Public Schools. "But we'll go with 24 schools, 20 schools or whatever."
While there is no guarantee that all 25 school districts will choose to re-apply, the FLY consortium is reluctant to invite new districts to jump on board.
"We believe there has to be a level of capacity to be part of this because we've done a lot of work over these last three years," Willert said. "A brand new district coming in isn't going to be at the same spot that we are."
FLY districts include: Adrian, Brewster, Canby, Comfrey, Edgerton, Hendricks, Hills-Beaver Creek, Ivanhoe, Jackson County, Lakeview, Lynd, Luverne, Marshall, Milroy, Minneota, Mountain Lake, Redwood Area, Round Lake, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Sleepy Eye, Springfield, Tracy Area, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Windom Area and Worthington.