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Group touts flexible learning year

October 13, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Twenty-five school districts in southwest Minnesota will soon be deciding whether or not to go forward with a second three-year application for a flexible learning year (FLY). In a meeting with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday at the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative in Marshall, area superintendents were encouraged by what they heard.

"I'm not against it," Dayton said about FLY. "I think it's extraordinary and highly commendable."

Since being approved in 2010 by then-Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Alice Seagren, the 25-district FLY consortium has collaborated on a variety of educational opportunities.

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk

Gov. Mark Dayton spoke with area superintendents Friday afternoon about flexible learning year.

"Governor, we are very proud and passionate about our story and what we've accomplished and are accomplishing," Springfield Superintendent Keith Kottke said. "In light of our data, we believe that it is appropriate for our consortium of 25 schools to explore the option of making a second application to the Department of Ed."

On behalf of the superintendents in attendance Friday, Kottke brought Dayton up to speed, noting benefits such as student gains and opportunities for professional learning communities and cross-district collaboration that likely wouldn't have been available to most districts individually.

Currently, MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, whom Dayton appointed in 2011, has authority to approve or reject a new three-year FLY application. Dayton was quick to point out he had a lot of respect for Cassellius and that he did not want to undermine her authority.

"Without wanting to interfere with the department's process, I'll certainly communicate to the commissioner what you said about progress and the like," Dayton said. "I encourage you to go ahead. I can't guarantee the outcome, but I certainly encourage you to go ahead."

When asked point blank by Windom Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt, Dayton said he would not support legislation that would strip the commissioner of her power to make the decision.

"Oh, yeah. I would oppose it," Dayton said. "The Legislature is not going to be able to go in with a scalpel," he said. "They're going to go in with a meat ax and it'll be all one way or all the other way."

Cliff Carmody, executive director at the SW/WC, praised Cassellius for being "very responsive" to the needs of the FLY consortium.

"From the beginning, Brenda and I said that we wanted the department to be an ally, not an adversary," Dayton said. "So I'm glad to hear that. I have a lot of confidence in the commissioner."

With the political pressure on her right now, however, there is some uncertainty whether or not Cassellius will approve the second application.

"She comes out and meets with us," Carmody said. "I think it's certainly a challenge for state agency to move from a regulatory role to a more service role. But I know it's important to her and she's been working hard to make that happen. We're real appreciate of that."

Despite their efforts to put students first, the FLY group of educators have been met with some friction, including from lobbyists for the tourist industry.

"Those political pressures have been identified by people from the north, as you said, as this is the equivalent of an economic civil war between the south and north (regions of Minnesota)," Redwood Falls Superintendent Rick Ellingworth said. "Before we get heavily invested in Round 2, we would just want to know if the issue was 'dead in the water.'"

Dayton replied that he hadn't looked at the application in detail, but that it appeared to "recognize the differences in different part of the state.

"What's right for southwestern Minnesota may not be right for northeastern Minnesota," he said. "But that's OK because they can both co-exist."

Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert echoed the differences in environment, pointing out that southwest Minnesota borders South Dakota and Iowa, both of which start school before Labor Day.

"We see this as an ongoing effort to increase quality of life down here in southwest Minnesota, working together," Willert said. And, even though we're in a very competitive environment, with open enrollment, much like Gary (Fischer, Luverne superintendent) was saying, we check that at the door. The level of collaboration and cooperation, I believe, is unprecedented across the state, understanding that we, as a group of collected leaders, have an opportunity to influence the future of our region, in terms of economic development by working together and creating a quality of life opportunity."

Fischer had noted the whole initiative began from a superintendent's idea, but from that, he said, it's all been teacher-driven.

"We're all on the same page," he said. "We still have the rivalries in our sports, but with the educational piece, we all are working together."

Despite the progress the FLY consortium of schools has made in two years, Minneota Superintendent Dan Deitte said, more time is needed to develop their vision.

The Southwest Marketing Advisory Center data showed an abundance of positive feedback. Students liked that the first semester ended with the Christmas break and that the calendar aligned with the colleges and university schedules.

Kottke said the process for creating a draft for the new application is under way. Three community meetings are necessary before district school boards, many of which may change with the November voting process, can decide whether or not a second FLY application aligns with their district's wishes.

"We set the deadline for our school boards at January 2013," he said.



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