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'10 Questions' with MPS Superintendent Klint Willert

January 12, 2013
Marshall Independent

Chaska High School was locked down this week following an online threat of violence; schools in Sleepy Eye and New Ulm took extra security measures after a juvenile was accused of making threats of a shooting; and, of course, there was the tragic December morning in Newtown, Conn., were a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children. Given that no school seems immune to potential violence, what has Marshall Public Schools done in terms of safety in the last month?

"We've been dealing with this for a number of years. About six years ago we established a district-wide crisis team to focus on procedures to address situations like a Sandy Hook, or when you have an intruder in your school, or you have a lock-down situation, threats. It was something we decided we wanted to do when we talked about trying to maintain secure, safe environments for our students. What we've done in the last month or so, our crisis team has met, and we've met with all the staff of each of the respective school buildings in the district. We've reviewed all of our protocol, we have talked to local law enforcement about conducting an 'active shooter' training with the local law enforcement in one of our buildings. We've also told our staff that we need them to be active in terms of providing insight into what we need to do to improve. We're going to gather all those suggestions and put some of those things in place. The unfortunate part is no matter how many of those steps you take as we know with the Sandy Hook situation, they're all preventive and don't necessarily stop these things from happening. Sandy Hook did take all those steps - they had locks on the doors, they had camera systems in place."

How did the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting change things from your personal perspective as far as responding to perceived threats?

"I'll be honest, it brought a tear to my eye. I have felt my heart ache and break for that community, for those families, and then I think about it in terms of the residual impact to all those teachers, school administrators, staff members, students, community at large. It did make me pause and reflect and ask the questions, 'What would we do, how would we handle a situation like that?' Not only handle it in the immediacy but also after-the-fact because of the questions they're grappling with like what do they do with the building? It's really made me take a hard look within our own system as far as what we do in terms of things as simple as managing visitors to our schools system. But at the same time, I want our schools to be viewed as community centers, as having warm, inviting environments."

If given the opportunity, would you choose to keep a gun in your office or on your person?

"I have thought about this on a couple of fronts. I'm an outdoorsman, I enjoy hunting sports and because of that I understand the value of life; I understand the magnitude of what happens when that decision is made. I would not want to personally carry a weapon or have a weapon at my desk. I would much rather leave that to a well-trained professional that understands and knows how and when to engage with that level of force. Would the situation at Sandy Hook have been different had that individual known that somebody in that school was carrying a weapon? I'm not convinced it would have. I think it's a bigger issue than guns. There's a bigger issue about what we as a society are doing regarding mental health needs within our communities and our schools. To me, that's where the conversation needs to go. So if I'm asked, 'Klint, if we give you the opportunity to carry a 38 revolver or a pistol,' I wouldn't want to. It really puts somebody who may not be well trained in a position to make a very, very big decision. And I wouldn't want our teachers to be put in that position, and they shouldn't be. If you're talking about a Taser that's not a life-threatening thing, maybe that's a different story, but when it has the finality of a bullet, that's a whole new level of conversation."

Minnesota schools are still owed millions by the state for previous funding shifts used to balance the state budget. How far have these shifts set schools back financially?

"It's really changed a lot of our financial practices in the schools. We have a district-established, board-directed policy that says we'll maintain a minimum of an 8-percent fund balance, and we've done a pretty good job of having very little variation from that 8 percent prior to the school shifts. After the school shift and kind of in conjunction with everything that was happening through the federal stimulus monies we did our best to kind of project what was going to happen here and reallocated some resources within the district so we essentially were able to bank some of those one-time monies that came through the federal stimulus dollars because we saw the writing on the wall regarding what was going to happen with the state. Either there was going to be a shift in state aid or a huge reduction in general funding to schools. It's created a climate that contributes a great deal of uncertainty for school districts to be able to plan. I think that's really unfortunate because stability and predictability are necessary to make reforms and improvements to go forward. The state is obligated by the Constitution to fund education, and there's no way they should conduct business the way that they are. (The school funding shift) was an extremely short-sided decision that really failed to uphold (the Legislature's) constitutional obligation."

How will the school district benefit from its partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University on the proposed track and field complex?

"Every year we take our school board around and visit our different facilities; we took a tour of our track and field location and we have been working to patch it together to a point where there are sections on the track where you can slide your hand under it because there's no base. From there I had a conversation with (Athletic Director) Chris Hmielewski at SMSU saying we have to do something with our track; is there any interest in partnering. Today, we're seeing this partnership come to fruition. What it's going to do is fulfill a need we have as a school district to replace a deteriorated, tired track facility. We're having a hard time scheduling events there because people don't see it as a safe facility. At the same time, it's created an opportunity for the university to bring track and field back into their program."

Technology costs money. How challenging is it to keep up to speed with the ever-changing world of technology in light of past budget setbacks?

"What we have tried to do is take what we had thought about doing on a broader scale and creating pockets of it within our school. Philosophically that creates some issues for me because our goal is to have an equitable educational opportunity for all kids. Right now, because we're piloting some efforts and we weren't able to do it universally, we're creating within our system a little bit of a disparity, which I at times feel quite uncomfortable with between some classes having a very robust, technologically-rich environment and others aren't there. We have limitations on how widespread we have wireless access within our school buildings. In some of our buildings, there's coverage but not a lot of capacity, in other buildings, there's very limited coverage. In a 21st century educational environment, that's fundamentally wrong. We have to infuse this technology piece very deeply and richly within our school systems. It's extremely tough with the school shift and when you have state policy that doesn't keep pace with those changes within our schools. That's where it comes back to local school districts local communities - we're going to have this conversation here in Marshall again, it's going to come."

Give a letter grade to Flexible Learning Year (FLY) and give reasons why schools that were part of it should continue.

"I would give it a B. We've seen some results that are positive, we've seen others that aren't as positive. That's if you just look solely at a snapshot of our state assessment tests. At the same time, we've seen a marked increase in our free and reduced lunch population. We know that poverty is a factor in student achievement. I would like to say that all of our results are perfect and going in the right direction, but they're not. I believe very strongly in the flexibility for local school districts to have the opportunity to set their own calendar. Having those instruction days prior to the high-stakes tests - and we know the stakes of those tests are becoming higher and higher each year - we can start things like Advanced Placement exams that give the students the opportunity to earn college credits. Our AP instructors have told me that this is a good thing because we're increasing our instructional time, particularly in the spring, about 900 minutes prior to taking those Advanced Placement exams. But at the same time we have the high-stakes tests in the state of Minnesota. I would say I'm a huge proponent of our schools working together within the region here in southwest Minnesota, and I think we've taken some positive steps forward working together."

Why, in your opinion, did George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law fail so badly?

"It was far too narrow. There were some good things that happened with No Child Left Behind. It forced school districts to take a look at different sub-groups that we hadn't looked at real heavily before. It forced us to take a look at our Hispanic students and our African American students in a way that we hadn't before - gauging achievement results, graduation rates in those sub-groups. Unfortunately, it forced us to do this in a very narrow band that didn't take into account all the things that really go into a quality person, a person who has an appreciation for the arts, somebody that develops a passion that helps their community and helps them find an element of what's most important in their lives and really identifies the individual and the education process. Some of that got lost. We had lost the focus on the individual, per se, because we had become so narrowly focused on a test, on an academic result, that some of those other things that really define a successful person really got lost. You look at personal skills, communication skills, technology skills - none of those were in the No Child Left Behind law."

How big of an issue is the achievement gap in Marshall?

"It's an issue and it's a concern. We had a presentation from DEED and it highlighted what was happening in southwest Minnesota, and a couple of real alarming things came out of that data. Three communities in that region accounted for 100 percent of the growth in the region - Marshall, Hutchinson and Worthington. At the same time, the diversity in those areas has grown significantly. Then it said the educational attainment level in our greater region is actually going down and is projected to go down. So we see a higher minority base, a growing population, a declining attainment level of education - we have to pay attention to the achievement gap because of all those things. I think we've identified that in our district by saying not only are we worried about the achievement of our students but also how many students of different ethnic background are participating in some of our co-curricular and extra-curricular activities? We know that students that participate in those activities tend to do better academically in school. They tend to manage their time a little better because they're so busy doing things. We are concerned about the achievement gap and we are concerned about closing that achievement gap. We've made some progress, but we certainly have a long ways to go."

Are students getting the nutrition they need at schools, or are current federal dietary guidelines hurting them. And can a better balance be struck when dealing with the obesity problem?

"The intent of the (federal) policy was well-placed. We did have an issue about obesity and what's going on with some of our students. Unfortunately, like too many times when the federal government starts to dictate what happens at the local level, the standard tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach - you either fit into that box or you don't. What was the biggest tell for me, as we were implementing these new guidelines, I was standing in our high school cafeteria and I see one of our football players walking through, weighing about 270 pounds, and he has to take the same exact meal that a 5-foot-2, 120-pound freshman girl takes. It makes no sense. That's where I get a little frustrated about a one-size-fits-all approach. If the federal government would've put forward some suggested guidelines and then allowed local school district to take some steps accordingly and say, 'Hey, we're willing to provide some caloric guidelines, that's how we're going to do this,' I think our local people would've been smart enough and would've been creative enough in t he meal design that they could've met those caloric guidelines without all the other stipulations that have gone along with it in limiting certain proteins and grains and that type of thing. We knew our kids best. I'm glad to see there's some loosening of those guidelines. If I were to offer suggestions, rather to addressing it solely through the dietary side, I would encourage moreso a focus on what we're doing to ensure that kids are actively engaged; that includes informing parents to encourage kids to get involved in activities, and if there are barriers to those we need to figure out what those are. That, to me, is a bigger influence on what happens with some of this obesity issue."

Compiled by Editor Per Peterson



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