Closing schools a few years ago was not an easy decision. The school board made that decision with the understanding that the best use of taxpayer dollars was providing teachers and educational programs for students rather than operating empty classrooms. Because the board made that tough choice and because district administrators have been pinching pennies, the district is now in a position to invest in programs that we are confident will lead to greater learning for our students and further close the achievement gap between groups of students.
The arrival of this money was not accidental. It’s the result of years of hard work on the part of administrators who have managed instruction and operations very efficiently. For example, we have held employee benefits to no increase for three straight years. We have found efficiencies in bus routes and we have instituted building management practices that have saved thousands of dollars on heat and light bills.
When you add all these efficiencies with the savings from closing schools, it results in a one-time budget surplus of more than $11 million. Those pennies have added up to millions! In addition, the state legislature rewarded us with $2 million in Literacy Incentive Aid, which goes to districts whose third-graders did especially well on state reading tests. We are investing the literacy aid and a portion of the surplus to improve educational programs for our students this year.
This couldn’t come at a better time. The needs of our students have grown dramatically as the percentages of students living in poverty and those whose families are learning English have increased.
We are focusing dollars and energy on preparing young children to do well in school. A large body of research shows that every dollar invested in educating young children pays off in students who do better throughout school, are more likely to graduate and go on to become productive citizens. With this in mind, we are expanding our Kindergarten Readiness Preschool Program for four-year-olds. We know it works. A quick look at data from the three schools with the program shows a dramatic increase from fall to spring in children’s knowledge of the alphabet, numbers and counting. The majority of students in the program exceeded average expectations for entering kindergarten.
In addition, we are adding free all-day-every-day kindergarten program at 10 more schools; 14 of our 24 elementary schools will have the program this year. Schools selected for the program have the highest concentrations of students in poverty and students with special education needs. We know that extra time in kindergarten increases the percentage of students who go on to score at or above grade level in reading and math by the end of grade three, which is a crucial milestone year for gauging literacy.
Another area where we are concentrating significant time and attention is college preparation. We are expanding our Advancement Via Individual Determination program – better known as AVID – to all our high schools over the next two years. This college readiness program is designed for students who have potential but who are in the academic middle and who may not see themselves as being capable of going to college. Our first class of 40 AVID students graduated in June from Champlin Park and Coon Rapids high schools.
At that time nearly all had been accepted to college and the remainder were still finalizing their college plans. Studies show that AVID students generally outperform other students in earning their college degrees.
As the cost of college continues to rise, many families feel college is out of reach for their kids. That’s why we are providing many opportunities for our students to get a head start on earning college credits while in high school. We have had several students graduate from our high schools with more than 50 college credits on their transcripts. They have taken advantage of our Advanced Placement, College in the Schools, International Baccalaureate and various career and technical courses that offer college credit for students who do well. If students can complete a year or two of college credits while they are still in high school, they will save many thousands of dollars. Suddenly, the cost of college doesn’t seem out of reach.
Our students have also received tremendous support from Wallin Education Partners, which has provided $16,000 scholarships ($4,000 for each of four years) plus the support of a mentor to deserving students with financial need. The late businessman Win Wallin started the scholarship program in Minneapolis and St. Paul and we were thrilled when he offered to partner with Anoka-Hennepin five years ago. This year 37 Anoka-Hennepin seniors received Wallin scholarships. Students in this program have done exceptionally well in college. Gwendolyn Freed, executive director, announced that Anoka-Hennepin’s first group of Wallin Scholars, class of 2007, had a 100 percent college graduation rate, the first group of any Wallin Scholars to do so.
Our teachers continue to seek ways to help every student reach their potential and we provide the support to help them do that. Working with you, our community, we can make great things possible for our young people.
Preparing students for a life is at the core of our mission as a school district. We are focusing on meeting that challenge with strategic investments, alignment of all of our resources, and a continued focus on ensuring that our students succeed in an ever-changing world.
Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.