Education head is keynote speaker at District 16 staff back-to-school kickoff

Staff members at Spring Lake Park District 16 were privy to an uplifting speech of hopes and dreams Tuesday (Aug. 28) delivered by keynote speaker Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

Both Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of education, and Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent of District 16, gave uplifting messages to staff members as part of the kick-off to a new school year. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Both Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of education, and Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent of District 16, gave uplifting messages to staff members as part of the kick-off to a new school year. Photo by Elyse Kaner

The occasion was the annual, morning all-staff meeting and kickoff to the 2011-12 school year.

Cassellius serves as a reminder of just how important teacher and parental support are to students.

She shared her story with a packed audience of about 600 staff members at the district’s Fine Arts Center.

Cassellius grew up poor in the southeast projects in Minneapolis, she said. As a nine-year-old she peddled flowers on street corners and in bars to help her family who were on welfare.

As a child, she was a Head Start baby and looked forward to the mobile library coming to her community.

“It was quite amazing to get into books and learn to read,” she said.

She especially was inspired by her kindergarten teacher who sat her students in a circle, and, with a magic wand lightly tapped the heads of those who were good students for the day. The wand lit up as she tapped.

Years later, it was a nun who suggested to her mother that she enroll her children at St. Albert’s Catholic School. Cassellius, in grades three through five, walked three miles daily to and from the school.

‘Be anything you want to be’

Her dad, a part-time father, was another influence on Cassellius. He called her Peanuts.

“You know, Peanuts,” he would say. “You can be anything you want to be. You might have to work harder at it, but you can be anything you want to be – and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be.”

Her family later moved from the inner city to Eagan where she was the only African-American student in her junior high.

Shortly thereafter, her world came crashing down when her family became homeless. They returned to the city to live with their grandmother and grandfather. A year later, she ended up back in Eagan. In her lifetime, Cassellius has undergone much adversity. She went from school to school as a child.

“So I always ask teachers to think about those stories that you maybe don’t know about those children who are right in front of you … because always, always, always, it’s going to be a story you don’t expect,” she said.

Cassellius’ high school anatomy and physiology teacher gave her another needed boost in her accent to success. She was smart enough to go to college, she told Cassellius. The teacher helped her apply.

Cassellius received a full four-year scholarship in the premed program at a private college in Minnesota. But in her first semester there, discriminatory name-calling aimed at Cassellius reared its ugly head. She withdrew from the school.

But she didn’t give up. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota on grants and Pell grants. When she was a senior in college she became pregnant. What was she going to do? She didn’t want to end up in a situation similar to her upbringing – raising a child on welfare, and, like her mother, not finishing school.

She had a choice. She decided to have the child. She took one semester off and in December she returned to the University to earn her bachelor’s degree.

Her greatest accomplishment

In looking back, Cassellius credits the positive people in her life who encouraged her, moved her forward to where she is today. She now has 20 years experience as a classroom teacher, administrator and superintendent in Minnesota and Tennessee. Two years ago her son graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree.

“That was my greatest accomplishment,” Cassellius said. “To be a single mom, to go to school full time, to be a teacher full time and, then, to see him walk across that stage has truly been my greatest accomplishment.”

The people who spurred her on through it all? Her mother, her kindergarten teacher, her middle school teachers, the cafeteria lady, her father, her anatomy teacher and more. She also credits the librarian at the bookmobile.

“It was all of the people who supported me, who believed in me, adding up to my resilience,” she said.

Cassellius further urged teachers to take the time to find out about their students’ stories, to find out about their hopes and dreams. “It pays off in the end…,” she said.

In addition to Cassellius, two Spring Lake Park teachers of the year (2012), Laura Penne-Kennedy, teacher in the district’s Spanish Immersion Program, and Sada Ganske, science teacher at the district’s Learning Alternatives Community School, spoke at the meeting, as well as School Board Chairwoman Colleen Vranish. Chris Hasling, president of the district’s Panther Foundation spoke.

Staff members were awarded pins for longevity of service. Students served as emcees. New staff (about 60) were introduced in a video and video clips were shown.

A particularly moving one highlighted Olympic athlete, Derek Redmond, who in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, tore his hamstring during a race. Despite agonizing pain, he persisted and, literally, leaning on his father who broke security to come to his son’s aid, Redmond managed to make it across the finish line to a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 65,000 cheering fans.

Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg addressed staff in a welcome back speech at the morning meeting.

“We can get better results, we need to get better results, we will get better results,” he told the audience. “I want us to be a school system that is recognized for success and excellence in the classroom, in athletics and activities, in everything we do. As I said earlier, parents don’t care about our teamwork or what our initiatives are – they care about the learning and experiences of their children.”

District 16 will serve more than 5,200 students this school year, the largest number in its history. The district serves students in Spring Lake Park, Blaine and Fridley.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]