Laser-sharp scalpels in hand, state legislators slash the budget, making deep incisions in attempts to reduce the deficit. Amputations sometimes result.
That seems to be the case in Anoka-Hennepin School District as administrators informed staff last week that all 22 of the district’s student learning advocates (SLA) would be eliminated due to a cut in the state’s integration fund.
You see, due to those cuts, Anoka-Hennepin will have $450,000 less in the integration fund this coming school year and $1.5 million less the next year.
SLAs, hired on a year-to-year basis using money from that fund, serve Anoka-Hennepin’s diverse population of students, serving as mentors, providing leadership, offering encouragement and accountability and motivating students to succeed.
Some two dozen of those students attended the school board’s May 13 meeting, addressing assembled board members during open forum and desperately seeking to save those SLAs.
“You take the SLAs away, it’s like sending your child into the jungle without a guide,” said Champlin Park High School graduate Mary Page. “Relating to someone who looks like you – that is who can help you. They’re the ones who come to us with open arms. SLAs are our parents away from home.”
Those sentiments were repeated many times and in many ways by those who addressed the board.
Students – nearly all of whom are Champlin Park High School students or recent graduates – told board members they wouldn’t be who they are or have the success they’ve realized without the influence and service of the SLAs.
They spoke of rescue from destructive behaviors, renewed confidence, newfound ambition and determination, a greater sense of purpose and value.
They spoke of the loss and the fear that they believe will result if SLAs are no longer in the schools.
Champlin Park senior Arthur Rundles said, “SLAs have showed me who my real self is. They help all kids, all nationalities. If those are dropped I feel really sad for those generations.”
Alexis Barmon, a junior at Coon Rapids High School, put it this way, “My SLA is the reason I believe in myself. When another black woman is standing before me telling me I can do it, it’s different, it gives me self-empowerment, self-respect. The SLAs give us what the school textbook cannot give us.”
Notes sent by Anoka-Hennepin school faculty members to ABC Newspapers described a “huge loss for our most at-risk population” and said they felt cutting the SLAs would be “a serious loss for the district and will work directly against efforts to reduce the racial achievement gap in our district.”
Jefferson Fietek, drama teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, spoke of that school’s SLA and his profound connection and uplifting influence on students there.
Lisa Christensen, English teacher at Champlin Park High School, told board members that “these people (SLAs) are irreplaceable.”
In fact, Champlin Park senior Ellis Sherman said SLAs “helped me learn to focus on school, challenge myself, they motivated me to do more. SLAs are the reason behind improved test scores,” he said.
Ekow Nana-Kweson, a student at Champlin Park, put it this way, “Education is a greater investment than the dollar amount saved by losing the SLAs.”
Once all the testimonies had been delivered, School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann thanked those seated in the packed board room for their decorum, their patience and their respect.
Then he told them, “We’re looking at a $10 to $17 million cut in Anoka-Hennepin. This is the start of very painful conversations, and we are committed to doing our best to balance all the needs.”
Superintendent Dennis Carlson echoed those sentiments, and then said, “We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time and we are pledging to bring back restructured student support.”
“It’s a tough charge,” he said, “but that’s where we are and I’m sorry our students and staff have to pay the price for chronic underfunding.”
Indeed, the Anoka-Hennepin student services department is currently working to establish a way to continue offering support to students.
No action or announcement was taken or made during the May 13 school board meeting.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]