MARSHALL - As the third flexible learning year kicked off Monday for students and staff at Marshall Schools, Superintendent Klint Willert was already looking ahead toward the future.
Marshall is one of 25 school districts in southwest Minnesota that had its flexible learning year (FLY) application approved in March 2010 by then Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Alice Seagren. The 2012-13 school year is the final one in the three-year FLY plan.
"The big question I received this fall already is what's next?" Willert said. "Where are we going and what's going to happen?"
At the Marshall School Board meeting Monday evening, Willert was prepared to get the conversation going.
"I'm going to lay out a little bit of a timeline for everybody, so people can see how this is going to unfold, or how I envision it unfolding," he said. "Then we can talk about how we're getting there. I wanted to give the board just an overview and put to rest any rumors that this has already been decided upon and that we're already in it for a new three years. It's going to be a pretty dynamic process and one that we certainly want to encourage and support community involvement in as we make this decision."
Willert explained that he was part of a FLY vision sub-committee, along with superintendents from the districts of Jackson County Central, Redwood Area, Minneota, Luverne, Ivanhoe and Windom Area.
"We've been talking about future plans and where we're going and highlighting that vision because, I think, it's important to have a sense of direction," Willert said.
Despite the fact that the committee included a variety of different-sized school districts, with Marshall having more than 2,000 students compared to other districts barely reaching 200, the consensus was the same.
"We have a pretty broad-based representation, and there's been a great deal of talk about the framework that we would put forward in an application," he said. "The consensus of the group has been that we'll do a continuation of our current focus with the professional learning communities and joint staff development opportunities in conjunction with those 10 high-impact instructional days prior to the start of Labor Day."
Willert quickly noted that the premise behind the FLY is to improve student achievement. State-mandated testing results are currently the only gauge for that evaluation.
"It's about the education of our students and our children," Willert said. "It's about quality of instructional days and going back to what our data tells us: kids are more in-tune to be in school before Labor Day than they are after the conclusion of state tests (in April)."
The board also learned from Willert that the new application, under now MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, has changed "considerably" from the original three-year process.
"It requires a significant amount of hard, quantifiable data," Willert said. "It's pretty hard to get quantifiable data right now, with where we're at in relationship to a continuum of learning, with some of the early childhood pieces and technology. We know those are things that are important, though, as we talk about where we're going as a district in education as the future unfolds before us."
While additional community reactions will likely be forthcoming, Willert included a few points of interest from past perception surveys conducted by the Southwest Marketing Advisory Center at Southwest Minnesota State University.
"I just grabbed a couple of data points, so by no means is this comprehensive," he said. "But this isn't something that is gathered haphazardly. It's done through a very process-oriented approach, based on how people perceive what is going on."
Based on a five-point scale, with 3.0 being the average, Marshall data showed a score of 2.9 on the survey this past year compared to 2.61 after the first year when asked if they felt students and teachers were ready to return to school before Labor Day.
Survey results also showed a pretty significant increase, from 2.62 the first year to 3.22 last year, when asked if they agreed that school should not be in session after the completion of state tests.
Since the FLY schedule aligns closely with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities calendar, it also means that students end the semester right before Christmas break, which appeared to be favorable with constituents. Survey responses were fairly high when asked if there was a dislike of having homework or projects to do during breaks, with scores of 3.72 reported the first year and 3.86 last year.
When asked if they thought the flexible year would improve educational quality, respondents scores rose from 2.75 the first year to 3.2 the second year.
"That's a pretty important jump in terms of our district," Willert said.
Willert then pointed out the next steps in the process, beginning with the presentation of a proposed draft of the new FLY application, which is currently being worked on by Bill Strom, a Marshall graduate and current superintendent at Mountain Lake, to participating superintendents.
"Ultimately, you as a board, will be asked to make a decision on whether or not we should continue the process with a new three-year application," Willert said.
If so, the district would have three public meetings, likely in the month of December, and formalize the action at a board meeting in January.
"The community is going to be very important," Willert said. "The last time we did this, we had pretty inadequate or poor attendance at our pubic hearings. I'm hoping for an engaged community to give us some feedback."
Other participating FLY schools will follow a similar timeline.
"We chose January because we know we'll have new school board members that will be joining us from various school districts across the consortium," Willert said. "We felt that it was most appropriate for new board members to have their say, rather than relying on previously-elected board members stepping off or resigning."
Once that determination is made, the plan would be submitted to Cassellius, preferably by Feb. 1, with a target date of March 15 set for a response from the commissioner.
"She currently holds all the authority in the state of Minnesota," Willert said. "And, ultimately, the goal is to receive an answer by early spring. We know how important it is for looking at our calendar, our plans, all the factors that go into that. It's the only fair thing we can do for our constituents that we represent."