MARSHALL - Fewer than 10 people were in attendance at the first two flexible learning year (FLY) meetings for the Marshall School district this week.
Those who have attended the informational meetings were given the opportunity to hear a FLY presentation by Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert, ask questions and fill out a feedback form.
"Your voice always makes a difference," Willert said Wednesday at one of the meetings. "I'm happy you're here to be engaged."
On Jan. 22, the Marshall School Board members will vote on whether or not to apply to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for a second three-year FLY application. Prior to that, community members have the opportunity to engage in the conversation, letting their voices be heard. A final FLY meeting for the community will be at 6:15 p.m. on Monday in the Professional Development Room in the District Administration Office at Marshall Middle School.
"We want to hear from the public," Willert said. "We want to be certain that we're reflecting what our community wishes."
Along with Marshall, there are 24 other school districts which make up the FLY consortium. Every single one of the 25 districts are required to make individual district decisions on whether or not to proceed for an additional three-year FLY application.
On Tuesday night, Canby School Board members voted 4-2 against reapplying for the FLY application. Those school districts that do decide to move forward, however, will formally apply and submit the documents to the MDE together, Willert said, on or about Feb. 1.
One woman in attendance expressed concerns that some people may have been misinformed, believing that the FLY issue had already been voted on by the local board. Willert clarified that the board had not voted yet, but that board members had approved the process to begin exploring the possibility of pursuing another three-year FLY application.
"This doesn't even get to the state Department of Education if our board doesn't pass it," he said.
Marshall School Board member Karen VanKeulen also set the record straight.
"We don't want to pass it until we get input from our community," VanKeulen said. "I've encouraged people to come to the meetings. If you don't come, we don't know what you think. I know what I think personally, but I'm not only voting for Karen, I'm voting for an entire community."
During the presentation, which Willert said mirrored other consortium presentations, the ultimate FLY vision became clear: to improve student achievement. One of the most compelling ways to do that is to schedule more high impact learning time prior to high stakes assessments, which basically means starting the school year two weeks earlier. Since the state-mandated testing dates seemingly refuse to budge, FLY educators deducted that 10 additional instructional days in August were more valuable for student learning than having 10 school days remaining (in May) after the testing dates in April.
The second goal FLY schools have worked on to improve student learning is to work collaboratively to improve teacher effectiveness. While Marshall is large enough that it doesn't need to participate in cross-district activities like most of the other consortium schools, the district does join in for three full joint staff development days, two "early out" professional development days, teacher induction programs and other joint opportunities.
Every Wednesday, staff at Marshall also get together for professional learning community (PLC) time.
"The PLC piece is big," Willert said. "The staff get together to talk about student work and best-practice concepts."
One attendee said she thought that improving teacher retention and productivity could happen regardless of when the school year was started.
"I think more people are concerned with the start and end date," she said.
Willert responded, saying that professional development should and could continue regardless of the outcome.
"It could, but I believe the calendar created the catalyst for that to happen," Willert said.
One woman in attendance disagreed with the early start, stating that she "felt robbed out of family time in August."
A man added that his children also did not like starting in mid-August.
Willert pointed out that, while he appreciated their concerns, it was worth noting that a large number of students are already coming back to school by that time, for marching band, football, cross country or volleyball practice for example.
"You have to look at everything," Willert said.
Everything includes state testing results, NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) testing results, semester breaks, the natural alignment with the college and university system and other factors.
"I have e-mails from people who are in favor of the FLY," Willert said. "A teacher who is big into the Advanced Placement pieces has been a significant proponent because of what it means to the AP kids. I clarify that as a high stakes assessment because if kids score high enough on that, it's free college tuition for parents. There's a broader impact here."
In addition to gaging community reactions at the FLY meetings, board members also have guidance from a satisfaction survey, conducted by the Southwest Marketing Advisory Center at Southwest Minnesota State University. A total of 648 surveys were received from within the district.
If the Marshall School Board votes to move forward with a second three-year FLY application and a formal application is submitted by the consortium, an answer from MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is expected by March 15.