“Your investment has given us the okay to dream bigger than ever before,”
– 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Katy Smith
After hearing from seven Minnesota Teacher of the Year award winners and an innovative superintendent, I am refreshed and prepared for a productive 2015 legislative session. The well-attended hearing took place on Oct. 22 with the goal of hearing from the brightest minds in education and teaching in order to enhance the quality of education in our state. I think it’s safe to say that I, along with my other Senate E-12 committee members was impressed and impassioned to make change.
While this column does not allow the space to give justice to every speaker, I will start with one of the last speakers of the day, Lee Ann Stephens. Stephens is a high school teacher from St. Louis Park and winner of the 2006 Teacher of the Year award. As an African American woman who has taught for more than 20 years, Stephens talked with experience about the real need for increasing teacher diversity in schools. She said not only is it important for students of color to see teachers like themselves, it’s also important for white students to have a teacher occasionally who isn’t white. The main point she drove home dealt with the achievement gap – and her assertions that poverty is not the main reason Minnesota’s achievement gap exists. Instead, Stephens argues, teachers and administrators need to ask students what they need to succeed, rather than just make assumptions.
St. Louis Park Superintendent Robert Metz spoke about helping students succeed as well. He addressed the committee about his district’s ninth grade program called Building Assets, Reducing Risks. The program was created once the district discovered the number one reason students were failing out of high school, was that they failed a class in the ninth grade. The program now sets aside one hour per week for teachers to collaborate and help find a way to let that student succeed in ALL of their classes, not just the one course that teacher is teaching. Metz said the results have been transformative – and graduation rates have soared.
Each story from these teachers was fascinating, like Mike Smart, a teacher in District 287 whose title is an “Innovation Instigator.” His enthusiasm for finding new and unique solutions for teachers was inspiring – like creating a new app for special education students or opening a new learning center that re-thinks the way at-risk students are taught. My take away from his testimony was this, “We are trying to solve today’s problems with tomorrow’s solutions.” It’s this kind of forward thinking and embrace of technology that I believe is making a difference in our schools.
Megan Hall, the 2013 Teacher of the Year praised our state’s many college-level courses that are available to high school students. Hall, who works primarily as an advanced placement (AP)-course instructor told us the more we can encourage high school students to take college-level courses, the better. While Post-Secondary Enrolment Options (PSEO) is a useful and successful program, Hall focused even more on the AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) and College in the Schools (CIS) programs that she testified are incredibly useful for students who are ready to think at a higher level. She said the best part of those programs is that students are challenging themselves academically, but still get the bonus and structure of a high school environment.
Lastly, I will touch on Katy Smith’s testimony, the woman I quoted at the beginning of this piece. Smith is a teacher in Winona and spoke passionately about the importance of early childhood education. Additionally, she discussed why parent education is so vital to the child’s educational success. She told us that when kids are well-cared for from birth to age 3, we all do better. Teachers across our state all can provide insights to the state legislature, and I’d like to extend a thank-you to the thousands of educators that call Minnesota home. I look forward to working with my colleagues next session to take the advice from these teachers and turn it into legislative policies that work for all school children across our state.
The Minnesota Teacher of the Year award has been given out annually for the past 50 years. The program selects one teacher to represent the state’s thousands of excellent educators. Both the award winner and finalists (there was a pool of 128 educators in the running this year) speak to education organizations, community groups, students, legislators and the media. Each year, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education will nominate the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year for the National Teacher of the Year program. The national program is presented by the ING Foundation. Local school districts across our county participate in this nationally recognized program.
As always, please contact me with questions or suggestions regarding any issue. I encourage you to visit me at the Capitol, or let me know if you’d like me to stop by your home or apartment. Also, please tune in to my local cable TV show, “Your Capitol: What’s Up?” which appears on public access channels 15 and 16. I can be reached by email at email@example.com and by phone at 651-296-6820.
~Written by Sen. Chuck Wiger, Chair of the Senate E-12 Finance Committee