We Now Speak Ojibwe: Duluth School Board Notes, 2/26/14

The ISD 709 School Board convened on a frigid Duluth night for its February meeting Tuesday night, and got right down to business. Chair Miernicki called upon himself as the first citizen speaker, and left his seat to address the Board as a citizen. He did so to acknowledge the passing of local businessman and political activist Charlie Bell, and in particular thanked Mr. Bell for his efforts to push through the renovations to Public Schools Stadium, in addition to his work on other pro-education campaigns. After returning to the dais and thanking himself for his comments, he called up the next speaker, a bus driver who came forward to decry the District’s management of disciplinary issues on school buses. She called the disciplinary procedures “inconsistent,” noted a time lapse in school action, and noted at least one serious case that had gone unpunished. She requested supervisory helpers on troubled routes and an updated, clearly established policy in the district handbook. Next, four speakers pushed the implementation of an Ojibwe language immersion kindergarten class starting next school year; two addressed the Board in Anishinaabe, and two talked up an immersion program at UMD that had been a positive experience for their relations.

During the Superintendent’s update, Supt. Gronseth celebrated the District’s climbing graduation rates and falling achievement gap. He announced that the District was accelerating a 4-year plan to better align curriculum with state and national standards, and hoped to have a plan in place by the summer. The Board also thanked a representative from Kwik Trip for a donation to the District.

Member Harala then delivered the Education Committee report, explaining each of the items in detail. The Board decided to table the addition of several weather-related make-up days to the school year, as there are still negotiations going on there, and there is also a very real chance that more school days will be canceled in the coming weeks. Four other items on the Education Committee report inspired some debate, though all were approved unanimously.

While he supported the measure, Member Johnston had some qualified critiques of the plan to establish an online schooling program through the alternative Unity/ALC High School. He reminded everyone that computers are not replacements for teachers, and worried that, if not implemented properly, the program would leave “a whole bunch of students somewhere out in the ozone.” He added his worries about over-emphasis on “digital stuff” and talked about getting “kids outside boxes and playing in snow.” Chair Miernicki agreed with Member Johnston (prompting some humorous shock on his part), saying he’d seen how Unity teachers can turn lives around, and Member Harala also agreed with these general sentiments.

Member Westholm took a few moments to talk up the Scott Anderson Leadership Forum, for which the Board had filed a grant application. Member Welty had some good things to say about a plan to re-do the Administration’s organizational structure, and brandished several intricate charts while ribbing Supt. Gronseth about his position on said charts. Members Seliga-Punyko and Harala had some minor questions that Supt. Gronseth handled, and after that, it was on to the Ojibwe language program. Member Seliga-Punyko wanted to know what would happen if not enough students signed up, or if funding sources dried up. Supt. Gronseth replied by saying that kindergarten classes could handle relatively small class sizes, and said there were numerous streams of revenue available. (Right now, the District will pay only for the teacher.) Member Seliga-Punyko also wanted to know when the District will choose a school for the program, and suggested it would be best to use one of the less full schools, such as Myers-Wilkins or Laura MacArthur; when called forward, Supervisor of Indian Education Edye Howes said that decision process would begin immediately after approval. She also told the question-filled Member Seliga-Punyko of her experience visiting a K-5 immersion school that saw over 90% of its students pass standardized tests. Member Loeffler-Kemp thanked Ms. Howes for the research and focus on the budget that had gone into the planning process, and its unanimous passage brought a spurt of applause out of the crowd.

The HR Committee Report sailed through without any holdups, and the Business Committee report was also handled with relative ease, despite its length. Member Welty had a few questions for Business Services Director Bill Hansen on the financial report, but their technical nature had Chair Miernicki suggesting the two of them meet one-on-one. Member Johnston said he’d like to hear these questions, and suggested they save some time by having the discussion at a committee meeting; without really coming to a conclusion on that front, the Board moved on. Member Johnston had a question on why district enrollment figures varied by 700 between the weighted number used by the state (WADM) and a number in a District report on special education; in a tedious exchange, Mr. Hansen attempted to explain that this was due to weighting, as WADM uses lots of fractions to account for part-time or lower-grade students, thus making the number of raw, enrolled students seem smaller than it really is. Despite his continued confusion, Member Johnston voted in favor of the Business Committee report for a second straight meeting, and it passed unanimously.

The closing comments involved further confusion from Member Johnston; he wondered why he hadn’t heard anything about graduation rates and learned about them from the newspaper, but was eventually informed by Member Harala that an email had indeed gone out the previous week. Student Member Manning informed the District that he’ll be bringing together a forum of students to allow them to dialogue with the Board, and Member Johnston invited him to use any connections he has with the school papers (which Member Johnston reads) to comment on District affairs. Member Johnston also asked that the busing issues mentioned by the citizen speaker be put on the agenda, and also repeated his request to do something about the plight of the paraprofessionals.

That brought an end to a long but fairly agreeable night with the Board. The meeting was bogged down by some procedural issues and a few questions probably better suited for different venues, but I’d rather see the Board err on the side of meticulous tedium than glib rushes to approval. Everyone more or less agreed on everything, but there were still some good questions, and the Board did a good job of keeping the concerns of a variety of groups on its radar. The proponents of the Ojibwe language program reaped the results of that tonight, and while it’s just one small issue in front of a Board with countless things on its plate, it means the world to one particular constituency. As long as it keeps the big picture in mind and asks the right questions, these sorts of programs can be real winners for the District.

The Strange Case of Achiever Academy

Every hockey season, it seems like there is at least one huge event that momentarily overwhelms every other story, and turns my duties on the forum into a full-time job. Whether it’s as serious as a paralyzing injury or as laughable as a team’s self-pitying backup goalie scoring on his own net before skating off the ice and flipping off his coach, something happens every year that just makes us stop and ponder it all. This season’s catalyst is the girls’ hockey team at Achiever Academy, an inanely-named, Twin Cities-based private school.

Achiever Academy, for those of you not following along, is a new player on the state high school scene. In fact, it looks nothing like any other high school with a hockey program in the state. It is a sports training academy that is attached to an accredited online high school. It offers training in multiple sports, though its flagship operation is in hockey. It is now in its second season fielding a boys’ varsity hockey team in the Minnesota State High School League, and added a girls’ team this season.

If you are not caught up in the hockey world, this may seem preposterous to you. It might seem like a thin cover for overzealous parents who toss aside academics out of their obsession with a sport. Plenty of hockey people had similar reactions, or at least raised their eyebrows. Achiever’s decision to join the MSHSL in particular came under scrutiny; as a year-round training program, they were certainly tiptoeing around the rules that clearly establish school sports seasons. As a school that drew in players from out of state, it seemed a bit odd that they were matching up with small-town public and tiny private school hockey programs in Class A, where some schools struggle to even field a team. The schooling method was naturally the subject of some derision, and charges of recruiting followed as well.

I had misgivings, but I figured the school deserved a chance. I’m very skeptical of online education—I’m young enough that I’ve had online components to a number of my classes in school, and I could count the number of times I found it genuinely enriching or comparable to a classroom experience on an amputated hand—but I think it can be of great use to kids who struggle in normal classroom settings, and indeed I heard at least one good story about a kid who was getting his getting his academic life back in order thanks to Achiever. Still, rumors about the academic program persisted, and as the season went along, it became clear that academics were only the tip of the iceberg.

Things started going sour in January, when it came out that Achiever’s financial state was far less stable than it was letting on. Their plan to purchase a financially troubled Vadnais Heights arena fell through, and the school teetered on the brink. It was rescued at the last second by a parent with deep pockets, who bought out the original owners. Several of the school’s sites around the Metro area were shuttered as the school consolidated.

On the ice, Achiever’s teams had their ups and downs. The boys’ team has been passably good; they’re not among the favorites to win their section, but they’re not totally out of the picture either, despite having to weather the departure of a couple of their players for other hockey opportunities. The girls, on the other hand, beat a number of the top teams in the state, climbed up to #4 in the end-of-regular-season Let’s Play Hockey poll, and were odds-on favorites for a State Tournament berth. They cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and were set for a section final showdown with St. Paul United.

They never got to play in that game. At least six girls on the team, it turned out, were ineligible. They have forfeited their entire season.

The ensuing scandal has rocked the hockey world, with a fair amount of vindictive glee on the part of Achiever’s critics. Most of the blame lands on the Achiever administration, coaching staff, and the parents of the ineligible players: with such widespread ineligibility, it clear this was a concerted effort to flaunt the rules, not an honest mistake. It is sad for the Achiever girls who did follow the rules—some, it is rumored, were ready to walk off the team in protest ahead of the section final when they learned they’d been scammed, but before the forfeiture became  formal—but everyone else, the sentiment goes, got what was coming to them all season long.

The MSHSL is in a bit of a bind here. In most matters they expect schools to self-report issues, as they should: they are much closer to the situations, and most activities directors aren’t in the business of sabotaging its mission. It doesn’t have the resources to investigate every single player, and it might be intrusive to give it such power. But in this case, catching the culprits required an anonymous vigilante rummaging around for the girls’ residency statuses and combing through their social media accounts. And while there were rumors all season long, and I expect to learn more in the coming weeks, the timing is a bit suspect as well. One wonders if the investigation would have gone anywhere had Achiever been a mediocre team, instead of a state title contender. It’s a troubling situation, and with online education only growing, this issue will likely dog the MSHSL in the coming years. (It already happened in soccer two years ago, with the similar Prairie Seeds Academy.)

Achiever hasn’t exactly been humbled by the proceedings, either. This past week, they announced plans to pursue legal action against Minnesota Hockey, which bars the formation of U.S. Hockey-sanctioned Tier I youth teams so as to protect the state’s community-based model. This brings into the open the presumed mission of this organization from the day of their foundation: the creation of a special program focused on the truly elite players in the state, one that puts hockey above all else in life, and focuses on national and international competition for the select few. Any noble intentions the Achiever founders may ever have had are long gone, and they are left waging an ideological war against the Minnesota hockey model, using the dreams of children as their weapon. Fortunately for the model, they’re doing a rather awful job of it, though I doubt that will keep them from digging in their heels and fighting on and on.

This isn’t to say that the Minnesota model is without its flaws; most of us have our critiques, and there will always be a space for outside organizations to fill the gaps that Minnesota Hockey and its affiliates cannot. Those affiliates, however, are much better served if they try to form a cooperative relationship with Minnesota Hockey and the MSHSL, or at the very least coexist, as Bernie McBain’s Edina-based Minnesota Made program usually manages to do. (Usually.) Achiever, on the other hand, took it a bridge too far, and is learning why the torch-and-pitchfork method of revolution has never been much of a winner.