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Lincoln Park school lauded for outreach to community

Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, speaks to students while visiting a sixth-grade art class at Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth on Monday morning. At right is Bill Gronseth, Duluth school district superintendent. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, reacts with amazement when Lincoln Park Middle School sixth-grader Blake Herrick demonstrates the hand-crafted lanterns the art club made to give away to children at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Children's Hospital in Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Lincoln Park Middle School was on display Monday for one of the education world's most influential people.

Randi Weingarten, president of the national teachers union American Federation of Teachers, visited the Duluth school to hear about two programs it has undertaken to better serve and connect to its students and their families. The efforts — building a more neighborhood-centered school and sending teachers out into the homes of students — are gaining ground as a way to help kids learn by ensuring they are ready to do it, with basic needs met and more comfort with the educational system.

During a gathering of school employees, community members and other visitors, Weingarten lauded the Duluth school district for being ahead of the curve, with Myers-Wilkins Elementary, then Grant, beginning community school work in 1998.

For years in education, she said, accountability and testing were the focus.

"Now, people get (that) we actually have to engage children's well-being before we can engage powerful learning," Weingarten said. "And you really have to have teachers who know what they are doing and you have to really work hand-in-glove with the community in a real way, that people feel in their heart."

Community schools often offer health, mental and social services, after-school programs and family nights, and work to build relationships with kids and their families. The at-home teacher visits also are about relationships, and attempt to remove apprehension about schools and zero in on each student. Lincoln Park has been in the process of becoming a community school for a few years, and began at-home visits this school year.

Lincoln Park Principal Brenda Vatthauer said the movements "show we care."

An advocate for such holistic educational practices, Weingarten also was in Minnesota to visit St. Paul schools and hear about their own, similar efforts. The following are excerpts from a brief conversation with Weingarten, a New York resident and longtime labor leader, attorney and educator.

Thoughts on neighborhood schools:

"The community school model is an important strategy for focusing on your children's well-being. When half of your kids in public education are below the poverty line, shame on us if we don't actually start focusing on what helps level the playing field for equity and opportunity.

"You can't just talk about excellence without actually building that ladder of opportunity."

On home visit programs:

"(They) are a really important mode of creating trust with parents and opening the relationship pathways in a much deeper way between parents and schools. At the end of the day if a school is not viewed as safe and welcoming to parents, kids are not going to thrive. They are not going to find joy."

On the appointment of Betsy DeVos by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Education, pending Senate approval. (DeVos, a philanthropist from Michigan, is known for her advocacy of school choice and voucher programs, which use state money to send kids to private schools):

"For the first time in my life, public school is under an existential threat. We have a president who doesn't seem to understand or care about public schooling as an institution for our democracy, or as an institution for the well-being and development of skills and knowledge of our population of Americans. (DeVos) is the most anti-public education nominee since the department was established. The only strategy she seems to believe in is one that dismantles and discards and disables public schools.

"Using that strategy (vouchers) has not actually helped in Michigan. It has made things worse both for kids who have gone on to for-profit charters as well as kids who have stayed in public schools, particularly in high-need areas ... Now is even more important than probably any other time in my professional life to lift up what works in public schools."