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Achievement gap, class sizes top school concerns in Duluth

The location of Lincoln Park Middle School was a minus and the work of integration specialists a plus for participants in Thursday's "Think Kids" meeting held by the Duluth school district at the Central Hillside Community Center.

Large class
Joe Vukelich, who teaches American Government at Denfeld High School, has 49 students in his classroom in this Oct. 2, 2012, file photo. A few have to sit on floor, in a window alcove or at tables pulled up tightly alongside desks. (2012 file / News Tribune)

The location of Lincoln Park Middle School was a minus and the work of integration specialists a plus for participants in Thursday's "Think Kids" meeting held by the Duluth school district at the Central Hillside Community Center.

The district's blitz of community meetings held in January and this month was designed to gain feedback about Duluth schools and to find direction on where the district should head. Total turnout was light, with just 350 people attending the 32 meetings and 150 completing a survey either online or through the mail. Another 600 teachers and district staff offered feedback.

But the district isn't done, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth, because private groups will hear presentations and offer feedback through March, surveys are still being sought and visits to college campuses are in the works to steer students toward the online survey. About 1,000 of the district's own students have chimed in via the regular student survey.

"The people who have come to the meetings have been open," Gronseth said. "We have had good, deep conversations."

The biggest concerns across the city include class sizes, the achievement gap, a need to increase curriculum choices, returning the seventh period to middle and high school days and student behavior, he said. Other recurring themes were pleasure with teacher quality, buildings and student experiences in class.

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"People do want improvements to the district, and they do want their children and grandchildren and neighbors to have more," he said. "They recognize that we might need to step up locally ... and look at passing a local levy in the fall."

Levy referendum

The possibility of putting a levy referendum on the ballot next fall was part of the conversation at Thursday's meeting, which was one of the last two of the public meetings. Six people attended.

Lee Stuart, who spoke in favor of art, music and vocational programs, said the defeat of the operating levy in 2011 was bad news for the district and it was important that one pass next year.

"Solving the challenges of education takes the whole village," she said. "Schools can't do it on their own."

Kristi Johnson expressed dissatisfaction with the location of the new Lincoln Park Middle School. She said it's separated symbolically and physically from its neighborhood, and its location on a hill makes it hard for kids to ride bikes to school.

The group lauded the district's community partnerships and after-school programs but said it needs to sell vacant buildings, reduce class size and work on a poor public image of the School Board.

Students who come from the central corridor of the city no longer have "turf," Stuart said, and that's something to be addressed by East and Denfeld.

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"Hillside students are off their own turf always, and that creates tension," she said. "They are always not 'of us.' That's a tough thing to manage in high school."

Red Plan concerns

Unity High School Assistant Principal Adrian Norman was the facilitator for the meeting. He also conducted a handful of others.

"It's been healing for some people. Many expressed concerns that they weren't part of the (Red) plan," he said. "Some sessions had people where they had held onto things and it was important for them to be heard."

Gronseth said some of the feedback received focused on the Red Plan -- the district's $315 million school construction and renovation project that involved closures and consolidations, approved by the School Board in 2007 without a public vote -- but the majority did not.

Gary Anderson said he came to Thursday's meeting to affirm the work of integration specialists and ask that money be secured for them because of what they do toward narrowing the achievement gap. He said he's done talking about the Red Plan.

"I don't have time for that," he said. "Our kids don't have time for that."

Related Topics: EDUCATIONSCHOOL BOARD
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