Federal education agents visit FL schools

Documenting best practices to share with the nation

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

If your school district is doing something right, you should share with other districts how you bring it about.

That was the idea for the visit last week from three fellows of the U.S. Department of Education.

Ryan Vernosh, Lisa Clarke and Aaron Bredenkamp spent most of Wednesday, April 17, with Superintendent Linda Madsen, visiting schools from 8:30 until 2:30. They toured buildings, talking to principals and teachers, to learn about the district’s success stories. They will take the information back to the federal Department of Education to provide outreach to other districts.

The “promising practices” they identified include a commitment to all learners from birth to age 21, providing for all ability levels, transparency and access to the superintendent. “We need more educators open to the lines of communication we witnessed here today,” one agent commented.

They witnessed the Montessori program, where grades are integrated and students are paired with someone who doesn’t have the same skill set.

Clarke noted the professional development provided for teachers and the effort to accommodate all students.

“Today we saw a district that is really intentional about trying to meet all students’ needs,” she said. The STEP program for ages 18 to 21 “clearly meets the needs of a population that is under-resourced and marginalized in other communities,” she added.

Vernosh said in Forest Lake, Lakes International Language Academy and District 831, rather than having an adversarial relationship, work with each other. After finishing the Spanish-immersion elementary program, students can extend their Spanish learning through similar programs offered at the school.

At high school, he singled out the many industrial technology course offerings, organized in way that teach students about career options. A thriving ECFE helps young children and families. Advanced placement courses help college-bound high school students. And while other schools have cut music programs, Forest Lake has not eliminated the arts, Madsen said.

A slow upward increase in class sizes is one concern, Vernosh said.

“I’ve seen kindergarten classrooms of 28 to 29, with no aide. That’s criminal.”

Consistent reductions in funding, Vernosh said, mean schools must get results with fewer and fewer resources.

“If we ever start adequately funding our schools, think of the possibilities we could achieve,” he said. “What do we want to be as a country? We need to have a serious conversation about how we’re funding our schools.”

Bredenkamp said the information will go back to Washington, D.C., to influence policy there.

“The whole concept is bigger than the Department of Education,” he said. “This expands the conversation beyond state lines.”

On a national cross-country bus tour, Bredenkamp said, the group talked to all kinds of teachers, in charter, public and private schools. The feedback was so helpful that they were asked to do a regional outreach from January to July. This visit to Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota will bring back both best practices and concerns.

He said federal education information is available at the website ed.gov.

The federal role in education funding is small, Madsen said, with about 12 percent of the district’s revenue coming from the federal level, mostly in special education, Title I and similar programs.

“The reality is the federal government is part of our lives,” she added. “It’s better to have them here listening, having an exchange.”