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The education commissioner's visit

Minnesota’s commissioner of education came to Brainerd last week as part of her outreach and her search for input regarding early childhood education. The Dispatch captured a shot of Dr. Brenda Cassellius as she read to Mrs. Becker’s kindergarten class at Lowell Elementary School. The visit provided a great photo opportunity, and the accompanying story spoke to some, but not all of the conversations held in the district that afternoon.

Both ends of our educational spectrum of service were discussed; our youngest learners were part of our focus. The commissioner visited two facilities, visited a classroom, and later met with teachers and community members connected to early childhood education. She watched, she listened, and she conversed with us about our current level of programming. She learned about the steps we have taken to solidify common curriculum and assessment for our students before they hit the kindergarten “schoolhouse door,” and we were able to share that in our district (as in our neighboring districts here in the Brainerd Lakes Area) all­day, every­day kindergarten has been a reality for the last five years. We were able to share with her that more than 500 students also receive some form of readiness or pre­school programming before kindergarten. Commissioner Cassellius praised our efforts to align the curriculum of pre­school and kindergarten programs, and she stressed that alignment of programs is a statewide goal. When a community can unite around common pre­school “readiness” targets, when we can talk meaningfully with day care providers, private pre­schools, faith-based partners, Head Start, etc. the return on our common investment increases, and the number of children reading well by third grade shoots up.

Our meeting was not all about our youngest students, however. We also met regarding legislation which, if passed this session, will change public school responsibilities regarding college and career preparation. New law may require more responsibility from students, parents, and our schools demonstrating each graduate’s college and/or career plan. Our students, parents, and teachers may soon be required to shift more of their energies toward career/college planning and less toward passing the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The commissioner noted that our current Bridges partnerships with Central Lakes College and the Brainerd Lakes Chamber put us more ready than most Minnesota school districts and regions to respond to a new expectation for charting the career or college path of every graduate. In the last five years, the number of students taking college courses for college credit while they are still in high school has skyrocketed. Options for students to earn workplace readiness certificates, college credits, and quicker entrance into higher education are expected to continue to grow, and Commissioner Cassellius noted we live in a region where business/education partnerships are ready to “move to a higher level.” We agree!

Listening to Commissioner Cassellius speak to the changing nature of the high school and college experience, we noted that more and more students are stepping up each year to earn college credit while still in high school. She predicts that the K­-12 and college systems in Minnesota will continue to partner and shift grades 10, 11, and 12 to look more and more like the first years of college, technical schooling, or on-the-job training/apprenticeship. She noted that study after study predicts most new Minnesota jobs and many of the jobs waiting to be vacated by soon-to-retire Minnesota workers will require more than a high school diploma, they will require course work, on-the-job, or specific skills training. How much of that work, she asked, can begin while students are in grades 10­-12?

We felt fortunate to get Commissioner Brenda Cassellius into our district this past Monday. We talked about our oldest and our youngest learners. Face to face conversation with one of the premier educational policymakers in Minnesota is invaluable for Brainerd public schools and, we hope, for the Minnesota Department of Education.