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Your Schools: Uplifting stories to start the school year

The River Falls School District's annual meeting was held earlier this week, as prescribed by state statute. The agenda had the routine business of setting salaries for school board members and public authorization to sell obsolete or unneeded school property, but it also included the very important presentation of the 2012-13 school year budget, followed by the public hearing on the current budget and a resolution to the school board regarding setting of the tax levy for the 2012-13 school year, which the board will vote on formally later this fall.

Last year, I gave a State of the District presentation at the annual meeting, and I continued that new tradition again this year. After a year of many difficult tragedies affecting our school district, I thought it would help lift spirits by sharing some humorous and success stories I'd heard recently from across the district. Here are a few:

n Teacher Becky Cunningham told me a precious story about Ava, a child in Mrs. C's kindergarten classroom during the first week of school, who, after working very hard on a messy but fun art project, brought her art piece up and said to Mrs. Cunningham, "Where's the refrigerator to put this up?!"

--Meyer Middle School teacher Jean Ritzinger told me about a student named Mike now at RFHS who was a new student as a 7th grader at MMS two years ago. He came from Duluth and lived for cars and anything with an engine. He was an absolutely charming kid, who came to school eager to please. The staff all fell in love with him, and they were shocked when he told staff he had been bullied in his other schools before River Falls. When Mike was in Mrs. Reid's Language Arts class, he wrote a 6-word essay, "Torn Apart and Sewed Together Again," explaining that's how he felt after coming from his old school to MMS!

--Liam, a second grader now at Greenwood Elementary, jumped 13 levels in reading during last year in first grade after intensive instruction.

--Rocky Branch Elementary Principal Chuck Eaton gave examples of two third grade students last year reading significantly below grade level, one with a fluency reading level of 55 words per minute and the other at 57 wpm, who with the help of "Response to Intervention" reading support and team time, jumped to 102 and 145 wpm respectively!

--Mark Chapin reported that a Middle School student named Tim set his Everest Goal last year to shoot 10,000 basketball shots this past summer, and he did it!

--Another principal reported that a child dealing with very severe anxiety for many years and who required her parent to bring her into the school building every single day for those years, is now being dropped off at the playground and making a tremendous turnaround with her anxiety.

--While the district's poverty rate continues to grow (12% when I arrived in the district in 2008-09 to 25% in 2011-12), the district continues to improve in closing the achievement gap in regards to socio-economic status. For example, while grade 3 poverty doubled in the past five years, the number of third graders achieving the highest "Advanced" status on the WKCE state math test also doubled in the same time span.

--Over the last five years, our students have consistently beaten the state average in every subject on the national ACT exam. Even better, this past year's ACT data shows that our composite score is 1.4 points higher than the state average, and that composite is the second highest in our district's past five years, even while taking into consideration that we have an extremely high participation rate in taking the ACT. This past year's students who took the ACT fared well particularly in two subjects: Reading and English scores, both of which were 2.1 points above the state average.

--Students at River Falls High School took 153 total Advanced Placement exams this past year, and 73.8% of them have tested at a "3" or higher on the 5-point scale.

--While the WKCE achievement tests will be replaced with another state exam in 2014-15, we continue to have highlights from each of the district levels: 1) Grade 10 Reading WKCE "Advanced" percentage is the highest ever; 2) our Grade 7 Math WKCE "Advanced" percentage is the highest ever; and 3) our Grades 3-4-5 continue to perform very high in math and have held their high achievement over the past three years.

Of course, at the annual meeting I discussed many other items, including challenges with homeless, special education, and limited-English speaking students; accomplishments and challenges of the district's strategic plan; the newly adopted technology strategy which will dramatically change how education is delivered in River Falls over the next few years; student and staff accomplishments recognized by the school board over the past year; and new directions coming for education in the State of Wisconsin in the new three years.

I concluded my thoughts by asking the question, "Why education?" and answered the question with several quotes from others much wiser than me:

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." --Nelson Mandela

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." -- John Dewey

"Education is the transmission of civilization." -- Will Durant

"He who opens a school door closes a prison." -- Will Durant

"The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows." -- Sydney Harris

"The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn." -- Alvin Toffler

"A little learning is a dangerous thing, but it still beats total ignorance." -- Abigail Van Buren

That's why this community supports education in so many demonstrable ways, and it's why I always say, "Your River Falls Public Schools: Everybody's Business!"