School board candidates differ on ways to improve schools
Candidates running for Seat 5 on the Rochester School Board on Wednesday debated issues ranging from school boundaries to iPads during a forum held at the Rochester Public Library.
Incumbent Terry Throndson and challengers Nora Dooley and Jean Marvin took part in the forum in advance of an Aug. 12 primary that will whittle down the number of candidates to two for the general election. Matthew Halleck, who is also running for Seat 5, declined to participate in Wednesday's forum.
Although four seats on the school board are up for election, only one is heading toward a primary. Two school board incumbents, Gary Smith and Julie Workman, are running unopposed. Incumbent Anne Becker is being challenged by Don Barlow.
The Seat 5 candidates offered different ideas on how they would like to improve Rochester Public Schools.
Jean Marvin, a retired district English teacher, stressed that "most of our kids at some point during their high school careers should do some sort of internship." Rochester students, she said, need to participate in the world of work. "Attendance means more when there is a job waiting for you," and it helps students decide not only what they like but what they don't like, too.
Throndson, a Rochester businessman, said he would like to see "less government in our schools," because its one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work with every student. "Give us the keys back to our schools," he said. He stressed the importance of community involvement, and touted Mayo Clinic and Rochester businesses as local resources that have made Rochester schools better.
Dooley, who has served as chairwoman on the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission and on numerous district committees, also cited the "incredible opportunity for mentorships within the school system." Lincoln Choice K-8, she noted, offers older kids the opportunity to help and work with the younger kids because the school combines elementary and middle schools under one roof. And it helps older kids by providing an experience that they can put on their resume.
iPads for students
The candidates had different takes on a proposed one-to-one program that would provide an iPad to every one of the district's 16,500 students. Dooley noted that 17 Minnesota school districts have already implemented one-to-on programs. And such programs, if properly marketed, could help bring back some of the estimated 1,300 Rochester kids whose parents send them to schools outside of the district.
"I think the train is leaving the station with 17 districts already doing one-to-one technology," Dooley said. "We need to get on board. The reality is that there is not a physician that walks through the clinic without their iPad."
Marvin said she "absolutely believed" that every single student "in this district has to have access to technology." She also said that there needs to be a plan "in terms of how it's going to be used." How will it improve student learning? "We don't want to replace teachers, and we don't want to replace the interactions" that take place in a classroom, she added.
Throndson noted that the board has been working on a one-to-one proposal for some time now, but said, "we need some information" about whether it's going to improve learning. "We don't want to spend four, seven million dollars before we know it's going to work." He said he was "all for technology, but technology isn't everything." Students still need to know how to do things with their hands and be able to use their heads.
When asked about the achievement gap and the lagging test scores of some minority students, Dooley cited studies that show the achievement gap is in many ways an opportunity gap. She noted that some kids have struggles that make it difficult to learn. She praised the sale of Gage East Elementary School to a Duluth-based nonprofit that hopes to provide housing to an estimated 300 children. Mentorships that provide after-school homework help would also benefit students. "If you are parents who are working two jobs, you need somebody to help fill the void," she said.
Marvin said the community has to accept the fact that "racism continues to be an issue." The achievement gap, she added, is also increasingly about the income gap. There are many white children who are poor and underperforming in school. "I couldn't agree more that we need mentorships," she said. It is also "critically important" to look at pre-K programs.
"If we send kids to kindergarten ready to roll, they're going to be ready throughout," she said.
Throndson said "it has do with the parents," adding, "some parents don't take care of their kids." Mentorships are needed not only to help kids, but "we need to help these parents take on the responsibility." Throndson said he works and helps young kids who go to the Alternative Learning Center, but then they return home to "dysfunctional families." He urged more community involvement.
If you live next to one of those struggling families, he said, "try to help them see the light. Try to help them see a better way," Throndson said.