Superintendent News

It was late in the evening.  The young couple had tucked their three children into bed an hour ago.  What began as a light-hearted conversation had taken a serious turn.  “What do you think about the proposal to build two new elementary schools in Fergus Falls, John?”  

“That’s been weighing on my mind a lot lately, Mary.  Times have been tough,” he replied quietly.  

“I know, and yet, we have managed to weather through it.  The children have a loving home, we have food on the table and a roof over our heads.  But I also want them to have a great education.”  

“I do too.  I want them to have every opportunity to pursue their dreams.”  

The room was filled with silence for a period before Mary asked, “Can we afford it?”   

Despite trying times, the people of Fergus Falls built two new elementary schools - McKinley and Adams.  The year was 1939 and the country was still making its way out of the Great Depression.  As the decades rolled past, thousands of students have reaped the benefits from the commitment to education and the sacrifice made by those men and women.  Tom Brokaw dubbed them the Greatest Generation.  It’s easy to understand why.

Many of those children have remained in our community and now enjoy their retirement years living in Fergus Falls.  They have witnessed much in the 85 years that have transpired since McKinley and Adams were built…wars, recessions, putting a man on the moon, cell phones, electric cars, medical marvels and the fear generated by a global pandemic.  The world has changed greatly.  The expectations placed upon today’s educational system have changed greatly.

When McKinley and Adams were designed, schools did not provide the following services and support to students:

  1. Title I support for reading and math.
  2. ADSIS support for reading and math.  
  3. Special education support to include:
    1. Speech language support.
    2. Behavioral support.
    3. Support for learning disabilities.
    4. Support for students with behavioral challenges.
    5. Occupational therapy.
    6. Adapted physical education.
  4. English language learner support.
  5. Support for student mental health.

Because these supports weren’t being provided back then, McKinley and Adams weren’t designed with those needs in mind.  In today’s schools, those spaces play an integral role in supporting student growth and development.  

When McKinley and Adams were designed, the following careers were most in demand:

  1. Farmers
  2. Farm laborers
  3. Clerical workers
  4. Service workers (bell boys, butlers, cooks etc.)
  5. Stenographers, typists and secretaries
  6. Teachers

 

Contrast that with today’s high demand job sectors:

  1. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists
  2. Data Scientists and Analysts 
  3. Healthcare Professionals 
  4. Cybersecurity Experts 
  5. Software Developers 
  6. Renewable Energy Technicians 
  7. Environmental Scientists 
  8. Logistics and Supply Chain Managers 
  9. Remote and Hybrid Work Specialists 
  10. E-commerce and Digital Marketing Professionals

 

Different knowledge is needed.  Different skills are needed.  A different learning experience and environment is needed.

The location of the proposed new elementary school, which would serve grades three - five, is across the highway from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center where our award-winning Prairie Science Classes are held.  This unique partnership with U.S. Fish & Wildlife receives positive accolades each year from both the students who choose to participate in the program and their parents.  

Research has shown that outdoor education improves student learning and promotes positive socio-emotional well-being.  The program teaches students to appreciate the world around them and to be conscientious stewards of our planet’s resources.  U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials have recently affirmed ongoing staffing support for the PWLC and the Prairie Science Class.  

Presently, students spend 35-40 minutes being transported round trip to the PWLC from Cleveland and KSS.  The lost instructional time adds up to 13-18 days of missed class time over the course of an entire school year.  The adjacency of the proposed new school with the PWLC would greatly reduce travel time.  

In addition, U.S. Fish & Wildlife has a very strong interest in creating a pedestrian walkway under highway #210 to connect the proposed school to the PWLC.  There would still be travel involved, but it would be in the form of exercise as students benefit from observing the world around them and breathing in the fresh air.  

The new school would also feature designs that align with modern day instructional practices that produce the knowledge and skills that today’s employers seek in the workforce e.g. critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, leadership, perseverance and technology knowledge and skills.  With a focus on technology, engineering, art, math and science, our students will be well-prepared to be highly effective employees and entrepreneurs and our district will continue to be a regional leader in vocational education.  

The fine arts would benefit from having a facility that accommodates large group rehearsals thereby eliminating the need for students to be transported back and forth to KSS.  Athletics would benefit by the addition of two new practice fields to support middle school students.  

 

I hear comments from some community members to “fix what you have”. The last time the community built a completely brand new school was 1968.  The district has been fixing and working with what it has ever since.  Keep in mind, the average age of our buildings is 45 years.  

Sometimes, fixing what you have results in great outcomes.  A perfect example of this is the renovation of the Otter Fieldhouse (old REC gym).  It’s a beautiful gym and by investing some financial resources into it, it could be utilized to meet district needs.  Another example is the front area of Community Ed.  We renovated that space and it is a wonderful meeting area enjoyed by the community.  

McKinley and Adams are different.  The district could spend millions of dollars on those two buildings to address items listed on ATS&R’s facility review.  Additional money would be needed to address the educational adequacy items noted by ATS&R.  The two schools have significant challenges as candidates for extensive remodeling and expansion including:  1. Age, 2. Expense and 3. Undersized lots.  

School buildings are tools, but tools play an important role in achieving our vision for Otter education.  Spending large sums of money on those buildings would be akin to having a really polished Crescent wrench in your toolbox when what you really needed was a socket set.  The occasional use of a Crescent wrench may have its place, but it is inadequate if the nature of the work is more efficient or effective using something else.  

The mission of the Fergus Falls Public School District is to prepare productive and engaged members of society by creating an environment where all students reach their full potential.  The vote has nothing to do with outdoor pools or potholes.  The vote has nothing to do with school boards or superintendents.  It has nothing to do with politics.  It’s not about decisions made in the past.  It is simply about kids.  

On May 14th, the community will decide whether to support a new 3rd through 5th grade elementary school to replace two 85-year-old buildings. The question faced by the average homeowner?  Is 27 cents per day to support the education of our community’s children a worthwhile investment in them and in our community’s future?