Middle School model proposed for Crookston using federal funds after public input session

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

    During the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, Round III (ESSER III) public input meeting at Crookston High School this week, Superintendent Jeremy Olson offered up the idea to direct part of the funds towards the development of a “true” middle school model for sixth through eighth graders. The model would involve an addition on Highland Elementary School to house preschool through fifth grade, and a reconfiguration of the high school with a physical space separation and different schedule for middle schoolers.

    Other proposed investments include additional support for the Title I program, additional summer school, after school programming, after school tutoring and additional school mental health support.

    The ESSER III federal reimbursement funds, totaling $2,559,195.59 for general funds and $639,798.90 for learning recovery or mental health services, are considered funds for COVID-19 expenses related to startup costs for returning to in-person learning or to help students catch up academically. The restricted dollars are narrowly focused to learning recovery programs, added Olson. Fund obligation can cover expenses occurring from July 1, 2020 through September 30, 2024.

    “If we do not go through the approval system, we risk not accessing the funds,” Olson explained was part of the reason for the public input session. “Major projects and budgets must be run through the Minnesota Department of Education and be in compliance with federal guidelines.”

    Through his proposals, and specifically “Code 161” for learning recovery or mental health services, Olson allocated $315,000 total for Title I additional support, $19,000 over three years for additional summer school, $120,000 over three years for after school programming, $45,000 over three years for after school tutoring, and $30,000 over three years for additional school mental health support.

    “Our Title program has had lots of success, we’ve doubled our efforts; summer school we’ll have a better plan and prepare for next year’s summer school; and we don’t yet have a plan for after school programming,” Olson detailed. “I feel our after school programming may have more ‘bang for their buck’ rather than summer school and after school tutoring we need to be a little more intentional with the students that have fallen to the wayside.”

    For the middle school model proposal, which falls under “Code 160” for the $2.5 million in general funds, Olson said he didn’t want to do it “half way” and wanted to take the “really big step” towards the large project.

    “MDE might turn me down, the school board might turn me down, but down the road we’re poised to be in two buildings and want to do that under our terms,” he added. “This is an opportunity to reinvent us, focus on middle school and preschool; Highland would have developmentally appropriate preschool rooms and elementary services all under one roof.”

    “This is exploratory only and nothing I’m proposing is lock-step,” Olson noted.

    During the community input and questions portion of the meeting, one person suggested additional counseling services after the loss of someone in that position at the high school.

    “My kids were struggling getting registered for classes and we didn’t get an answer from Bubna (former principal Eric Bubna),” the mother explained, also adding there was anxiety from her children who are interested in learning more about their college options.

    Olson answered the parent mentioning the new high school counselor that was recently hired and added the district is also putting extra dollars into mental health to get more personnel so the counselor can dedicate their time to student education services.

    School Board member Dave Davidson, who was in the audience with his wife Kim, a teacher at Highland Elementary, asked if there has been any information released about how COVID-19 has affected the achievement gap especially in Crookston, and if any of the ESSER III funds could be used towards the gap. Olson answered that MCA data was embargoed, but that many of the grades’ normal curve seemed to be “fairly decent.”

    Kim Davidson outlined some concerns she had with technology needs during and after COVID, and how some students’ WiFi has now been “cut off.”

    “Can we provide resources after school and at home?” she asked, making mention of the WiFi hot spots the district utilized.

    Another audience member also suggested taking after other schools in the region and providing devices to students to use on a regular basis and “use it as a marketing tool” for recruitment with “technology for everyone.” Olson answered both suggestions saying he would be putting together a budget for the next three years and that technology could and most likely will have a part in that.

    In addition to the tech suggestions, Title I teacher Sara Geist, who was also in the audience, suggested a tutoring option where students could access a math or reading tutor from their home via Zoom or another program. She said during distance learning there was a “one-on-one” connection with students where they “really showed up” to do the work.

    “It was really successful for some kids and did away with the transportation piece,” Geist added.