Buses, ballots and magnet schools: District 281 Year in Review

281 YIRThe wheels on the bus still go “round and round,” but the affiliation of many of the drivers pressing the gas pedal changed this past year in Robbinsdale Area Schools.

The school board approved a bus contract with First Student July 1. By making the change, district Finance Director Jeff Priess said that nearly $1.5 million could be saved each year.

After a number of negotiation sessions, the district entered into a three-year contract with the Ohio-based school bus transportation service. Under the new contract, District 281 held on to 21 of its 27 full-time driver-custodial positions. Priess said the six not returning either chose not to or retired.

The contract stated that the district’s 21 full-time drivers would cover the 17 special education routes in the district. Before the new contract, Priess said workers normally drove for six hours and did maintenance in the buildings or school grounds for two hours. With the new structure, they would “basically be driving for eight hours,” and would also receive a wage increase, he said.

A Feb. 21 school board listening session saw two dozen speakers, many of them bus drivers, who showed up to press their case for retaining the in-house bus transportation system in District 281, rather than outsourcing the service.

When the contract was approved, Priess said students should not see a difference when they start school in the fall and that some may even have the same bus driver as previous years.

If students did not notice a difference, several parents did, and they attended a Sept. 24 board listening session to have their voices heard. Nine people at the listening session had questions or feedback for district representatives regarding bussing. Concerns ran the gamut from buses not running on time to different drivers having different rules.

Priess presented an update at the school board meeting later that evening.

“From an operations and budget standpoint … everything looks on target as far as the number of busses,” Priess said. “We know that we have had issues with our two magnet schools, and I would say we heard from some of those folks tonight at our listening time. It’s our focus – it seems to be the issue we have out there, other than a few others running late here and there.”

Priess later clarified that most calls from parents with busing concerns focused on the routes to the School of Engineering and Arts and Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion. Otherwise, concern from parents “is typically expected for school year start-up.” The calls he tracked in his office were almost exclusively related to the two routes, he said.

The district runs 144 bus routes, 71 of which are being driven by First Student drivers. The district drives 21 routes, and two other companies drive the remaining 51 routes.

STEAMed up

The district’s new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) School at Olson Elementary opened its doors to students Sept. 4.

“There has been a lot going on this summer,” Principal Kim Hiel shortly before the school opened. “Brand new cabinetry and shelving has been built and put in. We had to put all the technology parts in – Smart Boards and projectors and wireless technology. They are installing an elevator, and in the media center, which will rival many, we took a wall down so we can have a projected screen area.”

The focus at the School of Engineering and Arts at Olson Elementary is on engineering and the media arts. The integration of those areas throughout the school day is one way this school differs from others in the district.

“There will be a lot of project-based problem-solving for the kids to do,” Heil said. “We won’t be necessarily teaching a specific engineering unit. Engineering will be involved in all we do. We’ll also have a lot of professional mentors coming in to work with the kids.”

Teachers spent time last summer in professional development to provide a solid foundation for the opening of the school. The nearly 420 students attending the school come from throughout the region served by Robbinsdale Area Schools and were selected based on a lottery system.

What makes the new magnet school program especially notable to the community is its location at 1751 Kelly Drive in Golden Valley. It is housed in the old Sigurd Olson Elementary School building, which was closed 30 years ago.

After ceasing to be an elementary school, the building was the on-again, off-again home to various school and community programs. Recently, it was used as a temporary school when other active Robbinsdale schools were under renovation. The district decided to once again turn the campus into an elementary school in December 2011.

Drawing power

The District 281 School Board approved a proposal Nov. 20 to start a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) magnet school next school year at Robbinsdale Middle School. Up to three sections will open for sixth-graders beginning in the 2013 school year. By 2014, the program will include students in grades 6-7, and students in grade 8 will be added by 2015.

Students matriculating from the School for Engineering and Arts at Olson Elementary will have first priority for enrollment in the new magnet. Additional seats will be filled through a lottery if applications exceed available supply.

The proposed budget for the first year of classes at the new STEM program comes in at $253,100, with $152,100 for classroom improvements and enhancements. Transportation costs could total around $35,000.

Board election

District 281 voters chose two familiar faces and one new one to represent them on the school board this past election.

Incumbents Sherry Tyrrell and Helen Bassett were re-elected to new terms Nov. 6, and newcomer John Vento will join them in January. The three candidates each garnered between 22 and 25 percent of the 81,120 votes cast. Candidates Ron Stoffel and Peter Vasseur respectively tallied 11,068 votes (13 percent) and 10,118 votes (12 percent). Write-in candidates accounted for 634 votes (0.78 percent).

More than 72,025 voters had registered by Election Day. The school district includes 43 precincts.

Top teacher

Kristine Browers was named Robbinsdale District 281’s first-ever Teacher of the Year in May. She was one of six finalists for the award.

The award came during a ceremony May 9 in the auditorium at Armstrong High School, combined with a celebration of Seven Dreams Education Foundation grant awards.

“What an amazing honor!” Browers said after her name was announced. “My heart is racing!”

She credited her peers, “who do this every single day,” as well as the support she has received at Cooper.

“It’s all about the students and student learning,” Browers said. “It’s about making a difference in their lives. Thank you for recognizing the hard work staff people do for students every day.”

Browers was introduced at the ceremony by Linda Kerandi, a senior at Cooper, who described Browers as passionate, energetic, motivated and dedicated.

“The word I’ve heard about her [from others] repeatedly is caring,” Kerandi said. “She goes up and beyond for each of her students.”

As one of Browers’ students, Kerandi said there were times when she gave up on herself, but, she said, Browers “never let me quit.”

“It has truly been an honor having the privilege of having her as a teacher,” Kerandi said.

Browers is also the cross-country coach at Cooper. She and her husband, Jesse, live in Brooklyn Park and are the parents of two sons, ages 3 and 1.

Browers will serve as District 281’s representative at the next state Teacher of the Year competition. The winner of that competition becomes a candidate for National Teacher of the Year.

Other finalists for District 281’s Teacher of the Year recognition who were introduced and honored at last week’s celebration include:

• Christine Dohrmann, a special education teacher at Cooper High School

• David Esposito, An “A” School teacher at Armstrong High School

• Kris Haagenson, a fourth-grade teacher at Zachary Lane Elementary School

• Denise Mattes, an Early Childhood Family Educator at Cavanagh Early Childhood Center

• Patricia Peuschold, a third-grade teacher at the Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School.