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 I know firsthand the difference that a caring adult can make in a student’s life.  I was a poor student and struggled with grades throughout high school.  I was a kid that didn’t fit in and didn’t seem to be good at anything—at least, that’s what I had begun to believe.


One day, a teacher at our school, Mr. Dean Wilson, struck up a conversation with me.  We spoke for only 10 minutes, but that short conversation changed my life.  He showed a genuine interest in what I had to say, and I could feel he truly cared about me as a person.


Mr. Wilson suggested I try weight lifting and invited me to work out with him.  I was so excited to be asked.  A couple days later, we met at the high school weight room.  I will never forget that first grueling workout, so difficult my entire body was shaking.  Through it all, Mr. Wilson encouraged and coached me.  By the end, I was exhausted but elated.  I had found something I wanted to keep working at.  I had also found a mentor and supporter in Mr. Wilson.


Mr. Wilson continued encouraging my interest, inviting me to watch a YMCA weight lifting contest in Minneapolis.  I was hooked.  I kept weight lifting and years later entered bodybuilding contests, eventually placing third at Mr. Gopher State.


Finding one thing I was good at helped me discover many other things I excelled in.  It gave me the courage to try, and trying was the first step to succeeding.  As I developed my weight lifting talents, I applied the same principles of success (such as focus and diligence) to relationships, academics and business.  Succeeding at that one thing gave me confidence and allowed me to dream big and accomplish more than I ever could have imagined.


You can’t build upon failure, only success.  Whether it is art, music, relationships or academics, people need something they can be successful at.  They just need one thing to build upon!


It all comes back to that brief conversation when Mr. Wilson took the time to show a student he cared.  By looking past the surface, Mr. Wilson allowed me to see what I could become.  He taught me how to be successful, but more importantly, he taught me the power of caring about others.  Spending time talking with and encouraging a child can change the world. It certainly changed mine.


Mr. Wilson and I have remained in contact for almost 50 years.  He invites me to his family reunions, and we enjoy visits at my home in St. Peter.  I am grateful to call him a friend.  Thank you, Mr. Wilson, and thank you to all the dedicated teachers that take time to connect with their students.  You are changing the world!

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St. Peter Herald Questions & Answers

 The following are answers to the questions asked by Saint Peter Herald editor Philip Weyhe:


1.) How are you connected with and/or involved in the St. Peter community?

I came to St. Peter in 1986 to manage Soderlund Drug and raise a family. Today I own Vet-Rx pharmacy, and my family is proud to be part of St. Peter Public Schools. Whether providing medical care, advocating for quality education, or volunteering, I am dedicated to strengthening our community.


2.) What do you consider to be the biggest issue facing the St. Peter School District right now and how would you work to solve it?

Providing educational excellence for all students is paramount. We must focus on improving academic achievement. At the same time, we should continue to embrace collaboration, communication and innovation for professional support, such as the Professional Learning Community model. I will diligently work to hire a visionary superintendent, empower teachers and staff, and create a culture of respect while overseeing the financial stability of our school district. I have already put in more than 300 hours of research and interviews to better understand our district’s position locally and globally. In creating a sustainable future for generations to come, we must be willing to ask difficult questions, take on challenges and engage new perspectives. I believe in focusing on solutions, not problems. If we are going to take our schools to the next level, we need to stop asking, “Why don’t we?” and start asking, “How do we?”


3.) In recent years, property taxes, from multiple sources, have risen for most residents and businesses. Are you concerned about this? What do you believe should be the attitude of the School Board regarding tax impact in coming years?

One of the reasons we have an exceptional, prosperous community is our public school system. I have not run into a single person who doesn’t believe in investing in our children’s education, but I have run into many people experiencing taxpayer fatigue. People are frustrated that taxes go up faster than their paychecks, and as a School Board member, I will take that concern seriously. My extensive business background spans multiple industries, and I have proven experience in successfully managing large budgets. If elected, I will do a deep dive into the school finances, seeking to maximize revenue while improving efficiencies. We need to manage money efficiently but look to build rather than cut. If additional funds are required to provide educational excellence for our children, I will recommend a budget referendum. I have included more details on my website, www.BillSoderlundForSchoolBoard.com.


4.) At a recent forum, all candidates indicated a desire to see the school district be welcoming to all students of all backgrounds. What do you believe are the most important steps to take toward achieving this goal?

School can be a wonderful experience, but it can also contribute to social anxiety and the perception that one does not measure up. As leaders, we need to see each child as unique, precious and important. We must understand that our students come from diverse backgrounds and needs, and it is our responsibility to support each student in reaching his or her full potential. To accomplish this, we must provide a safe school environment built upon love, kindness and respect so that all students have a solid foundation upon which to learn, grow and thrive.


5.) Why should constituents vote for you?

I was that kid who barely graduated from high school and went on to invent medications. We don’t all learn the same way. By cultivating a dynamic environment for students to discover their unique gifts, interests and skills, we will help them reach their potential. With the right tools, every student is capable of excelling in the classroom and making a positive mark on the world. I know the attitude, motivation and diligence it takes to be successful. I believe in compassionate leadership and in building a culture of empowerment and teamwork. I care deeply about this community and know that I can contribute to raise our great schools to the next level. I am ready to go to work to help our children be successful and ensure educational excellence for each and every student.



-- Bill Soderlund

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A NEW OLD IDEA FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION

  

Colleges and universities all have people that are paid to look for outside sources of revenue such as grants, donations, gifts and endowments.  These people focus their attention on developing relationships with potential donors with the goal of getting them to write a check to help construct a new building or endow a department.


Many of the departments in a college are underwritten by an endowment.  An endowment is a large sum of money that generates income every year that goes to cover a professor’s salary or help subsidize a specific department.


For example, a donor may contribute $1,000,000 to endow the science department.  This money is invested with a 5% annual return and the dividend is then used to pay for the salary of a biology professor.  Every year the college receives $50,000 from the endowment to pay towards the professor’s salary. 


Another funding example would be raising money from alumni to help pay for a new building.  Staff members in the “Institutional Advancement” department would work with potential donors to encourage them to donate for a specific building project such as Nobel Hall at Gustavus Adolphus College.  In the case of Gustavus, $50,000,000 was raised to help construct the new Nobel Hall.


Colleges like Gustavus typically raise millions of dollars every year for endowments, buildings, scholarships and programs.   In addition to these sources of revenue colleges also have grant writers that apply for funding for research projects, a new piece of science equipment or a new program.


Wouldn’t it be great if one third of our special education department expenses were funded by an endowment?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if the entire cost of a new stadium and field house were paid for by donations from Saint Peter alumni?  How great would it be if the cost of an agricultural program was donated by a local business?


Here’s my question; Why don’t public schools raise money from wealthy donors the way private and public colleges and universities do?  I have no idea why we don’t…  The fact is, that if we are going to take our school district to the next level we are going to need to stop asking “why don’t we” and start asking “how do we”!  


--Bill Soderlund

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FIXING THE ACADEMIC DOWNWARD TREND

Many of our students have been doing worse in science, math and reading over the last five years.  This achievement problem mainly occurred in last years in fourth through seventh grade classes, but the overall academic trend has been downward year after year with few exceptions. 


Many class cohorts enrolled at other grade levels have achieved well compared to state averages but when compared to “exemplar” districts such as Lake Minnetonka, district 508 class cohorts are lagging far behind.


There are many plausible reasons to explain these lower MCA testing results.  The following reasons were mentioned at the study session of the school board as possible causes of our academic shortcomings: 


  1.  Lack of continuity or “vertically aligned” course curriculum:  Individual teachers were utilizing their own unique reading or math curriculum.  Unaligned curriculum was occurring between teachers within the same grade and from one grade to the next.
  2. The systematic focus and reliance upon technology that ultimately lead to reduced emphasis on reading, math and science.
  3. The excitement of the new high school and district changes were distracting.
  4. Rearranging and shuffling of students, grades and teachers within classrooms and district buildings was unsettling for students.  For example 7th-12th graders previously occupied the building currently occupied by 5th-8th graders.
  5. Teachers were not interacting together in ways that allowed them to harmonize subjects together.  For example, the science teacher wasn’t working to harmonize their curriculum with the reading or math teacher. 
  6. Many seasoned teachers retired and were replaced with less experienced teachers. 
  7. There are more families in crisis as well as more emotional or mental health issues.  
  8. We are pushing our children to go faster and accomplish more than is reasonable.
  9. The program to support “not on track” students needs work and attention.


During the study session a comparison was made to the Owatonna school system.  The thought being that by comparing St. Peter Public Schools MCA scores to the state averages may be flawed because “diversity” (demographics) of the student population throughout the state is different in every district.  In order to assess the school, it may be useful to compare to another similarly sized, rural school district with the same level of “diversity” as Saint Peter.


  • St. Peter Public School: 22% minority; 33% economically disadvantaged.
  • Owatonna Public School: 22% minority; 31% economically disadvantaged.


For this reason the MCA testing results of St. Peter was compared to Owatonna.  The results indicate that overall St. Peter is far outperforming Owatonna by 8.7 points.


The purpose of the state wide MCA (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments) test is to monitor and improve the academic performance of Minnesota school districts, as well as to close the “achievement gap”.  The MCA test is given periodically to cohorts in different grade levels to monitor reading, math and science.


Over the years, nation wide testing has repeatedly reveled an academic achievement gap between minority and white children.  Minority and economically disadvantaged children consistently have under-performed academically.  The academic disparity lead ultimately to the “No Child Left Behind” program.


Part of the legal component of this program was the mandate for schools to disaggregate minority children testing results. The results were then compared the results of white students, with the goal of closing the “achievement gap”.  So in reviewing the St. Peter MCA results the “achievement gap” was indirectly brought into the discussion by comparison to Owatonna.


The downward trend of MCA testing within St. Peter has already brought about several potential changes that may well improve the science, math and reading performance of the students of district 508.


In the hopes of improving the MCA testing results, two new curriculums were adopted to provide “vertical alignment” between classrooms and grade levels.  The new programs are the “Bridges” Math curriculum and “Fountas and Pinnell” reading/literacy curriculum.  It is hoped that this new approach of providing better and “vertically aligned” curriculum will ultimately result in improved academic performance for each and every student.  The “Bridges” curriculum is also the one used by the “exemplar” Minnetonka school district.


Additionally there has been the adoption of Professional Learning Communities that provide time for teachers of different subjects to interact and “align” their curriculum.  For example, the science, reading and math teachers meet and work to harmonize the curriculum so these subjects will better align the different subject matters together.


Another change has been the hiring of “Instructional Coaches”.  These individuals monitor and coach the teachers in the hope that this will ultimately translate into improved academic performance of their students.  Additionally, these instructional coaches are helping to develop and facilitate the “Graduate Portrait” program which attempts to dovetail into the academic curriculum, characteristics and qualities such as resiliency and creative thinking, to produce well-rounded students.


The desire is that the changes to curriculum, collaboration and coaching will translate into academic improvement for each and every student.  The best guess is that this will take three years to verify if this has worked as hoped. 


The leaders of the Saint Peter school district are definitely paying attention to the MCA testing results and are determined to improve academics. Unfortunately, one area that was not addressed was the use of paraprofessionals in the quest for academic improvement.


It seems obvious that additional paraprofessionals in the classroom could only enhance the ability to improve academics in Saint Peter.  Often students need extra individualized help and mentorship to get them to try harder and improve academically.  Paraprofessionals could produce dramatic results if only they were properly utilized within our district.


-- Bill Soderlund


For more information please read “PARAPROFESSIONALS A NEW PARADIGM” found on this page.

Paraprofessionals a New Paradigm

Paraprofessionals play a vital role in public education and are extensively employed within St Peter School district 508. Their job duties are varied and may include working with a child that needs extra help with reading or math to supervising the playground. If a teacher or student needs extra help a paraprofessional will be recruited to fill that void.


As I have been conducting research with respect to our school district one issue has become evident. Paraprofessionals are not being utilized to their fullest potential. Currently we are experiencing excessive turnover and unfilled positions within this school district for a variety of reasons.


One possible reason for the problematic turnover and recruitment is that paraprofessional pay is not commensurate to other school districts or alternative career options. Currently this school district pays $11.69 per hour for 20 to 32 hours per week for about 174 days per year. This translates to $8,000 to $13,000 per year. (The current state of Minnesota average wage for a paraprofessional is about $15.00 per hour.)


While there are many devoted paraprofessionals that stay year after year because their passion for working with students or specific teachers overrides economic expediency there are just as many that leave for economic reasons. Often paraprofessionals are forced to work second or third jobs to supplement their income.


Paraprofessionals are not being utilized to their highest potential because student specific training is lacking. When a paraprofessional is hired they are given basic training then turned over to a particular student and/or teacher. Paraprofessionals need more student specific/issue specific training.


Clearly defined competency standards are needed for paraprofessionals. It would be reasonable to train, assess and qualify paraprofessionals for specific duties such as reading, mathematics, autism or behavior duties.


Paraprofessionals are often excluded from the decision making process for a variety of reasons. For example paraprofessionals are often excluded from IEP meetings (Individual Education Program). This exclusion is unfortunate since

paraprofessionals are often the primary care giver thus have the most knowledge of a particular student.


Looking at other paraprofessionals may be helpful to draw an interesting

comparison. Today, highly trained pharmacy technicians are ubiquitous within the practice of pharmacy. This was not always the case.


About fifty years ago the practice of pharmacy became more demanding and a clerk would be called upon to help the pharmacist fill prescriptions. Often this person would be working on the cash register or stocking shelves when the pharmacist would call them into the pharmacy to help fill prescriptions during a rush. Eventually, these individuals stayed in the pharmacy and became a full-time pharmacy technicians.


Many professions have had similar transformations. Today there are pharmacy

technicians, physician assistants, dental hygienists, dental assistants, surgical

assistants, lab technicians, x-ray technicians, etc. These positions were created and developed because the medical doctor, pharmacist or dentist required them to adequately treat the patient.


Each one of these technical positions required specialized training that was

provided by the doctor, dentist or pharmacist. The addition of these “paraprofessionals” did not decrease the income of the professionals but rather

allowed them to better care for the patient.


Recognizing the valuable role of the paraprofessional within our school district will not diminish the value of any teacher but rather will increase the effectiveness of our teachers as they will be able to focus there efforts on teaching.


We need a new paraprofessional paradigm to better improve the educational

experience our students receive. The new paraprofessional paradigm must include recruiting, training and retaining issues as well as addressing financial

remuneration for this vital group of school district employees.


--Bill Soderlund

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Exploring Career options

Part of the mission of the public school is to prepare students to become contributing members of society. One aspect of this mission is career exploration and guidance with respect to a future job or profession.

Within our society the current view that a college degree is the preferred gateway to financial success and status has become pervasive and generally accepted. Because of this belief a majority of high school graduates plan to attend a four-year college or

university. (According to the recent survey of the Saint Peter high school class of 2019 over 70% of the graduates plan to attend a four-year college).

There are many great reasons to attend college. One reason may be that a liberal arts education provides a higher quality of life to the recipient. Another reason may be to pursue a passion for a particular subject or career.

The belief that a four-year college degree guarantees a higher income than a trade or manufacturing job may be erroneous. According to the Minnesota department of Employment and Economic Development, only 22% of jobs require a bachelors or

higher degree while the average salary of a four-year college graduate is $51,347 annually, per CBS news.

From a purely economic vantage it is worth noting that many of the trade and manufacturing jobs are paying higher wages than four-year degree professions. For example, a union bricklayer makes $75,275 per year while a Certified Public Accountant averages $66,240 annually.

A college degree may be the best direction for many, or even most, but not for all. There are plenty of students that would be much more fulfilled working in a trade than a profession. Unfortunately high schools throughout the country have substantially reduced their industrial and trade programs while advocating four- year degrees.

There is not one easy answer to the question of which career path is best for a particular student or group of students. Trends show that most high school graduates will change careers several times throughout their working career. Many employment projections show that skills and adaptability will be more important than a specific degree in many fields.

In general providing the opportunity to explore the many career options available to our students will only enhance their options and assist them in determining the best course of action. The public school should modify the “college is for everybody” paradigm and support each student in exploring all career options including college, trades and manufacturing.


- Bill Soderlund