Redwood Area School District administrators reflect on 2019-20 school year

Troy Krause
Katy Ibberson and Kristen Anderson offered encouragement to students on the last day of school.

The 2019-20 school year is going to be defined by historians based on what happened during the final few weeks starting in mid-March.

“When COVID be-came our reality in March, our world changed. For 150 years, education has been conducted primarily in a face-to-face manner,” explained Rick Ellingworth, Redwood Area School District superintendent. “We were using technology, but we were mostly present, and the social emotional side of teaching, which is very important, was in place.”

According to Ellingworth, the Minnesota Department of Education gave schools eight days to move from a system that had been in place for a long time to “distance learning.”

For Ellingworth, witnessing the ways the staff from the local school district responded has become one of the highlights of his career.

“No one complained,” he added. 

For Ellingworth, there have been many things accomplished this year:

The school board, with the help of approximately 30 committed community members, developed a comprehensive five-year strategic plan that identified the direction and work the school board intends to accomplish over the next five years.

Using the strategic plan as a platform and knowing of Ellingworth’s plans to retire from the district at the end this school year, the school board created a well-designed plan for conducting a superintendent search in December and it was able to employ a well qualified, experienced superintendent by the end of January.

The Orrin S. Estebo Career Technical Training Center was fully operational, and under the leadership of some outstanding staff, it has become a beacon in the district for students and adults alike.

The district is currently in the process of completing several construction projects (parking lots, walking paths, outdoor facility improvements) that are planned to be finished by June 30, and the overall district budget remains strong.

According to Ellingworth, there is much about “distance learning” that needs to be improved.

“We know some of our kids and their families disengaged. A great concern of mine is how effective or ineffective we are at delivering basic reading, math and communication skills to our youngest learners,” added Ellingworth. “I’m glad we are at where we are at now that school is done. Our staff, our kids and our families are exhausted, and they all need a break from distance learning.”

Ellingworth indicated the district has started thinking about the start of the next year and anticipates beginning the school year in some kind of hybrid learning program. With guidance coming out from MDE and CDC daily, identifying what that will be at this time is folly, but, he believes a good plan will be in place next year.

“Overall, it has been the most unique year of my 44 years as a professional educator. We began the year losing one of our students through a drowning. That was more than hard for all of us to deal with,” added Ellingworth. “We hit our stride about mid-year, and then COVID became our new reality. We learned a great deal as we navigated unfamiliar waters, and I will say, in the end, we survived it. It was an amazing effort on the part of all of our staff, our students and their families. Saying we are proud of our employees is a gross understatement. We always hope for academic success for all of our students. This year has been a challenge to say the least. It is difficult to assess the growth of individuals in distance learning. We may see a more accurate picture going forward into the fall and seeing where everyone is in terms of academic growth.”

For Paul van der Hagen, Reede Gray Elementary School principal, “a highlight of every year is watching the students grow. I am always in awe of watching a young learner go through the process of learning how to read. They start by building the foundations with phonics and then somewhere down the road a light bulb comes on and they start to take off. The smile on a young reader’s face when they start to pick up books and recognize the words that tell the story is priceless.”

Reede Gray will definitely miss the graduating fourth graders this year, added van der Hagen.

“It has been a difficult year in saying goodbye to all of our students for the summer, but not having our fourth graders back in the building next fall has really created a soft spot in my heart for this group. They definitely will remember this year for all their hard work but also for the uniqueness it has created during distance learning,” he explained.

According to van der Hagen, “the final few weeks have been challenging to say the least. However I am very proud of how hard everyone worked to make this as successful as possible. When this was first rolled out, we were presented with a completely new way for learning for us. Teachers, students and families rose to the challenge and met it head on.

"I am proud to be a part of a community that values education and worked hard to do the best we could with the challenge. If we continue with some form of distance learning in the fall, my hope would be to continue to get better with delivering instruction in this model to help ensure students are getting valuable skills from their teachers.

"Overall, we had a great year at Reede Gray. While it didn’t end the way we would have liked, I think we showed we will rise to any challenge and work hard to accomplish great things.”

According to Bobby Elwell, Redwood Valley Middle School principal, “we had a lot of change in middle school this year - a new schedule, new classes and growth with our Cardinal Way PBIS program. Our team hoped that this would be a great year of growth and creating a more individualized education to meet kids where their interests lie. We believe we took some large steps towards achieving this, but it will constantly be an area of focus because our students are always changing, we must change with them.”

The big success that jumps out to Elwell is the overall resiliency of students and families. The school year has had ups and downs throughout the year with different challenges but the consistent thing has been the students and families responding.

“Our graduating eighth graders have been a passionate group. They are extremely focused on things that interest them individually and as a group, challenging classes to evolve and become more individualized. They will have a lasting impact on our building by helping us create class experiences and teaching styles that focus on the individual,” Elwell added.

For Elwell, the final weeks of the year were a challenge embraced by everybody in the building.

“We balanced our learning with the fun that comes with the end of the school year,” he added.

That included holding the RVMS talent show in a virtual format, signing off on the year with a ‘Drive Into Summer’ event, as well as teachers wrapping up the year in their own individual ways in classes.

According to Elwell, “moving forward, if we continue with a distance learning model into the fall we need to focus on making communication between all stakeholders more efficient and create more live opportunities for learning. Our students learn best when they are with their teacher. We had a lot of success with the plan we had this spring, but we need to do some work to ensure high quality learning is continuing to happen. “

Elwell considers the 2019-20 year a successful one.

“We were able to connect, grow and learn together, staff and students alike. Any time we can grow as students, grow as young people and take a step forward - that is a successful year. The challenges of this spring are proof of that to me. Our country and systems were challenged by an event that nobody had predicted, but we were able to rally and keep moving forward. Our students responded and took a new level of ownership in their growth. We all have room to grow and we will do just that, but this year raised the bar of what it means to be a Cardinal,” Elwell explained.

“With the opening of the Orrin S Estebo Career Development and Training Center, one of our hopes for the year was to help prepare our students to be college and career ready,” explained Rick Jorgenson, Redwood Valley High School principal. “I am most proud of how we ‘finished strong.’ The staff put in a tremendous amount of work to make distance learning happen. Students were able to interact with teachers, support staff and each other. While this was not an ideal learning environment, the attitude from everyone was positive and a feeling of we will do what we have to to get the job done.”

Seeing the students graduate was the capstone of this, he added.

According to Jorgenson, when the weather started getting nice, it was more of a challenge to keep students engaged. However, staff gave a 110 percent effort to provide the best learning environment for students.

As far as distance learning in the future, RVHS has set up a committee of staff to look at how it can improve, should distance learning be needed.

“We have discussed having more live time and more ways to bring hands-on learning to a distance format. This was a difficult school year, but we all made the most of it. The year will definitely be one to remember,” added Jorgenson.