That Editorial Part 4 – How to fix what’s broken

Let’s be clear, Alanna Oswald is her own person. At no time were either Art Johnston or I aware of Alanna while we were trying to get a referendum on the Red Plan, or trying to design a more modest building program, or suing the District for offering a half billion building program without taking bids on it. All that time Alanna was busy being a mother and teaching.

However, like many sorely affected by the Red Plan’s consequences Alanna discovered that her children’s education was suffering as a result. Moving children about higgledy piggledy as construction took precedence over teaching and surreptitiously bleeding resources from the classroom to pay for it led to plummeting student achievement. This crisis was particularly acute in our western schools which always have been a little behind their eastern counterparts.

Alanna’s daughter was in one of these schools, Laura MacArthur. I will let Alanna speak for herself by introducing my readers to the brilliant and clear headed letter she sent to Minnesota’s Education Commissioner, Brenda Casselius. This was two years ago. Alanna also circulated it to every school board member shortly after I took office. This letter had positive and far reaching consequences for every child and teacher in the Duluth schools:


Hello Brenda,

I have been to many meetings where you have talked, and you have given out your cell phone number. I put it in my iPhone for future reference, and now that I would rather be talking to you about this issue, my last update to my phone software deleted all my contacts! Ugh. So, let me preface this by saying it will be a LONG email, and if you prefer to speak about this, feel free to just jump to the bottom and use my cell phone number listed there to call me and we can talk about this. I am available nearly all day (up at 7 am and even up until midnight if you are lol). I will bold key thoughts so you can scan it to see if you would rather call and discuss this.

Here we go:

My background
I am a licensed teacher, who has been substitute teaching in Duluth for the last 5 years through 2013, after earning my teaching license in graduate school in 2008. I have two children, ages 11 and 14, currently in middle school here in Duluth in 6th and 8th grade. I am on the City Wide PTSA board for ISD709. I have been active in Title I issues since my employment by the Federal Programs Coordinator in the district from 2004-2006 as a Title I and Parent Involvement Americorps VISTA. I have volunteered on numerous occasions and all levels of the district. I have worked 2010-2013 with the Office of Education Equity in the district, helping form the jobs and working with our Integration Specialists in the district, and have co-facilitated the most parent training groups of anyone in the district for our PASS- Parent and Students Succeeding program, which utilizes PIQE’s curriculum. I am involved at all levels of education in Duluth Public Schools. I serve on the Title I Committee of Practitioners at MDE with Debra Landvik and John Morse. I believe most know me as a common sense, practical person who has a passion for all kids learning, but especially for marginalized populations. I am expecting to complete work for my Master of Science in teaching next month, graduating December 14, 2013, at the College of Saint Scholastica here in Duluth.

The issue begins last school year at Laura MacArthur Elementary in Duluth, my daughter’s school as she was in 5th grade. (In fact, MY school for my elementary years and only a block away from my house). We began the year knowing there were some changes to the way things worked at school with their Priority School designation… the bottom 7% of all schools in the state I believe. We were told teachers would be given lots of extra time to study data and focus on each child’s education. Sounded wonderful, and hopeful. I wanted to support the school and be part of the change. I did whatever was asked of me.

My daughter, Amy Oswald, was a gifted student while at MacArthur. In third grade, she even only got 1 wrong on the ENTIRE MCA Reading test. I’m one proud mama. (It would be nice to give kids some recognition for doing well on the MCA’s from the state…..) Her passion is science. In our district, we really have no STEM school or alternative curriculum options in elementary unfortunately. I also knew from my previous experience with my son Keenan, who is two years older, that MacArthur had previously operated by approaching these “other” subjects by teaching them for only a quarter. Science was one quarter. She kept asking me when she would get her Science fix. I kept telling her it will happen. Eventually. Amy waited and waited all school year long. It never really happened. Then it May she came home from school with a story of what happened that day.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth, a former teacher at MacArthur, was there visiting classrooms with the principal, Nathan Glockle. Bill Gronseth is also a friend of mine from my time working from the building as an Americorps VISTA in the school. Bill and Nathan came into Amy’s classroom. Bill had been really good friends with her teacher Ronda Erie as they both taught 5th grade when Bill was teaching there.

Bill began thanking the class for working so hard on the MCAs and that the scores for the school looked promising. He then began to talk about how the school board worked, and used the example that they had just adopted a plan to provide for a new elementary science program and books for the elementary schools and he was excited about this.

Amy then said that a “known” boisterous, outspoken student yelled out “BUT WE DON’T DO SCIENCE!!!!” This prompted Bill Gronseth to violently turn around and look at Ronda Erie, the teacher. Amy said Ronda put her hands up in a defensive position and exclaimed to Bill “It was all Nathan’s (Glockle the principal) idea!!! It was all Nathan’s idea!!!” Amy said that Bill turned to Nathan, and they immediately left the room. I asked if it seemed like Bill knew this news, she said no and he looked angry.

After hearing this story from my daughter, I was absolutely shocked and upset. I am a licensed teacher, and I know there are state standards in every subject for every grade level. I know if these are not taught, that students can lose valuable learning that builds upon each other every year. I wanted to know WHY DIDN’T ANY PARENT KNOW THAT OUR KIDS WERE NOT BEING TAUGHT THE FULL CURRICULUM THAT IS TAUGHT AT EVERY OTHER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL!

I spoke with many teachers and staff at MacArthur after this. I related the story. THE STAFF AFFIRMED: THE ONLY SUBJECTS TAUGHT THE ENTIRE SCHOOL YEAR WERE READING, WRITING, AND MATH. NOTHING ELSE!!! This was a complete shock to an involved, present parent such as myself. I was in and out of this school… even subbing regularly in the school on occasion all school year long. The teacher I mainly subbed for did NOT do this, contrary to the principal’s directions, and thus it wasn’t apparent this was happening. I wanted to know why this happened and how it was allowed. Aren’t there other subjects required by the state to be taught in elementary school besides reading and math? I asked teachers in other elementary schools about this dilemma. Every teacher I told was completely shocked this was allowed to happen and was acceptable. Almost every teacher in other buildings brought up the fact on their own that “if they were allowed to teach ONLY TWO SUBJECTS, their classrooms would achieve the highest MCA scores too.

I asked other parents. NOT ONE PARENT REALIZED THIS WAS HAPPENING. Even the parent of two students in the school who is a part time office assistant and has daily contact with teachers and the principal. There is no way to have found out this information. It is not discussed openly and not something teachers want to talk about. I have had this information bouncing around in my head since May 2013. I didn’t know what to do. I told school board members. Most didn’t believe me, and just wanted to focus on Nathan Glockle and the teachers’ ability to gain so much in MCA scores.

Nathan Glockle was asked to go to Washington DC this summer to talk about how MacArthur helped their students achieve. I have heard him discuss MacArthur’s achievement at many meetings. NOT ONE MEETING HAS NATHAN EVER MENTIONED THAT STUDENTS SPENT AN ENTIRE YEAR ONLY LEARNING READING, WRITING, AND MATH.

I do celebrate the fact that MCA scores shot up tremendously in a year. I love the fact that each child was able to learn more than any other previous school year and teachers were given tools to reach almost all kids. 2013 MMR scores were released, and MacArthur became an idolized school for increasing achievement. MacArthur was invited to become a Celebration School this year. I am MORE than thrilled for the students who had a year to learn and catch up.

1. My daughter LOST an entire year of education in other subjects taught at every other elementary school in the city.
2. Parents were never told or understood this was happening until the year was practically over.
3. There was no way to learn this information unless you knew the right question to ask, and who to ask.
4. Parents were never were given the option to go to another school for those who did not need to attend what was essentially created…. a remedial education school with limited academic focus.
5. No one even knew to question what was being taught. Duluth just went through a period where our schools were transformed into buildings that provide equal education no matter which building you attend. The same thing was supposed to be happening in each and every school. That was part of the Red Plan building years. Why would any parent question what was being taught when we were led to believe in this equal education concept?

I recently attended a meeting at Community Action Duluth, where Bill Gronseth attended to discuss the recent levy request before the election. The people in attendance at this organization are marginalized people, who are often angry about being treated differently in the school and almost all are people living in poverty. Other questions were being asked of Bill, since the people in attendance do not usually have access to speak directly with a Superintendent of any school district. Towards the end of the meeting, I asked my question:

Me: Why my daughter received only 2/5th of an education, being only taught math and reading for an entire year?

Bill’s answer shocked me and validated all my previous conversations:

Bill Gronseth: MacArthur had to make drastic changes to the way things were learned. The teachers couldn’t expect students to learn other subjects like science or health if they can’t read or do math, so they had to take a year to work on just the basics.

Me: aren’t teachers required to teach all state standards for district curriculums (or did I say subjects?) per their license?

Bill (replied with something like): I would be happy to sit down with you and the Commissioner of Education and discuss this.

Besides insulting the intelligence of every student that attends that school with his statement about not being able to learn other subjects without reading and writing, I know he did not even know this information until May 2013, after a year of learning was nearly over. I know that it is his job to protect and stand up for his administrators. I know this was a spin on a subject that he was not happy about but had to formulate a response for in case it was ever brought up.

I brought it up. The audience had an audible gasp to the news.

This entire conversation (and meeting) was recorded by Community Action Duluth, as all their meetings are recorded and are a matter of public record. It can be accessed by contacting Community Action. This meeting was Community Action Duluth’s monthly reoccurring Big View meeting, which focuses on 8 issues people experiencing poverty face, and advocating to overcome those obstacles.

I didn’t know what to do about this knowledge about three weeks ago. I thought I needed another opinion about this to help check my feelings about the issue. I contacted Debra Landvik, MDE employee who works with Title I and Parent Involvement. I serve on the MDE Title I Committee of Practitioners committee, and have known Debra for about 10 years. I trust her judgment. After telling her this story, she said this is definitely something the Commissioner of Education would want to hear about, especially because she was not sure about this even being something schools should even be allowed to do: teach only 2 subjects. She reminded me that you are always telling people to give you a call or contact you with concerns. So I am. I wanted to wait to contact you until I knew I could communicate my concerns with a level head.

I also sent Bill an email, expressing I would love to sit down with the Commissioner of Education to work towards developing better parent communication between schools, districts, and parents. I never received a response. Not even a local one to work on it at our city district level.

Today I read in the Duluth School District’s newsletter that MacArthur is in the “final screening to be showcased on the U.S. Department of Education’s School Turnaround Learning Community website”. I find this appalling! Knowing that the school Principal Nathan Glockle chose to not communicate with parents that he demanded his teachers LIMIT the education of all students for an entire year without telling parents their students would be getting a limited education.

The recognitions of Laura MacArthur Elementary students are deserved for gaining more knowledge in one year than ever before. Celebrating HOW this occurred is debatable, as the students achieved a limited, not diverse, education. Knowing at least 98% of people do not know how this achievement was attained by only teaching two subjects without giving parents options for their students for a different education opportunity was just plain wrong.

Bottom line: My daughter received only a partial education for her 5th grade year. This was imposed on her without a choice for a different education. So did all the students in at least 4th and 5th grade at MacArthur during 2012-13. This is unacceptable.

My offer: I would love and embrace the opportunity to work on creating guidelines and suggestions for required communication between schools and parents. Parent Involvement is so critical to success of students regardless of their educational environments, and is the number one thing to be overlooked when schools are operating as buildings without regards to life beyond their walls. Mainly, I do NOT want any parent to be sending their children to a school where their student is not receiving the education that they want their child to have, and there has to be a way that information is available to parents in order to make any decision about what their child is learning. Transparency is key. Secrets do not add to a school or district’s credibility.

I don’t want to do damage to the school district, or discredit them in any way. I want to work on how to not let this happen again. My intent is not negative, but hoping for improvement and transformation. I just don’t believe celebrating half an education is worthy of being touted as a model of education reform. Parents were not included in the conversation about what their student would learn for an entire year. That is wrong.

Let me know how I can help. I don’t take the time to point out problems and criticize without expecting to be part of developing a solution. I’m not just a naysayer. I just don’t know what else to do. Please let me know.

With that in mind, I also believe in including all parties so this isn’t a shock. I will forward this same email to the school board and perhaps other interested parties so they are aware that parent communication needs to be a priority in the district.

With utmost respect for your position advocating for all students,

Alanna Oswald

So what happened in Duluth as a result of this remarkable correspondence? That’s next.

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