They gathered to put on their gowns for commencement. There was laughter, a giddiness and a collective sigh of relief. A few whispered, “We did it.” Many hugged. Others shared a high five. These weren’t the graduates. No, these were the staff who shepherded them to this day. After another unusual school year, the feeling of accomplishment and closure was amplified.
“Let’s be honest - it was another wild year,” says Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent. “Despite yet another rollercoaster experience, this spring feels more joyful. We aren’t back to ‘normal’ and likely never will be but there is a sense in our schools that we are recovering into something new. We’ve learned a lot, tried so many new things and we’re seeing encouraging outcomes.”
Despite years of pandemic living, SLP schools have continued to advance work aligned to the district’s vision and strategic plan. This year’s district operational plan included intentional work to engage and support learners emerging from the pandemic, strengthen connections in our community and capitalize on the creativity of staff. Now, it’s time to reflect on the progress.
After the interruptions to school and life over the last two years of pandemic living, each school implemented designs to meet the varied needs of students. The designs evolved as the year progressed to continue to meet student’s greatest needs.
“We had to embrace a reality where some students struggled and others excelled,” says Hope Rahn, executive director of learning and innovation. “We worked hard to meet them where they were. We focused on creating more supports for students to recoup and accelerate learning and foster social connections. We’re all still dealing with the negative and positive impacts of these past two years.”
Spring Lark Park Schools’ approach to student learning during the pandemic provided opportunities to implement many new ways of learning and teaching. In the spring and summer of 2021, school leaders and teachers assessed all they’d learned and designed approaches to accelerate student learning going into the new school year.
We wanted to use what we learned since March 2020 to advance our work in innovative and personalized learning and better meet each student’s needs. This very much includes accelerating learning for students who have struggled to make academic gains. Hope Rahn, executive director of learning and innovation
Creative staffing approaches and flexibility in how students are grouped at the elementary schools provided opportunities to focus support to students who most needed it – whether it was reading, math or social, emotional, and behavioral development. When substitutes weren’t available this year, schools were able to work flexibly to cover staff absences and still meet student needs.
A new Alternative Learning Team at Spring Lake Park High School kept more than 60 grade 11 and 12 students learning at the high school as they recouped more than 225 lost credits. The team has used an interdisciplinary approach to credit recovery and provided learning experiences that have been personalized to their future post-secondary goals. Attendance has also increased.
Three Accelerate, Motivate, Innovate (AIM) teams at Westwood Intermediate and Middle School provided opportunities for students to fill gaps in past learning while continuing to make progress toward their current grade-level learning outcomes. Nearly 100 percent of AIM students have achieved accelerated growth in core content areas.
“We have continued to learn from these new approaches all year and will refine over the summer based on the results we’re experiencing,” says Hope. “Many of the designs we put in place this year will continue next year with refinements.”
Beyond our classrooms, this school year provided opportunities to intentionally re-engage with industry and community partners. District leaders hosted a first-ever industry roundtable event in partnership with MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce. Leaders from small and large businesses, non-profits and government organizations came together to discuss the skills they need in a future workforce.
“They reinforced for us what we need to be teaching and developing in our young people to prepare them for the future,” says Jeff. “Academic learning is important but just as important are the skills and mindsets – those life competencies like communication and collaboration. Our industry partners really highlighted how important those skills are today for success in any path.”
In addition to the conversations and connections, roundtable participants also had an opportunity to tour the career and college pathways classrooms at the high school where students learn everything from 3D printing to first aid. Many community partners have since returned to participate as guest teachers and mentors, and more than 100 businesses and organizations joined the first-ever career fair in April to support students’ career exploration.
Community connections also happen daily within the district’s Community Education programs. After a pandemic hiatus in many areas of community education, programming is back and more robust than ever.
“We saw a real opportunity to build on our strengths and expand our program offerings,” says Colleen Pederson, executive director of community education and extended day programming. “We’ve added adult and family programs and continue to grow our popular youth programs.”
Family sleigh rides and cupcake decorating classes, a winter walking club at the high school, and home repair and art classes have all been well-received.
Participation is up across the board and nearly 90 percent of participants who responded to a follow-up survey are extremely likely to recommend programming to others.
“We’re continuing to grow programs in new areas. We’re excited about our classic movie offerings this summer at the high school – something we’ve never done,” says Colleen. “And we’re looking into things like pickleball. We enjoy exceptional facilities thanks to community support and it’s a pleasure to share them with the community.”
It’s the people
The constant through each twist and turn this year was people. Nearly 900 staff members – serving in all kinds of roles – are here each day for more than 6,200 Spring Lake Park Schools’ students and their families.
“I truly can’t say enough about our staff,” says Jeff. “They continue to rise to every challenge. Is it perfect? No. Do we always have things to improve? Yes. And, it’s my pleasure each and every day to work alongside such creative, capable and caring people. The urgent optimism I experience from staff each day is what inspires me – even on the most challenging days.”
Among many staff highlights is the celebration of thirteen colleagues who retired as this year came to a close. Together, the 13 represent 358 years of service and impacts to thousands of students and families.
“It’s always fun to celebrate a career of service to students and our retirees are a small snapshot of our staff,” says Jeff. “What I most admire about so many of our staff is the energy and focus they bring to asking, ‘how might we…?’ as they work to create opportunities for our kids each day.”
As the school year wraps up, preparation for next year is already well underway. Throughout the summer, staff will be in for professional learning, buildings will be cleaned and renewed, and summer programming will enrich and accelerate learning with a heavy dose of fun.
“I think many people believe we shut down for the summer – or at least a big part of it,” says Jeff. “While summer does provide a different pace, it is a time for intense planning and preparation – when we focus on implementing our next best ideas. We officially wrap up one year and launch another.”
Find details on the projects undertaken this year aligned to the Spring Lake Park Schools’ Strategic Plan in the 2021-2022 District Operational Plan. An end-of-year summary for 2021-2022 and the plan for 2022-2023 will be posted in late June.