School District 197 Superintendent Blog
Welcome to my blog! The purpose of the blog is to provide an avenue for communication with parents and community members. I will be sharing our progress in implementing the District Strategic Framework. Periodically I will also post photos and share news of special events that I attend in our schools.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

School Security: A Planned Approach

Dear Friends and Families of District 197,

As the school year gets underway, we are keeping in mind the importance of school security.  Last week several members of our administrative team and I attended training for schools in Dakota County on active shooter events.  Also in attendance were police officers from the county.

Sound school security is grounded in a layered approach.  We currently have a solid plan for just about any crisis imaginable.  A plan, however, is only a start.  We conduct routine lock-down drills and practice building evacuations.  We also conduct training for staff.

In the training we attended last week we heard repeatedly about the importance of barriers to slow down an intruder.  There are multiple ways to create a barrier while still maintaining a warm and welcoming environment.  On the November 4th referendum ballot, we are proposing a $3.2M bond to renovate the main entry to each of our schools.  This renovation would ensure all visitors enter through the main office during the school day.  If someone who should not be at the school tries to enter, we can intercept them.  Second, it buys us precious time should someone seek to violently enter a building to do harm.

In addition to securing our entries, the bond for which we are seeking voter approval will enable us to install more security cameras and install locks on classroom doors that can be locked more quickly in the event of a crisis from both a central point as well as by individual teachers.

Our strategy was developed in consultation with our local police departments and other security experts.  Our plans have prepared us for many emergency situations.  However, threats toward schools continue to evolve.  Our conversations around security will not stop should the bond pass or fail in November.  Conversations around security are and will continue to be ongoing.

Some have asked what happens if the question on the ballot for security fails.  We would be able to employ some of the practices we have identified for improvement, such as cameras and locks, but would need to do so one or two schools at a time over multiple years in order to absorb the annual costs.  The planned renovation of the entry for each school would be impossible given the substantive cost and the inability of the district to shoulder the expense within the confines of our current sources of revenue.  Protecting the main entry would remain a priority, however, and other approaches would need to be evaluated.

As a school district, we are committed to your child's safety.   No one can predict when an event might occur in or around our schools.  What we can do is take measured steps to protect our schools. You can find more information about the question on the ballot regarding security on our website.


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Friday, September 19, 2014

Focused on the Future: A Clear Vision for District 197

Dear Friends and Families of District 197,

I appreciate the recent letter to the editor of the Villager this week regarding the vision of District 197.  It gives me an opportunity to remind our community of our District Strategic Framework that charts our district's vision.  Our Strategic Framework was developed early in 2013 with more than 80 members of our staff and community participating.  We also have a detailed Strategic Implementation Plan that identifies 21 core strategies and corresponding action plans we will be engaged in for the next three to five years to meet our vision.  

As part of our plan, last year we initiated a comprehensive approach to continuous improvement that focuses on the classroom.  Schools and teams of teachers set rigorous goals and use data to plan and deliver high-quality instruction. We provide multi-tiered support to meet the wide array of student needs. The integration of technology, professional development, and the wise and intentional use of resources are also critical components of our strategy.  

One year later, we are already seeing results.  Some of these were shared in my August 29th blog post. We currently are completing our first annual update to our Strategic Implementation Plan. Just as we invited you to be part of developing our Framework, we want you to participate in our annual update by attending a public meeting on October 6th from 6:00-6:45 p.m. in the Mendota Heights City Council Chambers during what would normally be our regularly scheduled school board listening session.  Following a short presentation on our progress and what we have planned for the coming year, we will be asking you to provide your comment and feedback.

Our vision and priorities are clear, and we are making progress.  Our commitment is focused squarely on providing our students with the best educational opportunities possible with 21st century learning tools in the safest environment we can provide.  I look forward to sharing many more successes with you in the future.


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Friday, September 12, 2014

Early Learning Remains a Top Priority for District 197

Dear Friends and Families of District 197,

Today I had the pleasure of attending the fall Community Baby Shower at Mendota Elementary, which is sponsored by our District 197 Early Learning Program. This annual event welcomes our newest additions to the 197 family - babies who are age birth to 12 months in our school district.

There are few things as heart-warming as a room full of moms and dads beaming over their precious little ones. Their hearts are filled with a wide array of hopes and dreams for their child's future, and ours are too.  District 197 is fully committed to providing high impact early learning experiences for our young children and families, and we have the expertise to deliver!

However, we are running out of space to provide current programming, and here's why.  Our 10-year K-12 enrollment projections are clear.  We are growing!  In the past, we had enough room in the district to accommodate the decade-long growth of early learning.  Not so any more.  As our K-12 enrollment grows, we have less and less space for our early learning programs.

The need for space for early learning was documented in the 2013 Literacy: Birth to Grade 3 Report, telling us it was time to take action.  Facility task forces in 2013 and 2014 made recommendations to the school board on how to provide space for current programming as well as enable future expansion.  At their recommendation, a few months ago we asked our community to support the construction of an early learning center. Unfortunately, this question on our May referendum ballot failed.

Our needs, however, have not gone away.  In fact, we are projecting a shortage of six early learning classrooms by fall 2015, just one short year from now, as more fifth graders make their way to our middle schools. Classrooms at Friendly Hills Middle School currently utilized by early learning will be need to be vacated.  This makes our space needs all the more urgent.

Following the outcome of the referendum in May, the school board has decided to pursue options other than building a center. This could include reallocating and/or remodeling existing space as well as leasing space.  A third option is to decrease programming, but this is a false choice.  No one believes this to be in the best interest of students.  The benefits of early learning are well documented as you will see in this video put out by the Minnesota Department of Education.  If that is not enough to convince even the most harsh skeptic, just Google the impact of early childhood education and see for yourself.

The school board and I are fully committed to this vital part of our educational program. Administration will present an update to the school board on September 22 with some initial things to consider as we explore the above options.  Although no decision is expected until after the first of the year, families and staff should feel confident that space will be available for our early learners come September 2015.

See you at the next Community Baby Shower!


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Putting Things Into Context: Moreland Arts and Health Sciences Magnet School

Dear Friends and Families of District 197,
In a recent letter submitted to the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a District 197 resident made several comments about Moreland Arts and Health Sciences Magnet School.  I would like to offer up the following information that may be helpful to those who read the letter.
The letter cites Moreland’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) reading scores from 2013. Those scores are a year old.  We recently celebrated Moreland’s 8.3% increase in reading from 2013 to 2014, an exceptional improvement.   We attribute this to effective goal setting, focused and continuous improvement planning, purposeful action by staff, their commitment to standards-based instruction and assessment, strong principal leadership, and dedicated parents. Moreland is accomplishing these gains in achievement despite a change in the MCA reading test in 2013 and a shift in the demographic makeup of the school in the past decade.  
MCA reading scores are lower throughout the entire state and district compared to five years ago due to a new, more rigorous reading test that was introduced in 2013. The Minnesota Department of Education’s website cautions, “New standards in reading were implemented in 2013.  Comparisons in reading from 2012 to 2013 should not be made.”  This would also suggest comparisons from 2009 would not be appropriate.
More importantly, to judge a school on the basis of a single test score fails to take into consideration the challenges and opportunities that present themselves each and every day in a school.  The MCA reading score may not represent the growth of students who began the year at different starting points.  During the last five years, Moreland has experienced a significant change.  Today, Moreland has the highest number of students in the entire district participating in the free and reduced lunch program (67.5%), one of the highest numbers of English Language Learners (34.7%), and the highest concentration of special education students (22.2%) because of the number of special education center-based programs for students from the entire district that are housed at Moreland.   
These are groups of students for whom there is an historic and significant achievement gap.  The gap persists in our district, across the state of Minnesota, and across the entire nation.  We take this gap very seriously.  It is one of the reasons why we are so heavily focused on the six goals outlined in our Strategic Framework, most notably Goal A:  Achieve measurable growth and continuous progress for each student, and Goal B:  Narrow the achievement gap.  It takes three to five years to implement complex change; it takes up to 10 years to implement major restructuring. And it takes having the right resources.
District 197 stands in full support of Moreland’s students and families and the dedicated efforts of its staff to close the gap while also ensuring high levels of academic success for all students.  This past year’s increase in reading is just one indicator of the progress they are making.  Last year their 1:1 iPad initiative was only in its second full year of implementation, yet it is starting to transform the classroom.  They provide targeted support to students to ensure they are successful in securing critical skills in reading and math.  They have embarked on an exciting partnership in science education with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, and they are involved with numerous wellness and arts initiatives.  They are focused on the right things, and their outstanding work is deserving of our praise and support.
Nancy Allen-Mastro, Superintendent