In a recent post to the Fischbowl, Karl Fisch (author of the fantastic "Did You Know?" show) identifies Mankato Schools as ones he would like to visit. I am flattered and we would be delighted to host you, Karl. I've always found that school visits (especially it seems as part of an accreditation team) have been real learning experiences for me.
But what would Karl see if he visited the Mankato Public Schools? And more to the point, what would be worth seeing?
We are, I think, an above average school district for Minnesota. Our 10 elementaries, 3 middle and 3 high schools serve about 7,000 kids in the region. I never really know how to define us when asked if we are a rural or urban district since the "greater" Mankato area is close to 50,000 people but we are surrounded by farms and smaller communities. Mankato itself is a terrific place to live. Small enough you know the mayor, yet big enough to have a large bookstore. The state university and community college are a blessing. As is being about 1 1/2 hour drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul - in themselves the nicest big cities in the country. At least when the temps are above 20 degrees.
One thing Karl might notice is our small class sizes - 21.4 average. If he looks at the finances, he would also know that we are below state and regional average in the amount we spend per pupil each year with an additional operating budget over the state basic formula of only $445 per student, compared to the state average of $796. That means that we run a tight ship financially, have very little bureaucracy, and plunk most of our dollars right into the classroom. Our superintendent was our business manager for years and enjoys a high level of both staff and community trust as a transparent and approachable leader. We value collaborative decision-making very highly. Our elementary schools have around 400 kids on average and are neighborhood-based.
As of 2006, our ELL population was 6%, our SPED population was 14% and our FRP lunch population is 32%. (Nice numbers until you try to apply for grants based on need.) We are in the enviable position that our student population is growing slightly, unlike many of shrinking neighboring districts or the booming suburban areas north of us.
I am always proud of how well our buildings, some dating to the 1920s, are maintained. All our facilities are clean, safe and in good repair - which demonstrate respect for our staff and students. Yes, it means putting up with cantankerous custodians who don't want "their" buildings messed with at times, but the ownership these men and women take shows in the spit and polish of the hallways and rooms. Despite some of our buildings having been constructed at a time when electricity was considered something that might be a passing fad so only one outlet was put in a room, we've managed to wire all the classrooms with voice, video and data. And all classrooms have a phone, a TV, and, at minimum, one teacher computer. Most classrooms have at least a handful of older networked student computers and access to either carts of computers or AlphaSmarts. About 1/3 of our classrooms now have a mounted LCD projector, SmartBoard and speakers - with plans for the same equipment to be added to all the classrooms over the next few years.
We have excellent library facilities - good collections, good spaces, good online resources, and computer labs in or adjacent to each. And of course, excellent librarians serving each building - full time if over 400 in enrollment. Our secondary schools also contain specialized computer labs for science, writing, tech ed and business ed.
Karl, if you poke your nose in a classroom while school is in session, I can't predict what you see. Plenty of traditional teaching going on - lecture, workbooks, small group work, I'll guarantee. Lots of SmarBoard use in classrooms that have them. What I always see when I visit are excited, busy elementary and middle school kids; bored and restless high school students (which is most likely true in 95% of this country' schools). You'll see a few teachers in every building doing brilliant, innovative things and the others doing a very competent, very traditional job. I am guessing the most important stuff happening is happening unevenly, and possibly invisibly - at least where technology is concerned. Oh, one reason we have a great staff is simply because we always have a large number of applicants for every job we post. Smaller schools in the area serve as our farm teams in a sense.
We have good enough schools. Good enough I sent my own son to them, K-12. And good enough that I have always been proud to say I work in them. Exemplary? Worth visiting? I don't know. Just because I write about our schools doesn't make them better than others - only more "known." We are not high flying innovators with 1:1 laptop projects or lots of online learning or massive numbers of Teachers 2.0. If we have a fault, it is that we are "good enough," that we don't have to try many new things. We are possibly the text book case of the good standing in the way of the great.
And I have always thought that there really aren't such things as good schools or good school districts, only good teachers. When the state started giving us "star" ratings, I wrote that 5 star teachers can be found in 1 star schools and 1 star teachers can be found in 5 star schools. I think that is still true.
Probably the best thing I can say about our schools is that you get a good feeling walking into them. People - staff and students - are for the most part open, productive, safe and pretty happy. If you can figure out how to bottle that, Karl, it might be worth the trip.
Come over anytime...