Auf wiedersehen, German? Au revoir, French?; parents question District 834's commitment to world languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Oct 25 20:43:18 UTC 2008

Auf wiedersehen, German? Au revoir, French?; parents question District
834's commitment to world languages

awallmeyer at
(Created: Friday, October 24, 2008 2:07 PM CDT)

The elimination of introductory German at Stillwater Junior High
School has some parents worried about the language's long-term future
in District 834, and by extension that of French and other electives,
as well. After months of discussion with school officials about the
District 834's long-term plan for its foreign language programs, one
parent decided to share her concerns with the school board at its past
two meetings. "Given the enrollment policy, coupled with the
scheduling of electives in junior high, I fear the school district
could end up only offering one world language: Spanish. The smaller
classes of French and German will continue to struggle for survival,"
Stillwater resident Pam Johnson told school board members Thursday.

Johnson said she became concerned about the world language program
when she found out her son would not be able to take first-semester
German at SJHS this year because only 24 incoming seventh-graders
registered for the course when 36 were required for it to form. Under
the model now used at SJHS and Oak-Land Junior High, first-semester
world languages are taught every other day in seventh grade, second
semester is taught in either the first or second half of eighth grade,
and continuing students take the second full year of the languages in
ninth grade.

The fact that world languages are taught every other day in seventh
grade but in semester blocks in eighth and ninth grade makes it
difficult to draw beginning language students from multiple grade
levels, effectively requiring at least 36 seventh-graders to sign up
for a language for it to be offered, Johnson said. Now that
introductory German has failed to form at SJHS, the pipeline of
students to second-semester German and beyond has been disrupted,
potentially threatening the program's long-term viability, she added.

"Our German program is currently in hospice," said Johnson, a German
major in college. "I believe the French program could very easily
follow in the footsteps of our German program." After hearing Johnson
speak, board member George Thole said he shared her concerns, and he
asked what the district has done to address them since parents first
raised the issue more than a year ago. "What has transpired? What
communication has taken place between us, the administration and some
of the parents who indicated concern? ... It seems like this has been
lingering on for quite a while," Thole said.

Superintendent Keith Ryskoski said there has been an ongoing
discussion over how to address the issue, noting he and other
administrators would be meeting with high school foreign language
teachers today to talk more about it. "Trying to have the schedule
work out to match not only student choices but also the curriculum
continuity has created challenges over the last four years. I don't
think anybody has denied that," he said. "We've gotten some feedback
from our secondary, our high school world language people just in the
past two weeks and ... we're sitting down tomorrow to look and see
what are some options on how to do that. Ideally, I think people would
love it if we could go back to a longer school day with more periods,
but there's a cost factor associated with that."

Ryskoski said he would bring a recommendation to the board in January,
when it considers the school system's annual course additions and

Superintendent evaluation

Board Chair Kathy Buchholz also reported the conclusions of the
board's annual performance review of Superintendent Ryskoski, which
was completed in a number of closed-session meetings, the last of
which was held on Oct. 9.

Overall, Buchholz said board members were "generally satisfied" with
the progress Ryskoski has made on the five broad goals they gave him
last year.

Specifically, board members had told him they were looking for
improved communication with the board and the broader community, more
direct oversight of building principals, more collaboration at the
administrative level, a high degree of responsiveness to community
concerns and development of a new strategic plan for the district.

At Thursday's meeting, Buchholz summarized Ryskoski's performance
relative to those goals:

"1) Most of the board members are satisfied with the increase in
communications, and want to continue to receive updates throughout the

"2) Mr. Ryskoski confirmed that the principals (now) report directly
to him, and that he will supervise and evaluate them during the
2008-09 school year. He indicated that he is attending regularly
scheduled meetings with principals and is listening to their plans and

"3) The cabinet is meeting regularly, but he did write that more
collaboration is needed on a daily basis.

"4) Most board members are generally satisfied with how the
superintendent is responding to questions and concerns from the

"And 5) Implementing our strategic plan. As Mr. Ryskoski indicated,
our strategic plan has been approved by the board and it is now in
full implementation, being led by Mr. Ryskoski. Goals are being set at
each school, and as indicated, and that should be done and finished up
within the next couple of weeks. He will be providing ongoing updates
and presenting to the board at key points throughout the rest of the

This morning, Buchholz said she wanted the public to know that even
though the evaluation took place behind closed doors, the board was
thorough it its assessment and challenged Ryskoski to do better.

"Some people say that the administration is running the board, when it
is the board that should be running the district," she said. "One of
our main responsibilities is to evaluate the performance of the
superintendent, and I want the community to know that we take that
responsibility very seriously.

"We came up with five things that we all agreed that we wanted to see
some improvement in," she continued. "I would say that generally
people were satisfied with the progress to date on those areas, but
then they also want to see those things maintained or increased over
the rest of the year."

In other business, the board...

heard a presentation on Oak-Land Junior High's annual "Elphadonk"
convention, a mock political convention involving the school's 8th and
9th grade social studies classes.

met in closed session to discuss a pending age-discrimination lawsuit
filed in September 2007 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission on behalf of former Stillwater Area High School
administrator Sherman Danielson.

unanimously approved the school system's 2007-08 financial report and
audit report, which were discussed in detail at its Oct. 9 meeting. At
that time, Assistant Superintendent Ray Queener told the board that
District 834 finished the year with $4.3 million more in its general
fund than it had projected, leaving it with a $10.0 million
undesignated, unreserved fund balance, which amounts to about 13
percent of the district's annual general fund budget. He attributed
the surplus to conservative budgeting, and he said any funds over the
district's 5-percent target would be applied to next year's levy.
Independent auditing firm Malloy, Montague, Karnowski, Radosevich &
Co. gave the district an "unqualified" opinion on the district's
financial statements, meaning the firm has no concerns about their
accuracy or the school system's financial practices.

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