Coffee, conversation – and a tour
For roughly two hours Wednesday morning, Blue Earth Area (BEA) superintendent Evan Gough led the district’s first-ever Coffee and Conversation sitdown, an open forum for community input.
Coffee was had.
And so, too, was lots of conversation.
With more than 10 visitors joining Gough for a roundtable talk in a BEA High School classroom, then embarking on a hallway tour of the school, everything from enrollment, classroom technology and the district’s career focus for students spawned discussion.
One of the pressing topics at hand in Wednesday’s talk, which unfolded as an informal Q-and-A session between Gough and the guests, was BEA’s enrollment.
The annual number of students in the district has been in decline in recent years, and a slumping enrollment is one of the reasons the BEA School Board voted in March to approve a reduction in the district’s art staff for 2017-18.But Gough informed Wednesday’s visitors that enrollment concerns actually give BEA an opportunity to better market itself.
“Our open-enrollment numbers have actually held steady over the last four years,” said Gough, noting that most of the open-enrollment departures have gone to Granada-Huntley-East Chain schools. “And I fully support choice … (but) we want to try to do a better job of telling our story and not letting others define us.”
In other words, he added, open-enrollment issues are inevitable. But if BEA can present itself as an appealing option, at least one portion of the enrollment concerns could take care of itself.
And of the district’s latest measures of doing just that marketing itself was on hand at the discussion, as BEA tech integration specialist Gary Holmseth visited the get-together along with high school student and aspiring digital media professional Justin Bruellman to debut an upcoming promotional video.
The video, a collection of clips featuring various BEA athletes and school clubs, was shot and edited by Bruellman, who received personal compliments from Gough and Holmseth.
At BEA’s strategic planning work sessions in the fall of 2016, a number of public guests asked about the emphasis, or lack thereof, on “blue-collar” career paths within the district.
John Huisman, Blue Earth city councilman and former BEA high school principal, virtually echoed those questions to open up discussions on the matter Wednesday.
“We’ve seemed to move away from hands-on careers,” Huisman said. “What are we doing to expose our students to these careers? Are kids even aware they can make a living a different kind of living but a good living doing these types of jobs?”
Gough acknowledged Huisman’s inquiry and pointed to an educational standards movement circa the 1990s when suggesting that “we assumed as a nation that we all need four-year degrees, which we now know is hogwash.”
Nowadays, especially in rural settings, Gough said “we are kind of seeing the pendulum swing back in the other direction” when it comes to a demand for hands-on, technically skilled work. And he noted that BEA is taking steps to refocus on those kinds of careers in addition to college-guided paths.
“We have a Fairmont partnership with our welding class,” he said. “And I know we’ve got Jeremy Coxworth (of Coxworth Water Conditioning) presenting this week, Crown Tonka presenting this week … so I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
The increased usage of digital technology and especially Chromebooks in classroom settings was another topic of discussion Wednesday.
First, Gough explained BEA’s proactive stance in integrating technology into the district, as well as the impact of using portable devices rather than stationary computers at school.
“We were one of the first districts in the area to jump on the Chromebooks,” he said. “And we’ll likely only have one (computer) lab remaining in our district after next year.”
The infrastructure, Gough added, is usually the most expensive part of incorporating technological advances. But everything from teacher-led development of online curriculum to widespread Internet availability in district homes has fueled BEA’s emphasis on new-school tactics.
“District-wide, we have more than 95 percent that have Internet access at home,” he said.
Still, Gough was quick to defend some parents’ comments regarding a prioritization of traditional pen-and-paper schoolwork as well.
“It’s not an all-day everyday thing,” he said of Chromebook usage. “It’s a tool, not an end-all, be-all.”
Gough also distributed copies of the strategic plan formulated by BEA’s School Board and cooperating guests at the fall work sessions, emphasizing more than the actual document the conversations that led to it.
“The process was more important than the end result,” he said. “It was just so healthy.”
With nods of approval from guests, which included Winnebago mayor Jeremiah Schutt and city administrator Chris Ziegler, Blue Earth Area Chamber of Commerce director Cindy Lyon and BEA School Board member Susan Benz, Gough also noted plans to continue similar conversations at future open-forum events.
“We want to get more and more to come into the building,” he said, “to hear directly from me, because collaboration and communication with the community is critical.”