Education commissioner speaks in Fairmont

FAIRMONT – Minnesota Education Commissioner Dr. Brenda Cassellius addressed teachers, staff and administrators at Fairmont Area Schools on Tuesday, leaving them alternating between laughter, applause and even a few tears.

Cassellius spoke to Education Minnesota Fairmont’s school year kickoff luncheon. She addressed highlights of the 2012 legislative session, including full funding for all-day kindergarten, Q-comp progress and an increasing need for funding.

“The legislative session was good,” she said. “We got $600 million for education after 10 years of significant shortfalls.”

Still, she said the $46 million set aside for early education scholarship assistance only hit 9 percent of those needing it, and she noted that 42.5 percent of students across the state are living in poverty.

Fairmont’s free and reduced lunch population – students who receive their lunches for free or at a reduced rate because of economic status – is even higher than the state average, hovering just above 50 percent at the elementary school.

The issues discussed by the commissioner – poverty, standardized testing and graduation rates – are not new concepts but day-to-day concerns for teachers.

Cassellius talked about a letter she received from a special education student in Fairmont struggling to complete the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, a standardized test. She wrote the child back, who was proud to have had interaction with the commissioner. The story touched many in attendance, as several knew the child and the struggles some students have completing the tests.

“I love that letter,” said Cassellius, noting she has shown it to several lawmakers as she tries to explain to them the problem with standardized assessments.

She said grade-point averages are a much better indicator of how well a student will do in a college. And she noted how the education world is split at the moment as it tries to adhere to mandates for testing while struggling to teach “soft skills” to students. “Soft skills” refers to a person’s ability to interact effectively with others, including manners, optimism, social awareness and communication.

“We are in two different worlds right now,” Cassellius said. “We still need the testing, but want to be creative and provide fun and engaging lessons.”