School district takes reins of Anoka County-run school

/ 11 June 2012 / jennifer

Kristian Hernandez, Star Tribune, June 11, 2012 –

Twenty-nine teachers will be laid off as a result of the transition.

A school run by Anoka County for 35 years will soon be incorporated into the Centennial District — a bittersweet moment at what officials say is the only county-run school in the state.

On Tuesday, the county ends the agreement under which it has operated Pines School on the grounds of the juvenile detention center in Lino Lakes. Centennial will take over July 1.

Increasing testing regulations, curriculum requirements and teacher licensure standards have made it more difficult for the county to run the school, officials say.

“It is important to pass it on because a school does not fit our governance model, and we are required to have an entire administrative system within the county just for the school,” said County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah.

Twenty-nine staff members at Pines will be laid off Tuesday. They may reapply for their jobs, but district employees will have first shot at them.

Under the county-district agreement, the district has had a consultative role while the county has hired staff and designed an educational program for middle- and high school-age youth at the school.

“It is bittersweet,” Principal Ben Harper said. “You are saying goodbye to something you have nurtured and formed.”

More than 800 young people are sent every year to the school by courts, social services and other school districts. About 100 attend at any given time. Most are residents or day students who have committed an offense; some are placed there by social services.

Different times

State law requires that all children in the care or custody of a juvenile center get an education.

In 1977, when Anoka County opened the juvenile center in Lino Lakes, the school was established with one cottage for girls and one for boys.

“At that time, it made more sense for us to employ four instructors and have them provide the education,” said Don Ilse, who worked for county corrections at the juvenile center from 1978 to 2011 and is now the county’s director for human services. “Education was simpler in the 1970s.”

Today the school has 14 teachers, two administrators and a yearly budget of more than $2 million from state and federal funds.

Teachers and administrators maintain 12 separate groups of students defined by variables such as offense and resident status. Kids from middle to high school are mixed together in the same classrooms, and teachers deal with the needs of each on a one-on-one basis. Nearly half of the kids sent to Pines Day School are in special education.

Harper said staff at Pines sought to overcome obstacles by using a team model and a positive reenforcement approach. Teachers and administrators take on multiple roles.

“I’d say it’s unlike any other school,” Harper said. “I’ll put this up against any school in the state, in the nation.”

A worth-it moment

Pam Wolf, social studies and physical education teacher, said she recently received a text message from a former student inviting her to her high school graduation. In the text, the student thanked Wolf for saving her life.

“As a teacher it is one of those moments that reaffirms why you are doing what you are doing,” said Wolf, who has taught at Pines for eight years.

She believes teachers are the No. 1 factor for success in any school setting but even more so in a school like this one.

Teachers at Pines were informed of the county’s decision in late December.

Wolf said she “doesn’t have a problem with it if the kids are in the center of it,” but said she worries “the Centennial School District will treat it just like any other school.”

Despite the sense of loss, Pines staff members, like county and Centennial officials, say the school district will provide more resources and opportunities that are likely to benefit students.

Centennial Superintendent Keith Dixon said the district is excited about the switch and has been preparing for the transition by meeting regularly with Pines teachers and staff.

“We can add strength with the normal structures that school districts have relative to instructional practice, developing curriculum and all those kinds of pieces. We will be able to network in a bigger scale relative to the services for those students,” Dixon said.

Dixon plans on maintaining some of the educational approaches successful over the years at Pines and has also considered new ideas brought up by current staff to improve students success and education.

Kristian Hernandez • 612-673-4217