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Perham's HOTL school identified as 'underperforming' for Hispanic students, district implements new accountability system

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Jen Hendrickson's job as principal of Heart of the Lakes Elementary is to "meet the needs of every student."

So when the Perham-Dent school board met last week in its first meeting of the 2018-2019 school year, Hendrickson briefed the members on a new accountability system called North Star.

The system is being used by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to identify schools and districts requiring support.

It was brought to the board's attention that Heart of the Lakes has been targeted by the federal government's Title 1 program, through public data shared by North Star, as a school with a Hispanic student body which is "underperforming."

Since not speaking or understanding a language can be a huge barrier in education, steps have to be taken.

Hendrickson said that according to the most recent enrollment count taken in October 2017, 63 Perham-Dent Hispanic students had been identified as English Language Learners. Of that number, 54 were enrolled in the elementary school. Hendrickson believes the number of Hispanic students in the district this year may be closer to 70 or 75.

"English as Second Language learners is one of our fastest growing population of students," Perham Superintendent Mitch Anderson said.

While the Perham-Dent district has two English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors at the present time, Maria Soto and Sarah O'Reilly, the only one posted to Heart of the Lakes is O'Reilly. Soto works with senior high and middle school students. Until this year O'Reilly was covering all three Perham-Dent schools.

"The students and families that I serve are very hardworking," O'Reilly said. "I appreciate the support from our district in serving our students."

"She goes into the classrooms to support students, and she also pulls students out of the classroom to focus on a specific curriculum," Hendrickson said.

Hispanic students are placed in the same classes as other students, according to Hendrickson. Because some do not share the same understanding of the English language, educating them presents some unique challenges.

"The challenge for ESL instructors is that not only do they provide direct instruction to students, but they also work with general education teachers to help them accommodate learning for ESL students in their classrooms," Anderson said.

Hendrickson said one of O'Reilly's job responsibilities is to teach ESL students the English language.

"Compared to the districts nearby we do have a much higher ESL population," Hendrickson said. "I think we have a lot of families, great industries and jobs in our town. They are a great addition to our population."

Hendrickson does not see any sort of negative connotations in her school's "targeting" by the Title 1 program. On the contrary, she looks forward to more support.

"We're a school prioritized for targeted support and improvement," Hendrickson said. "We're prioritized for our Hispanic population."

Does this mean the Minnesota Department of Education will be sending other ESL instructors to join O'Reilly and help the Perham Elementary faculty?

"Well, not necessarily," Hendrickson said. "I think MDE is still working out how they will support schools. MDE has what they call Centers of Excellence, so they have people employed through them. We won't have instructors coming to school to help our kids, but most likely we will have support for our teachers on 'here is what we should be doing, high-quality strategies.'"