Programs like Litchfield High School’s industrial technology program could offer a partial solution to the state’s achievement gap, according to the Minnesota Commissioner of Education Mary Ricker, who visited last week.

“Maintaining programs like that is a good example of how you create better opportunities for students,” Ricker said. “You increase their engagement and their interest in school.”

Ricker followed in the footsteps of mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis in visiting Litchfield, all at the invitation of state Rep. Dean Urdahl.

Unlike the comprehensive tour the mayors received of the city of Litchfield, Ricker absorbed a more exhaustive experience of Litchfield Public Schools — mainly the middle school and high school.

“I’ve wanted to come ever since (Urdahl) invited me,” Ricker said, “and just having the opportunity to hear about the career and technical education programs that you have here. Again, because they are an example of the sort of high-quality engaging work we want our students to have access to. It really became a priority for me to come visit and see for myself.”

Students who concentrate in career and technical education, Ricker said, “graduate at a higher rate and succeed in earning credits at a higher rate,” than students who lack such programs or opportunities.

Such programs were exemplified in Susan Rohrbeck’s English literature class where she had students create a graphic novel of Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Black Cat." 

Ricker added that another effective method for closing the achievement gap is via differentiated instruction. This approach involves teachers adjusting their curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning of students with different learning styles or needs, according to the Iris Center at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

“They’re just two examples of how we eliminate those gaps of disparities with some of the programs I’ve seen here this morning at Litchfield,” Ricker said. “Differentiating instruction is an example of how you make sure students can access the academic standards you’re trying to teach. So making sure that we have professional development that supports teachers and learning how to differentiate.”

Superintendent Beckie Simenson said Litchfield School District was fortunate to receive a visit by Ricker. School administrators also shared with Ricker some of the successes and struggles the district faces.

“We were able to share our concerns about the lack of equitable funding for special education,” Simenson explained. “We also shared the importance of having such a supportive community, as passing our levy and bond referendums were key to helping our district grow.”

Earlier this month, Neel Kashkari, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank president, and Alan Page, former Minnesota supreme court justice, called on Minnesotans to pass a constitutional amendment, which seeks to give every child equal right to quality education.

“I actually launched a school finance working group this fall that I’m really excited about,” Ricker said about the way she and her colleagues are addressing the constitutional amendment in question. “Education professionals and advocates from across the state of Minnesota are coming together to examine the sort of pressure points we have in funding our schools, (and the) ambitions our school leaders have for the school programming they want to provide our students.

“Now we’re looking at case studies from across the state of how districts are meeting the needs of students with special needs,” she continued, “with our English language learners, how they are addressing those gaps and disparities. And we’re really excited about the work we’re doing and the proposals we are going to have when we finish our work this summer.”

Ricker acknowledged Urdahl’s efforts to make civics education mandatory for the state’s high school students. However, the state reviews its curriculum every 10 years, with social studies set to be reviewed next year, she said.

“It’s going to be an incredible opportunity for us to talk about the role of civics education and those civics standards that we want students to access,” Ricker said. “To practice — to learn how we embed those in the social studies standards.”

Ricker said Litchfield school administrators demonstrated a “generous welcome and open-door policy,” which was more than what she could’ve asked for.

“What I’m so excited about — what I see — is the thoughtfulness behind the sort of experience that Litchfield school leaders and educators are building out for students,” she said.

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