Minnesota parents and educators hope students will make academic and social progress as school returns to normal
Teacher Magdalene Pearson has seen worry mixed with joy as she welcomes new families to her kindergarten classroom at Hamilton Elementary in Coon Rapids.
And she has advice for them: it will be fine. Also, try reading a book with their children for 20 minutes a day.
“It’s okay if you can’t, though,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Most Minnesota students are returning to class this week, and parents and educators across the state are preparing for the most normal school year since 2019, devoid of masks and social distancing even as the effects of the disruptions pandemic persist. Yet it’s also the year parents and teachers hope kids catch up on their social and academic skills.
Minnesota students are falling further behind in reading and math than they should, state testing data shows, echoing a national trend. School districts across the state are allocating millions in federal aid to reverse this trend.
In the Anoka-Hennepin district, which includes Hamilton Elementary, reading specialists and math tutors are the order of the day — officials there have spent about $6 million on such support specialists, according to district budget documents.
None of those positions existed last year, and school districts across the state rushed to hire more staff to support students.
Still, most parents say they’re just glad their kids are back in school.
Lesley Berscheid, whose four children will attend three separate schools in the Delano District west of the Twin Cities, said she is thrilled that her 5-year-old twins, Cam and Blaire, are starting kindergarten.
The twins never spent much time apart. Now they will be in different classes.
“They mostly know each other,” Berscheid said. “We really wanted them to explore their individuality.”
One of her oldest daughters, Nora, who will be in sixth grade at Delano Middle School, has spent the summer explaining to the twins what to expect from day to day. Nora walks them through their morning routine, explains how they’ll eat breakfast before boarding the bus, and how she’ll see them when they get home.
“It’s about showing them some enthusiasm,” said Berscheid, who also has a daughter who will be a junior at Delano High. “It’s a very big piece.”
There was a lot of excitement in the kindergarten class at Pearson Hamilton Elementary during the open house last week.
Marissa Scarborough’s son Markiah squealed with delight when Pearson showed him the locker he will be sharing with a classmate for the year.
Markiah is the first of the Scarborough children to go to school. And while she wants her eldest son to progress academically, Scarborough also wants Markiah to learn new life skills.
“He should learn to read and write,” Scarborough said. “But he really needs to learn how to tie his shoes.”
She also wants Markiah to learn how to socialize better with children her age.
Yei Suah, whose son AJ is also entering Pearson’s kindergarten class, also hopes he gets the peer contact he needs.
Suah’s daughter is about to start fourth grade at Hamilton. When the pandemic started in the spring of 2020, she had to finish first grade with remote learning — a tough proposition for a child who enjoys spending time with peers.
“It definitely took away his social skills,” Suah said.
Suah hopes the coming year will have minimal disruption so that her son and daughter get the education and socialization they need. She also wants to spend less time guiding her daughter through online classes.
Berscheid, Delano’s mother of four, isn’t stressed about her kids making up lost ground. She has been in regular contact with her daughters’ teachers over the past two years and has placed more emphasis on the girls’ progress rather than the marks they have achieved in tests and exams.
“I wouldn’t focus so much on testing as much as on input from teachers and what they see,” Berscheid said.
Educators like Pearson and Hamilton Elementary Principal Julie Bowman agree that regular communication between parents and teachers is key to ensuring a child is progressing in the classroom.
Bowman says the more parents talk about their child, the better. Do they have a favorite toy? A favorite park to play? Bowman said the key to keeping students engaged is maintaining their sense of curiosity.
“There’s no starting or stopping point for learning,” Bowman said, explaining that educators keep students engaged by relating to their experiences outside of the classroom. “Learning is something that happens all day, every day.”