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Report to force principal's exit in Waubun

A popular principal at northwestern Minnesota's Waubun Secondary School is being forced to leave so her district can tap into $1 million of federal money to improve routinely underachieving schools.

On Wednesday, Minnesota released a consulting company's profiles of 32 schools slated for overhauls because they chronically lag on high-stakes standardized tests. Most reports faulted shaky leadership and lack of academic goals, among other factors.

Next week, the Waubun School Board will settle on one of four so-called turnaround options, federal prescriptions for major change funded with a $34 million School Improvement Grant. The board will also interview applicants to replace Helen Kennedy, the principal of nine years.

"Helen is a victim of circumstance here," said Superintendent Mitch Anderson. "There's no negotiating with the grant requirements."

Last month, representatives of the Massachusetts-based Cambridge Consultants spent two days at the high school, where about 70 percent of students are American Indian.

Their report found many positives in a school where close to 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch: high graduation and attendance rates, an orderly school climate and respectful student-teacher relationships.

But, the consultants say, a culture of low academic expectations persists, and the school consistently fails to track progress and set achievement goals for both students and teachers. For those issues, the report largely faults the school's leadership.

Though Anderson said the report was mostly helpful, he defended Kennedy. He finds it ironic that the grant money will pay for a couple of support positions that free up a principal's time to focus on academics.

"A lot of small school principals wear so many hats and are busy with all the non-instructional fires that burn all day long," Anderson said. "Why don't they offer the existing person this support and see how they do?"

Kennedy, who is job searching, wasn't available to comment Wednesday. During her tenure, the school has seen an almost 20 percent graduation rate increase and a marked improvement in the school climate. Test scores, however, have lingered way below state averages.

Since two of the turnaround options require replacing the principal, the board advertised Kennedy's position earlier this month.

The other two options - closing the school and converting to a charter school - are not possible, Anderson said. Closing a school is only an option if there is a higher-performing school nearby. Shifting to a charter school is an option that would take too much time.

The board will likely pick the "transformation" option, which involves more instructional time, incentives for effective teachers and more.

Technically, schools can opt out of the program. But they'd still need to make drastic changes because of failing to hit No Child Left Behind improvement targets - without the $1 million in federal help.

Despite the "shock and awe" of impending overhauls, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said, "I am looking at this as an extraordinary opportunity to see if we can close the achievement gap."

Districts will scramble to submit detailed overhaul plans by July 1, a tight timeline that worries Anderson.