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Waubun school awarded $1.4M

Waubun Secondary School scored a $1.4 million grant in a federally funded school overhaul that claimed its longtime principal this spring.

The Waubun School was among 26 schools the state deemed ripe for a makeover based mostly on low standardized test scores. Of the 26, 19 received three-year School Improvement Grants between $950,000 and $1.9 million, the Minnesota Department of Education announced Thursday.

The remaining seven's funding applications were rejected in this go-around.

"Now that we have the award, it will be full steam ahead with putting the plan into action," said Michael Cary, the new secondary principal, adding, "I am excited about the opportunity ahead of us; I just hope we have time to implement all the pieces."

The school has been on a rollercoaster since the state picked it for a drastic makeover last spring as part of a federal effort to turn around underperforming schools. In keeping with a federal prescription, the school's principal of nine years, Helen Kennedy, had to leave.

The district has since hired Cary, a Wadena native who worked at Detroit Lakes Area Schools at the time on a Center for College Readiness grant.

Then, the district began feverish preparations to kick off its overhaul this fall. It will add an hour of instructional time to the school day and ramp up professional development for its teachers.

It will also hire two new employees: a so-called turnaround officer to oversee the process and an administrative manager, to free up the principal's time so he can focus exclusively on instruction.

"He will be in the classroom with students and teachers all day, every day, and that will be his only priority," Superintendent Mitch Anderson said of the new principal.

The district also plans to hire an extra math teacher and reduce class sizes in a subject many students struggle with.

Naturally, administrators felt relief at the news the school received the grant for the full amount requested.

"These schools have an opportunity to dramatically transform student learning and student achievement," said Patricia King, the state's new Office of Turnaround Schools director, in a news release.

Almost 90 percent of students at the school, on the White Earth Indian Reservation, qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch.

Anderson said the entire school community is motivated to make the process work. Students already made gains on math and reading tests this spring, after learning how high the stakes are for the school.

Districtwide, reading proficiency jumped 10 percent, to 60 percent. In math, 46 percent of students scored proficient, compared to last year's 40 percent.

"There's a sense of relief that our funding is secure for three years, and we have a plan in place," Anderson said. But, he added, "We have a target on our back now and a spotlight on us."