D287 begins new school year with growth in several areas

by Derek Bartos
Sun Sailor Newspapers

With a growing demand for its services, Intermediate District 287 is rolling out a variety of new approaches this year to meet the needs of its students and teachers.

The district welcomed its staff back for the 2015-16 school year at the beginning of the month, and students began filling classrooms Sept. 8.

“Everybody is always excited at back-to-school time, but I think this year especially, people are excited about our new strategic plan and some of the emphasis we’re having on supporting our staff,” said D287 Supt. Sandy Lewandowski.

The school board approved the district’s strategic plan for 2015-2020 in June. It is focused on increasing student outcomes and increasing racial equity for all students. Teams are currently working on recommendations for implementation.

“We have an excitement about that plan because we feel it’s so relevant,” Lewandowski said. “Some of the kids come to us with the highest needs in the state.”

Based in Plymouth, Intermediate District 287 serves students from the Brooklyn Center, Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Osseo, Orono, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St. Louis Park, Wayzata and Westonka districts. It provides more than 120 programs and services for career, technical, gifted and special education.

Looking at this year’s enrollment, Lewandowski said the district expects to have around 850 students in its special education site-based programs and area learning centers this year. The number is steady to slightly higher than last year, she said, although the district won’t know for sure until its official count Oct. 1.

Lewandowski added that, since the district has numerous other services ranging from online programs to care and treatment programs, the number of students served is much higher.

“It’s usually close to 10,000 students that we actually touch through a variety of different programs and services,” she said.

One area that has substantially increased recently is the service the district provides to care and treatment facilities, such as the Hennepin County Home School for juvenile offenders or the new Prairie Care psychiatric facility in Brooklyn Park, Lewandowski said.

“Whenever there is a facility like that, that is located in one of our member districts, that member district usually calls upon us to provide the educational programming for the students while they are in that facility,” she said.

The superintendent said that the district had one or two staff members for those services a few years ago, but that number has ballooned to more than 60 going into this year.

“That’s a real area of growth for us, and it’s a real challenging educational delivery system because the kids are typically staying as short as one or two days in those facilities all the way up to six months,” she said. “So the challenge is having kids coming through the door basically every day and finding a way quickly to give them an educational instruction program that is appropriate and relevant for them.”

Lewandowski attributed the growth to the increased focus on such students.

“I think it reflects the state and the Minnesota Department of Education putting a higher priority on kids with acute mental health needs,” she said.

Another area seeing growth heading into the new school year is the needs of the district’s special education students.

While the enrollment numbers might not be increasing by a large amount, Lewandowski said the educational and behavioral needs of these students are, which demands more staff attention and facility space.

To meet the growing demand for its services, Intermediate District 287 increased its overall staff numbers from about 850 last year to approximately 875 this year.

At its orientation before the first day of school, the district introduced roughly 55 new staff members.

Recognizing that staff members deal with a high level of workplace stress because of the students’ growing needs, the district this year is focusing more on providing a culture of support and teamwork, Lewandowski said.

“Even though we believe we have high quality and passionate teachers, we’re more aware than ever of the importance of supporting them and recognizing them for their good work,” she said. “We know the more we can support them and understand the stress they’re under, they’re going to be able to do a better job and get better outcomes for kids.”

An example of this support includes mindfulness training, which the district piloted last year and will make available to all staff members this year.

“When you’re in a high stress situation, having techniques that give you a way to step back from the situation and calm yourself a little bit before you go back in can only help both the staff person and the student,” Lewandowski said.

The district also is working to provide more support with behavioral incidents, she said.

“In the past, we’ve had a multitude of different experts in our buildings to provide support,” she said. “What we’re trying to do this year is step back and look at that across the whole district and form more of a system that will result in a mobile response team. So if we have an incident in a particular building, we’ll be able to quickly spread word throughout the district to match the right expert or service with that situation.”

Lewandowski added that the district will focus not only on supporting its staff members, but also recognizing them. These efforts will range from small acknowledgements to larger pronouncements.

“We really hope to call out and shout out some of those good things our teachers are doing,” she said.

Contact Derek Bartos at [email protected]