Minnesota students return to class for a new school year

It’s the first day of school for most Minnesota students, and families and educators say they’re hoping for a year without the disruptions that have plagued classrooms since the pandemic began.

Parents of young children, in particular, say they are excited about the prospect of seeing their little ones learn the social and academic skills needed to prepare them for the rest of their lives.

Many educators are also preparing for new leadership adventures and establishing school traditions.

According to the Minnesota Elementary Principals Association, Salma Hussein of Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville is one of at least 25 new elementary school principals entering their first year as a building principal. In Minneapolis, Acting Superintendent Rochelle Cox is looking to reset the district’s relationship with the public after a tumultuous year.

At the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul, Thomas “Mr. D.” Draskovic started his day as he has for the past seven years walking the halls with an abalone shell in hand – burning sage and cedar to cleanse the building as well as teachers and students who wished to suck smoke into themselves.

The right to smudge is now official policy in the state’s second largest district, and while too early to be adopted by other schools, the practice is part of the culture of American Indian Magnet, where Draskovic is a specialist in Lakota language and culture.

On Tuesday, he received help from fourth-grader Gaochiacha Lo, who spotted near his class and was enthusiastically greeted by Michele Fairbanks, an Ojibwe scholar. Lo stopped so Fairbanks could wave the smoke around her face.

“It’s a leisurely way to start your day,” Fairbanks said. “A time to reset and refresh. Be mindful and put your good intentions out into the world.”

Rochester Public Schools is starting the school year with a new administrative structure. Officials revamped top-level positions over the summer as part of a major update to the district’s strategic plan and are still filling a few positions, according to Superintendent Kent Pekel.

A few positions have been combined or eliminated, while some departments have been reshuffled. Efe Agbamu, former assistant superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools, has been hired as Rochester’s new academic director overseeing the program. Several district directors were also elevated to new administrative positions.

The new structure aims to unify general and special education services, expand diversity and equity goals to include more student and family input, and more community outreach and partnerships, among others.

“It’s part of our effort to make sure we’re really, really helping Rochester become a learning community,” Pekel said.

Pekel said the district is also focusing on “deep learning” — applying core subject concepts to other subjects so students can improve their critical thinking skills in real-world settings.

“It’s the kind of thing that we know is much more relevant to what they’re going to have to do in the world of work that they’re going to be in,” Pekel said. “Whether they work in an auto repair shop here in Rochester or at the Mayo Clinic or IBM.”

Sarah Fulton and her sixth grade son Henry cycled to school on his first day at Ordean East Middle School in Duluth.

Fulton is optimistic about his son’s first year of college and said he’s ready for it.

“Kids are excited to be back in class mask-free and seeing their friends fully,” she said. “I still have a bit of apprehension… But I’m just trying to enjoy it ‘today’.”

Rachel Jackson is the new principal of Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in Duluth.

She is armed with lessons learned last year, when educators were caught off guard by the behavior of students returning to school in person after more than a year of remote learning.

“Last year was tough for a lot of reasons,” Jackson said of her time as vice-principal at Ordean East Middle School in Duluth.

The children had to relearn how to walk the halls and how to be together, interact in person and sit for several lesson periods a day.

“We didn’t anticipate the level of social-emotional stunting,” she said, and because of that, social-emotional learning is expected to be a staple at the start of the year for kids. students in his classes and across the district.

“I hope summer was a much needed step,” she said. “People are so happy to be back.”

In Minneapolis, students from Anishinabe Academy and Hall STEM Academy began entering the building just as the morning light reached the school steps. Some kids ran and others jumped inside, accepting punches from teachers and high fives from Acting Superintendent Rochelle Cox, who spent her morning visiting a few Minneapolis schools to greet staff and students and even escorting a shy seventh grader to her first class at Anderson Middle School.

“I also feel like it’s my first day,” said Cox, who has held the position since July. “I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Cox hugged teachers and administrators she knew and introduced herself to those she didn’t know. Standing in a freshman teacher’s newly decorated bedroom, Cox assured the new educator, “don’t worry, I’m new too.”

Bridget Butler, vice-principal at Anishinabe, said the first day of the school year is always one of the best. But this year gave more hope than previous years, which were interrupted by the pandemic and a teachers’ strike, she said.

“It definitely has a different feel,” Butler told Cox. “The staff are excited and the kids are so excited.”

This story is a story in the making. Come back with StarTribune.com for updates.

Editors Trey Mewes and Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

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