by Mike Knaak
When he shares his vision for the coming school year, Jeff Ridlehoover’s eyes light up when he talks about Friday night football games with athletes and families coming together, music concerts, full classrooms and a return to a normal school year.
“I’m very optimistic about this school year,” said Ridlehoover, Sartell-St. Stephen’s new superintendent. “Normal is going to be great. A normal start will be welcomed by a whole lot of people” after a year of hybrid, distance and in-person learning.
Ridlehoover, who was the assistant superintendent in the Mounds View district, officially started his new job on July 1, replacing Jeff Schwiebert, who served seven years. Ridlehoover has been busy setting up meetings with local groups and officials. As he meets the community, he wants people to know he’s an “incredibly optimistic, positive person. Education is a people business,” he said.
In addition to leading the district back to a more normal school experience, Ridlehoover and the board will begin work on writing a strategic plan and implementing an equity plan.
Updating the district’s strategic plan was put off while the district was hiring a new superintendent.
The work will begin immediately on the strategic plan, he said, with a process that engages the community and the board to chart a short- and long-term vision for the district so there’s “no confusion about what our mission is.” That roadmap, he said, should chart teaching and operations and include checkpoints along the way. A plan for education equity should be “braided in” to the strategic plan, he said.
Equity Alliance MN presented its long-awaited report and recommendations at the June 21 Sartell-St. Stephen School Board meeting. During the open forum period, 12 people, mostly opposed to the equity effort, spoke.
Equity Alliance staff outlined findings of their study that included reviewing data, focus groups with students, staff and community members, and observations of the district’s schools. The district’s effort to address equity, which promises that each student, particularity students of color, receive the support needed to be successful in school, picked up support following last summer’s killing of George Floyd. During a listening session in June 2020, students and parents shared stories of racism and hurtful comments about religion and gender.
The next step in the equity mission will be for the board to consider the report’s recommendations and, working with Equity Alliance, formulate a plan for the district.
Ridlehoover said he’s impressed with the district’s families who are engaged in the equity effort. He said he’s had “respectful conversations with people with different opinions. The questions being asked are good questions and they are raised respectfully,” he said.
In developing a policy, he said, “transparency and community engagement are huge. We need the community to have a well-run school district.
“Dignity and humanity need to prevail, and we need agreement around that,” he said. “How does that play in the classroom? Our agenda is an instructional agenda, not (to) indoctrinate with a political agenda.”
Equity Alliance’s report revealed a desire for more student voices as well as students who felt anxiety over pressure to excel.
“We need to find out what each and every kid needs,” Ridlehoover said. “How do they learn best? We need to teach to standards, but there’s a lot of ways to do that.” He cautioned that results take time and include training and teacher development, stressing teacher and student involvement in the plan.
“People own what they create,” he said, rather than top-down directives.
More than a year of students isolated at home, instead of social connections with peers and teachers in the classroom, have added to students’ mental health challenges.
The pressure kids feel to succeed comes from peers, parents and social media…rather than the school, he said.
The solution, he believes, is to get kids involved especially at the high school. “Let them know we care about them as people and how they are interacting with the world.” That interaction includes discussions about expectations.
Ridlehoover said he plans to block out time to be in the schools. “Kids are going to see me.”
Before those classrooms are full, Ridlehoover will be connecting this summer. “I don’t turn down meetings. I love that stuff,” he said.
“I appreciated the warm welcome and the people who have reached out.”