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Waubun principal says her goodbyes

On the last day of school, Waubun students gathered around Principal Helen Kennedy to hug her goodbye, tell her she'll be missed and wish her good luck.

Wauban principal
Waubun Principal Helen Kennedy hugs a student as she says her goodbyes. She is leaving for a new job with the Bagley High School. Riham Feshir / Forum Communications Co.

On the last day of school, Waubun students gathered around Principal Helen Kennedy to hug her goodbye, tell her she'll be missed and wish her good luck.

As she tried to keep herself from crying, Kennedy told the students Thursday that she accepted a job as Bagley High School principal.

"Life isn't fair," she said, her voice shaking. "But when life isn't fair to us, we have to pick up and do something to make it better."

Kennedy has been the Waubun School principal for nine years, and because of federal government mandates to overhaul the school, she will lose her job.

Under the federal School Improvement Grant, Waubun will get a new principal in the fall and undergo major changes over the next three years.


The school was named one of 32 worst performing schools in the state based on assessment test scores and graduation data, but Kennedy said that label is unfair and inaccurate.

She told the students how hard they work and how kind they are to each other cannot be measured by test data.

"You are the best kids in the world, and I'm sorry I have to leave you," Kennedy said.

Cambridge Consultants visited the school last month over a two-day period to evaluate its instructional practices, safety, discipline and engagement.

Waubun School received a "poor" overall evaluation out of four ratings -- acceptable, fair, poor and unacceptable.

"The principal has focused in recent years on improving student behavior and attitudes and on improving the atmosphere for learning," the report released by Cambridge Consultants stated. "These strategies have been largely successful and students, teachers and parents report that behavior and relationships have improved significantly."

The report goes on to explain that staff and teachers have a good understanding of students' home circumstances and "the difficulties that economic deprivation present for learning."

"School leaders have attempted to secure more parental involvement, but parents feel that communication is unsatisfactory, and attendance at parent-teacher conferences is low," according to the report. "There is no parent-teacher organization."


Kennedy said the school cannot be judged and evaluated in just two days, especially during Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test days.

"I don't think it was enough to come (for just two days to get an understanding for) what's really happening at the school," she said.

There is not enough research focused on rural schools to recommend an improvement model, she added, explaining that it's mostly based on urban, big city schools like Chicago public schools.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said in all 32 schools, parent and community involvement is lacking and will need to be improved in the overhauling process.

"There is a lot of leadership issues, and it's not just the principal," she said in a news conference Wednesday.

She added that many of the teachers at the schools are implementing an old style of teaching and not keeping up with data analysis techniques.

"There is poor teaching going on; I call it '50s-style teaching," Seagren said.

Teachers and the administration have strengths and weaknesses that need to be identified, she said. And removing the principal doesn't necessarily mean removing that person from the district completely.


"Maybe this individual has some strengths that are of value to the district," Seagren said, adding that principals can be placed in different jobs during the overhaul process.

Kennedy said she's been proactive instead of playing the waiting game and not knowing what the future holds.

But she told her students she'll still be around - she's been part of the community for years and will continue to participate in school events as a parent.

The recommendation to replace Kennedy comes from the federal government - something that never crossed her mind.

"I never thought Washington, D.C., would basically fire me from my job," she said. "I'm sad to leave, but excited to start a new phase in my career."

Feshir is a reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune

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