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Integration funds in schools in jeopardy

Success Coach Chrissy DeLuna helps Neveln Elementary School second-grader Maria Miguel Felipe on a math exercise Wednesday afternoon. The Success Coach program is considered an educational success in Austin and Albert Lea, but the state integration revenue used to fund the program could be in jeopardy this legislative session. - Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

It’s time for a Mad Minute-style math exercise in Mrs. Kossman’s second-grade class.

Maria Miguel Felipe looks a bit nervous before the exercise as the class raises their arms, ready for the minute-long math quiz to begin. The objective is to complete as many addition and subtraction problems as possible within the time limit.

When the exercise starts, Felipe is ready. She has some help from Chrissy DeLuna, Neveln Elementary School success coach.

DeLuna is one of 10 success coaches in Austin who help students of color integrate and succeed in school. The Success Coach program is funded through state integration revenue, which many legislators say needs change. As the Legislature debates tweaking or possibly restructuring the integration revenue program, area educators are concentrating on making the most out of integration dollars.

“Success coaches have certainly been able to support a lot of parents,” said Judy Knudtson, Albert Lea Area Schools’ integration plan coordinator. Albert Lea adopted the Success Coach program in 2009 after hearing about the work Austin’s success coaches did.

The program is one of the largest positive educational stories out of Austin in recent years, ranking high among district initiatives. Success coaches in Austin help students new to the district succeed, whether that’s assisting a bilingual Hispanic or Sudanese student with classes, translating for parents who don’t speak English, or bringing new students and students from other countries up to speed on their lessons.

“The success coaches are viewed as very welcoming by all the groups that we’ve talked to in our community,” said Kristi Beckman, Austin’s integration coordinator. “That would be one of the biggest things that we’ve done.”

In addition, Austin uses integration funding for speakers like Naomi Tutu and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, as well as community films, field trips, and academic opportunities like bringing Austin and Albert Lea High School students to Mankato State University for a Latino career day in engineering programs. Furthermore, both districts fund after school opportunities which allows more students to come together for opportunities. The goal is to give students opportunities to learn from and with each other, as well as to bring students of all walks of life together.

That’s part of the reason why Albert Lea and Austin partner with Southland, Hayfield and Lyle as part of the Alliance for Educational Equity Integration Collaborative. The collaborative shares resources between districts and offers partnership opportunities like foreign language pen pals and lesson sharing. Several districts, like Albert Lea, are voluntary partners with Austin, which was tasked by the Minnesota Department of Education in 2007 to put together an integration plan in response to the district’s increasing population of students of color.

“All of the initiatives, the partnerships have been a wonderful opportunity, as we’ve learned a lot from what Austin has been doing,” Knudtson said. “It’s a good opportunity for all of our students and their parents when we can work together with other districts.”

Yet those partnerships will be put to the test this legislative session. Republican lawmakers tried to redefine integration funding last year during the 2011 shutdown battles so integration money could be spread around the state more evenly. Twin Cities school districts, which have a larger population of students of color, receive the majority of integration funding at the moment and lawmakers say the funding program isn’t doing enough to curb the increasing achievement gap between white and non-white students.

“The important thing is we spend the dollars on things that work,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington and chairman of the Education Finance Committee. Garofalo and other legislators will hear from state Dept. of Ed. officials as part of the Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force on Feb. 15 to hear their proposal on how the integration revenue program should be changed.

Task force members have looked at ways to improve student achievement and forced busing, according to Garofalo. While Garofalo said greater Minnesota could have increased funding under the new program, educators won’t hold their breath until Legislators decide what to do with the current program.

“We just don’t know what they’re going to do,” Beckman said about collaborative initiatives. “In the spirit with that, we’re going to stick with the initiatives going on right now. We’ll keep those initiatives going until we find out what’s next.”