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Minnesota schools say student support grants paying off

By Solvejg Wastvedt

MPR News/90.1 FM

They visit families at home to talk about school attendance. They show first-graders how to share and teach fourth-graders to manage anxiety.

At the Fridley school district’s alternative program, the new social worker even goes to court with students who have chronic absenteeism.

“She has really been able to connect students to resources that they might not even have known they need,” said principal Amy Cochran.

Seventy-seven schools around Minnesota, including five in Fridley, hired so-called “support staff” this year with $12 million in state grants announced last November. Support staff include social workers, counselors, nurses and psychologists.

Fridley previously had no social workers in the district and now has one at each of its schools. When the six-year grants run out, Fridley administrators say they hope to be able to absorb the full cost and maintain the new positions.

Overall, schools in Minnesota put less of their money toward student support than schools in any other state. Minnesota spent 2.7 percent of education money on student support in 2015, compared to 5.6 percent nationally.

The state education department estimates that last year’s grants will total about $29.3 million in support spending, adding in the matching funds districts are required to contribute.

That increase still doesn’t move Minnesota out of last place for student support spending.

But it does change the school day for students like the ones at Somerset Elementary School in Mendota Heights.

Counselor Jessalin Karsnia used to split her days between two schools in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district. Now, with grant funding, she’s full-time at Somerset.

Karsnia said instead of always “trying to put out fires,” she teaches lessons on topics like sharing, friendship and anti-bullying once a week in each of Somerset’s classrooms. She’s available to meet with students any day of the week.

“To say you can only have problems on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I was maybe at that building, is not fair for anyone,” Karsnia said.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, pushed for the grant program in 2016 and unsuccessfully proposed an expansion this year. “It’s definitely still a priority,” Kent said. “This is the best solution anybody’s come up with that people agree to.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement when the grants were awarded that more than 100 schools applied for the money.

In southwestern Minnesota, Worthington schools superintendent John Landgaard said he’s still waiting to see the grant’s impact.

He tried to hire a psychologist to split time between Worthington’s elementary, middle and high schools.

No luck.