By Amanda Dyslin
---- — ST. PETER — All four candidates for St. Peter Public School Board who participated in Thursday night's candidate forum unanimously agreed on the district's greatest strength: the teachers, by far.
They also agreed on St. Peter Public Schools' biggest challenge: space.
With 100 more kindergartners than seniors who will continue to matriculate through the grades, teachers and administrators are having to get creative these days with where lessons are being taught. As several candidates pointed out at South Elementary, sometimes that means teaching in hallways.
“They're doing the best they can. They're making it work. But it's a problem that needs to be solved,” said the only incumbent, Jon Carlson.
Carlson, Drew Dixon, Chris Harmes and Keith Stelter took part in the forum at the St. Peter Community Center. Charlie Potts and Dan Bergeson couldn't attend. The six candidates are vying for three open seats during the Nov. 5 election.
Facilitated by the League of Women Voters and the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce, the candidates were asked a range of questions about challenges facing the district, as well as its future. When addressing one of St. Peter's most current hot-button issues — whether or not a new school building is needed — all four leaned toward building one as long as the studies continue to indicate community growth.
Stelter said a new school would enhance “community attractability.” Carlson said a new building would alleviate the crowding at the elementary level. Harmes, who took part on the facilities task force last year, agreed and said there's a definite lack of gym, art, classroom and parking space that a new building could help rectify.
Dixon said, when looking long term, young families will be continuing to move to St. Peter for jobs, culture and the “excellent school system,” so a new building would be needed to accommodate that growth.
The candidates also addressed the achievement gap and how the district can work with the community to close the gap.
Dixon touted the importance of fostering teacher-student connections and community mentorships for English Language Learner students.
“It's tough to really get to the nuts and bolts of higher learning and higher concepts if you're already struggling with the basics of communication,” he said.
Harmes said helping students in need find access to computers and internet when not in school would be an important step.
“(There's a) gap in technology learning between the haves and have-nots,” he said.
Stelter said engaging in dialogue with legislators about the value of standardized tests; ensuring students (including ELL) are being read to and have exposure to English; and continuing to partner with Gustavus Adolphus College and other community organizations to help teach kids are all ways to chip away at the achievement gap.
Carlson said collaboration is key among the district, city, county and private sector, as is pooling resources. He also agreed internet access for all students at home would be beneficial.
“Sometimes I take it for granted,” he said.
Despite the inherent problems that come along with standardized testing, all agreed that it is an important assessment tool for educators.
“There does need to be hard checks along the way,” Dixon said, adding that in some instances standards for math and science should be even more rigorous.
Harmes said the tests are a great “aggregate” for gauging how the district performs but shouldn't be used as the sole measure for teacher and student performance.
Stelter agreed and added that without standardized testing there wouldn't be a standard curriculum. He also added that there should be additional measures to consider other student strengths, such as arts, music, business and trades.
“In general, standardized testing has good value. … It does, it holds people accountable,” Stelter said. “It helps us measure ourselves against our peers.”
Carlson said he wasn't initially “a big fan of the testing process” because of sanctions for under-performing schools, among other things. But now he's impressed with how intricate the tests have become, with results indicating what each student's strengths and challenges are.
The candidates also fielded questions about bullying, tight budgets, school safety, and technology inside and outside the classroom.
Potts provided a written statement at the forum, which reads in part: “Through continued fiscal responsibility, a commitment to finding the best ways to serve a changing student demographic and a strong focus on excellence in the form of college/work-force preparedness, St. Peter Public Schools can continue to develop and improve.”