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Wrenshall School officials optimistic despite community concerns

With construction nearing an end in the district, Wrenshall officials are optimistic about the upcoming school year despite concerns from the community about the district's leadership.

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Wrenshall School Clint Austin / 2021 File / Duluth News Tribune
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WRENSHALL — School officials expressed their optimism for the upcoming school year, but staff and community members voiced their concerns at a school board meeting Monday, Aug. 8.

Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro spoke with enthusiasm about the projects that were completed last year or over the summer that will be an improvement for students and staff, including the renovated gym and new multipurpose room that will give younger students space during the day. The parking lot has been redone to allow for more spaces and easier entry and exit, but officials are still waiting on some final touches including signage.

Finally, she said the new career and technical education building is scheduled to be ready for students at the start of the school year.

"Some people might not think it's a big deal, but it is," she said. "Hopefully this is our year ... and all the messy stuff is behind us."

The board heard from 11 speakers including parents, teachers and a school board member during the public comment section of the meeting. Each speaker was limited to three minutes of speaking time, and unlike previous meetings, time was not allowed to be yielded to other speakers. The comments made during the meeting are in addition to concerns shared by community members and staff during a board meeting in June .

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While a majority of the staff speakers spoke about training they have taken, updates in their classes or and offered praise for other staff members, Chloe Swanson, the district's media specialist, voiced her concerns about how the school has dealt with LGBTQ+ issues.

"My personal life — the choices I make about whom I love — should in no way impact or infiltrate my job as a media specialist," she said. "However, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, as a co-advisor of our GSA club, I can no longer remain quiet."

Swanson said she received a complaint last year about a book in the library, "And Tango Makes Three," about two male penguins who raise a family together. The school board does not have a policy to address material challenges, therefore the complaint could not be handled properly.

Swanson said she received a call from one of her superiors reacting to the environment "cultivated by some of our school board members," who asked her to suppress the book.

"After that long, difficult conversation, I felt I was being told not even penguins deserve the love you feel," she said. "You should hide and feel shame."

Swanson said without the support of her family and co-workers, she would not be returning to Wrenshall.

"Instead of spending my time creating a robust and exciting library media program, I was holding the hands of our LGBTQ+ students as they cried, contemplating suicide because of actions of leadership and the bullying of their peers," she said.

While Swanson was unable to finish her statement during the allotted time, Board Chair Misty Bergman said Swanson could send her letter directly to the board.

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Board member Jack Eudy also read a letter during the open forum, apologizing for remarks he made during a construction meeting last year. Eudy said at the time he did not know his comments were offensive to members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

"At the time I did not know my lack of knowledge was so hurtful to the Native people and culture," he said. "I ask for forgiveness for my ignorance and failure to educate myself on your ways and beliefs."

He added that his grandmother was from the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, and he felt that he brought shame to her family, as well. Eudy said he will commit to being more actively involved in the education and promotion of the culture and life of Native American people.

While the district does not need to teach lessons on Native American topics as it does not meet a demographic threshold, Eudy said he would like to see more being taught. Eudy thought that teaching could be done through community education programs.

"We are all a different shade of brown," he said.

Student phone policy approved

In other district business, Belcastro and Principal Michelle Blanchard recently attended a conference in the Twin Cities, and during the meeting they shared some insight on their thoughts for the year. The conference emphasized that student achievement has to be front and center within the district and Belcastro said she believes officials can come together to work for the students.

"I feel confident it is going to be a good year," she said.

Bergman agreed and said working together is what the district needs.

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Belcastro also shared that three families are touring the district in the next week, and should they decide to enroll, it would be a needed boost to overall enrollment.

The board also approved a new "Away for the day" phone policy for students. Students will be required to keep their phones in their backpacks or lockers during the school day.

When asked at a previous meeting if students could use their phones during breaks, Blanchard said the policy is "Away for the day," not just in class. The goal of this policy is to not only increase engagement in class, but also to cut down on the bullying that is done over social media during school hours, she said.

Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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