WM School Board discusses Hope with Horses, iPad initiative

Updates on the Hope with Horses program and the iPad initiative were among the topics discussed by the Watertown-Mayer School Board during its regular meeting held on Monday, Feb. 24.
The program, which serves at risk and disengaged students at Watertown-Mayer High School, is administrated through Freedom Farm, a PATH International Premier Accredited Center located 10 minutes west of the high school. The non-profit organization serves 110 individuals with the assistance of 125 volunteers.
Susie Bjorklund of Freedom Farm gave an update on the program to the board during the meeting. According to Bjorklund, the Hope with Horses program is in its second year.
“Our goal is to offer hope and empowerment while gaining the skills needed to graduate and be successful after high school,” she said. “While engaged in interactive horse activities, the students work on a character skill each week such as leadership, choices, respect and teamwork by relating to the horse and other classmates.
“The students, using their new skills, are trained to work directly with Watertown-Mayer special education elementary students in a therapeutic riding lesson,” Bjorklund continued.
“The special education students are gaining benefits from this unique form of therapy that stretches and strengthens muscles, improves balance and coordination while working on communication skills, completing multi step directions, focus, building friendships and gaining confidence,” she said.
Bjorklund explained that horses are large intuitive animals and they bring out the best in a person.
“Horses naturally provide benefits such as work ethic, responsibility, communication and healthy relationships. Horses are social animals and have defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods,” she said. “An approach to one horse might not work with another. At times they may seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun. All these traits provide many opportunities for metaphorical learning.”
Bjorklund said the Hope with Horses program has been a success for its participants and she hopes that officials will consider allowing participants to earn high school credits based on the time they spend in the program.
“The effectiveness of this program has been seen in less discipline needed during the school day, an increase in attendance and improved grades for many,” she said. “They are now on track to graduate, which will have a positive impact on the community, having responsible young adults. Parents and teachers have stated they see the high school students are feeling more confident, empowered and have hope for their future.”
As evidence of the program’s success, a video produced by two students with ties to the program was shown to the board. In the video, the students talked about the importance and benefits of the program. The father of one of the program’s participants briefly spoke to the board about the importance of the program, saying he has seen greater self-confidence and increased respect and self esteem in his child as a result of the program.
Approximately one dozen students from the high school currently participate in the program.
According to high school principal Bob Hennen, the program serves students in grades 9-12. The criteria for participation varies. Sometimes it can be grade based while other times, it’s for students who struggle in school.
Hennen said he’d like to see the high school continue to have the opportunity to utilize the program.
“I think this program offers a spot for some of our students who are struggling and gives them an opportunity to develop skills that allow them to feel better about success and school,” he said.
“The stories we’ve heard and what the kids are saying is showing that it is having an impact on some of our students,” Hennen continued. “We cannot thank Freedom Farm and Susie enough for what they do. This is a unique program that we are trying to develop to help serve the needs of some of our students.”
At this time, the school district does not provide funding or support for the program outside of providing students with transportation to and from Freedom Farm. At the end of her presentation, Bjorklund asked board members to keep Freedom Farm in mind when it comes to funding, grants, and the like.
“The Freedom Farm horses in which we partner with are the foundation to safe and effective programming,” she said. “We rely on well trained, healthy horses. Hay costs have tripled this year, making the need to fund this program that is currently not funded very important. We are seeking grants and reaching out to the community.”
According to Bjorklund, not only have hay costs tripled but due to the extreme cold of the winter, the horses have needed triple the usual amount of hay daily.
Hope with Horses is one of three programs offered at Freedom Farm, which also offers a therapeutic riding program for children and adults, which is now in its 14th year, and the “Healing with Horses” program, which aids female veterans heal from physical and emotional traumas while serving the country. To learn more about Freedom Farm, visit freedomfarmmn.org.
Also during the meeting, Kids’ Company Coordinator Amy Dimler talked about how the program recently earned accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the leading organization for early childhood professionals. It was a three-year process to receive this distinction.
According to information from the district, with assistance from the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children, Kids’ Company completed a rigorous quality improvement process, was assessed to ensure that it met certain standards, and it was ultimately accredited.
Superintendent Dave Marlette called the accreditation “ a huge milestone” that took a lot of effort and noted that not many programs are able to earn this accreditation.
In other matters:
• Presentations giving an update on the use of iPads in the schools were made to the board by staff members representing each of the district’s four schools, along with special education.
Staff members talked about different applications that have proved successful and/or popular, including Schoology, Google Drive, Notability and Educreations. The board watched a video that was created several fourth graders, showing how the iPad is being used in the elementary school. The video incorporated results from a student / teacher survey about the iPad, with questions like “Does the iPad help you learn better?” for the students (376: yes or sometimes, 20: no) and “What are the top uses of the iPads?” for the teachers (drills).
High school teacher Rod Janikula talked about how iPads are preparing students for life-long learning through the four C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication and Critical Thinking. Hennen touched on how iPads are forcing teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraging them to take risks, which are paying off.
Hennen added that iPads have forced students to be more accountable and responsible. For example, a student can’t claim he or she didn’t know about an assignment when a teacher can simply show the student the correspondence that was sent about that assignment on their iPad.
Middle school principal Nick Guertin said that teachers have been given tools to be creative with teaching and it’s rubbing off on the kids. Guertin reported that he recently attended a conference where he heard how many school officials remain apprehensive about incorporating one-to-one iPad use in their schools. Guertin said Watertown-Mayer remains far more progressive than many school districts regarding this issue.
SPED director Mike Piersak noted that the iPad helps equalize educational opportunities for all students but he emphasized the importance of finding the appropriate apps that best help all students.
The presentations concluded with a discussion by Technology Director Dan Sieling, who shared the results of a staff survey that included everyone by elementary school staff regarding the iPad initiative. According to the survey, 92 percent of the staff believe the initiative has had a positive influence and 90 percent of the staff indicated they would like to see the initiative continue.
The survey showed that the staff is less sure about which device they would like to use going forward, with only 54 percent choosing the iPad. It was also noted that staff members are encouraged to be “device agnostic” with their curriculum, meaning it’s not all based on Apple should the district ever switch to a different device.
Sieling noted that starting next year, the district should look at starting a rotation to replace the devices, which they are hoping will have a four-year life span, so they don’t have to replace all of the devices at once. He also noted that iPad use has resulted in at least a 50 percent reduction in paper/copier usage in the district.
• The board approved a motion to dissolve the Carver-Scott Educational Cooperative No. 930. The services provided by that co-op are now being supplied by the SouthWest Metro Educational Cooperative.
Watertown-Mayer is one of 10 area district to take part in the cooperative, which provides a comprehensive array of customized programs and services to complement the educational services offered by the local school districts and surrounding communities.
• The board accepted a formal request from the Watertown-Mayer ISD No. 111 Principals Group to enter into negotiations for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Principal Contract. Other contracts that are slated to be negotiated this spring include: Activities Director; Special Education Director; Community Education Director; District Finance Officer; Managers Group; Secretaries Group; and PAC Director.
• Donations were accepted from the Watertown-Mayer Wrestling Club, which provided the lodging costs associated with the team’s participation in the Rochester Holiday Tournament, and Watertown-Mayer Youth Baseball and Softball, which donated $500 toward the renovation of the high school baseball field.
• Several resignation, leave and similar requests were approved in the personnel consent agenda.
They include: Debra Burns, food service, resignation effective Jan. 3, 2014; Jennifer Libra, kindergarten teacher, maternity / family leave for the 2014-15 school year; Jamie Renken, fourth grade teacher, six-week maternity leave beginning approximately April 26, 2014; Sara Ress, third grade teacher, maternity leave effective May 12 through the end of the 2013-14 school year; Amanda Groepper, seventh grade math teacher, resignation effective June 30, 2014; and a list of coaches for the 2014 spring season.
Also approved in the personnel consent agenda was the hiring of Angela Hillman, a Title I teacher at Zion Lutheran, effective for the 2013-14 school year.
• The Watertown-Mayer School Board will hold its next regularly scheduled meeting at Watertown City Hall at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 17.

Contact Todd Moen at todd.moen@ecm-inc.com

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