AITKIN -- While many schools in the state are experiencing financial difficulties, the Aitkin School District is in good shape.
Superintendent Ed Anderson, who was named an Administrator of Excellence by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, cited several reasons for the school's success.
The No. 1 reason is community support and how the community has believed in education. Anderson said the number of people who attend concerts, sports and other activities has been high, as has the number of people who vote in school board, levy referendum and building bond elections.
Anderson said having supportive leadership is a plus. He said a school district needs to have a school board with staying power -- members need to stay for more than four years. Currently, most Aitkin School Board members are in their second or third terms.
Stability and longevity are keys in administrative roles, said Anderson. Anderson has been with the school district since 1984.
Teacher and student relationships are also a key to a successful school.
"If any of these are missing a school would not be as successful," said Anderson.
MASA honored Anderson for his leadership, concern for students and his involvement in professional and community organizations. Anderson said the honor is a nice recognition, but the success of the school district is not based on one person alone.
Since Anderson's tenure, he has seen the district grow in several ways.
Anderson's eight-year dream came true in January 2000 -- the Aitkin Children's Center opened for children up to age 5. The center is attached to Rippleside Elementary School.
Anderson said he wanted to bring all the children in the Early Childhood Family Education and the Head Start programs together. He does not feel children should be separated based on income or disabilities.
"I consider all the children as our children and want them to interact," Anderson said.
The center was built with district and area funds and no referendums were needed to bring in more money. The community helped the district with the long-term project to help make the center a reality.
All preschool programs are held at the center that serves about 140 children. Anderson said the center is about 85 percent to where it should be -- more collaboration is needed.
The Aitkin School District has invested a lot of time and money with its vocational and technical programs. Anderson said 45 percent of students do not go to a four-year college. Courses the school offers include house construction and computer aided drafting.
The district also offers college credit courses for students who plan to attend a four-year college. A student can earn up to a year of credits to go toward their degree.
The school also has enrichment classes in reading and mathematics for elementary students.
Anderson helped bring the Professionals Assisting in Reading program to the district. Teachers become reading specialists for 30 minutes each school day to educate students one on one. Anderson said P.A.I.R has been a success and has helped children in grades one through three become better readers.
Community involvement with the district has remained strong. Anderson said the elementary school parent organization has addressed many needs, such as small class size. Through several community meetings the Aitkin School Board worked out a plan to build enough space to lower class sizes.
A $2 million bond passed last year to add on to the high school and the elementary school. The additions are completed and the lower class size will go into effect next school year. Class sizes will drop from 23 or 24 students per teacher to a 17-1 ratio.
With the addition, four elementary teachers, a Spanish specialist, a new media technology center with a full-time media technician and a science specialist were added.
"We could have survived without this," said Anderson. "But the district wanted to do a better job."
Anderson said the most difficult challenge he has faced so far in the district pertained to Palisade Elementary School in 1997. The school serves about 80 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and is about 23 miles from Aitkin.
"The school needed major renovations," said Anderson. "The school board struggled with what to do with the building, to either have it come down or to put up another facility."
Half the building was torn down and new space was added. The school now is a kindergarten through fourth-grade facility and holds 35 students with two professional staff members along with support staff.
Anderson said rebuilding the school made sense, but he would like the school to eventually become a non-graded school.
"I would like the children to be looked at by education level, not age," said Anderson.
The next challenge Anderson will be facing is with enrollment.
There are 1,340 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and the enrollment has been stable. However, Anderson sees a decline in enrollment for the next five years. According to the latest census, the Aitkin area has grown about 20 percent. Anderson said now the population is nearing retirement age.
"It's OK to get small as long as you take the appropriate steps and do things in a small way," said Anderson. "It (going smaller) affects people and programs and our next challenge is to begin that process."
Anderson is a member in many community and professional organizations and said being active is good. He is involved in the Aitkin Rotary Club, Aitkin Chamber of Commerce, Aitkin Friends of the Art, the Aitkin Quarterback Club, Riley Club and the Aitkin VFW and Legion clubs.
Anderson was a teacher in St. Cloud in the 1970s and then was assistant high school principal in Staples from 1979-81. He took a middle school position at St. Michael-Albertville from 1981-84 and then came to Aitkin.
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