Phillips making adjustment to suburbia

Admittedly, for someone who graduated with a class of 50, the size and scale of a first-ring suburban school district can be a little daunting.

But, arming herself on one hand with sheaves of facts and figures on her new district and on the other with a heartfelt support of staff and students, Patty Phillips is getting acclimated to District 622.

She arrives for an interview with a half-inch of information in her right hand. At a question about minority enrollment and reduced-price lunch rates, a printout comes down off the wall by her window, “where I put it so I can see it.” A further query about the boards she serves on brings out a daily planner and an admission that she’s on a steep learning curve to memorize the alphabet soup of community groups and school consortiums she’s now involved with: NSPABA, OBPA, EMID, AMSD. . .

But Phillips doesn’t need background or prompts regarding the people she’s working with. “I am very impressed with the staff and the students at this district,” she says.

Perceptions of District 622

Like the Virginia, Minn., school district where she worked her way up from kindergarten teacher to superintendent, she says the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district seems to have high achievement rates, good discipline and support from parents that students need to learn at school.

That didn’t come as a surprise to her. “I did a lot of research before I ever applied for this job,” Phillips says. “I was looking for a good fit with my philosophy, and this was a good fit.”

She’s “impressed with the work ethic” of staff and instructors she’s met. “I think people give 200 percent here,” she says. “There’s a lot of collective passion for schools and for what’s best for students.”

She’s especially happy to see the district pursuing the “professional learning communities” concept. She explains that one of the biggest resources the movement provides teachers is time: time to meet with one another to compare strategies and successes, time to review statistics and results, and time to plan how to improve.

“The professional learning community approach asks a series of questions,” Phillips explains, as she enumerates them on her fingers. “Are kids learning? How do we know they’re learning? What kind of statistics or results do we have to tell us that? What do we do if they’re not? And what comes next if they’re not improving as we think they should?”

The approach also provides time that teachers in past decades may not have had to study their craft, to compare notes with other teachers and to really sit down and delve into the information they need to make decisions.

“It’s a way to determine good practice, where everything fits into the structure of the plan and everything you do focuses back on what works for student learning,” Phillips says.

“I think another thing that helps is that teachers feel more that they’re working together,” she adds. “Teaching can be an isolating profession. Studies have found that 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and I think the isolation factor can be part of that. With professional learning communities, teachers have time to share and study data.”

In her research, Phillips says she found the district compares very well against other metropolitan districts in financial accountability. “”This district is run in a really fiscally responsible manner,” she says “The people in those roles need to be commended.”

And, in turn, she has found, the community is very supportive of the schools, such as with the current excess operating levy. “I’m very pleased with the support the community has for its schools, and I’m just really pleased with the school/community partnerships that are in place.”

She had just returned from a crisis simulation gathering at Tartan High School, where representatives of city, county and school agencies examined the building and discussed emergency preparedness. “To be in a room with all these people from all these different perspectives who were all committed to helping our students was really great.”

One difference between District 622 and Virginia is in the relative affluence of students’ families. Using the federally-mandated program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to students in need as a yardstick, Virginia had a 46 percent free- and reduced-price lunch participation rate in one of its buildings; overall, District 622 free and reduced-price lunch participation is 22 percent.

However, Phillips notes that the rate in 622 has gone up by 29 percent in the last four years, denoting an ongoing change in the needs of families in the district.

Minority enrollment in Virginia was about 10 percent; in 622 it is over 20 - which Phillips notes is a 78 percent increase in the past four years.

The biggest ongoing change in 622, she notes, is in dealing with students with limited English proficiency. Those students are now at 4.6 percent of the school population, a 160 percent increase for the district.

Returning to the learning communities model, Phillips says these challenges are the kinds that teamwork can really help address. “When we’re seeing these changes in demographics, that’s a place where through our staff development and the learning communities we can find out how best to adjust.”

A longtime teacher -

and learner

Phillips was raised and graduated from high school in tiny Buhl, Minn. “The finest water in America,” she quotes the town motto proudly. “The town is probably even smaller now than when I was there, but you got an education there second to none. You could go off and compete with anybody.”

She lived in Virginia for 28 years, working for most of those at the district. She began teaching second and third grade in Duluth, took some time off while her children were young to operate her own daycare facility, then joined the Virginia district.

She says she probably caught the teaching bug as a child. “I loved playing ‘school.’ I loved going to school. I just loved reading, studying, being a student all through college and graduate work.”

She began teaching second- and third-graders, took some time off to raise her own young children - operating her own daycare for several years - and returned to teaching at the kindergarten level.

From there, she rose through the ranks at Virginia, through strategic planning to curriculum director to being an elementary principal, before she became superintendent.

The jump from kindergarten instructor to strategic planner seemed to be the most dramatic step - at least to those who were interviewing her. “I still remember sitting in this room and being asked ‘What on earth would a kindergarten teacher know about strategic planning?’ she recalls. “I just smiled and said, ‘Everything I learned I learned in kindergarten,’” The icebreaker made the group laugh - and opened the door for Phillips to impress them with her plans.

Through the years, Phillips proved to Virginia she could both crunch the data and win over parents and community leaders. The fondness goes both ways.

“I miss the people,” she says of Virginia. “At the North High centennial celebration, Carl Lipke’s alumni choir sang this song - ‘Because We’re Friends’ - and that was only the second time I’d heard that song in my life. The first time had been last spring when they gave me a goodbye program. So then, at North, I had to get up and speak, and I was pretty misty about the whole thing.”

Getting to know people as well as she did before can seem daunting, given that her previous district was about a seventh the size of 622 and had three school buildings, compared to 15.

That’s why it’s reassuring for Phillips to run into people she knows shopping or get a honk and a wave as she drives around the district. A recent visit to North St. Paul’s downtown for the History Cruze car show also made her feel more at home. “I love the community - North St. Paul definitely has an at-home, small town feel,” she says. “And now that I’m getting to know people and they recognize me, that feels good - I never expected to make those connections so fast.”

Some of her newfound anonymity may be a benefit, though. The yellow Beetle she drives, which seemed like “the only one in the Iron Range” for years, is just one of many in the metro area. Back in Virginia, her students, staff and friends could keep casual tabs on her activities by looking for the bright little car; even her mother would insist, after apparently seeing a tourist’s Beetle in the area, that she’d “seen” Patty at a particular store or restaurant.

Phillips is diving in by getting active in groups such as the Rotary club and the Partnership, by meeting business and civic groups and by attending school functions.

She predicts she’ll be a familiar face at games, concerts and plays around the district. “Oh yes. Oh yes,” she says. “I’ve got my Tartan and North shirts all ready.”

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