622 superintendent on changing perceptions, growing enrollment


file photo Osorio in 2015

The people of the tiny, sunny island Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, like most places in the world, taught their children English. The teachers taught the language through memorization. 

“If kids got it wrong, they would wack ‘em with a stick,” said North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Schools Superintendent Christine Osorio. 

She was in the Peace Corps, just out of college, stationed in Kiribati to teach strategies for teaching English. 

Osorio said it was crazy that, as a new college grad, she was a teacher trainer, but the Kiribati teachers themselves only had on average an eighth-grade education. 

Out went rote memorization. Osorio introduced interactive vocabulary games and role-play scenarios for more active practicing. 

Since she’s become a professional, Osorio has strived to increase productivity and sophistication in education. Now, as head of ISD 622, her eye for improvement has brought the district from the brink of debt, brought back students who’d been fleeing the district in droves, established a one-page strategic plan, and spearheaded a $275 million referendum plan to build and upgrade schools that district residents will vote on in May. 

 

Cleaning up the mess

Born in St. Louis and raised in southeastern Minnesota, Osorio finished college and her Peace Corp stint, landing a job with St. Paul Schools. 

She spent 19 years in St. Paul, working her way up through the administration to become chief academic officer. 

Osorio arrived to take over as ISD 622 superintendent in 2015. As soon as she swung open the door, she found that “the finances were a mess.”

The fund balance, or savings account, for most school districts, said Osorio, sits at around 10 percent of the total costs and budgets. Many school boards don’t allow the fund to dip below 5 percent. 

District 622 was at 1.5 percent in 2015, which Osorio said “is almost statutory operating debt, it was so bad.”

A bit before Osorio came aboard, a new finance director came in. The two started cleaning up the mess. 

A big issue was basic efficiency. The payroll system, just a few years before 2015, was still using paper timesheets. 

“When trying to budget a $200 million budget and you don’t have accuracy, it’s always a little bit of a guessing game,” said Osorio. The district digitized its system.

Still, the district needed money. Osorio said she and district staff worked hard to get an operating levy passed. They failed in 2015 and prevailed in 2016, getting voter approved funds for an extra $600 dollars per student that “set up the district for financial security.”

 

Enrollment is bread and butter

Before Osorio came, just four years ago, ISD 622 didn’t have a Facebook page, let alone a communications department. 

“If you don’t put out good stories about the district, the bad stories is what people think about,” she said. “We were losing kids all the time leaving the district, and we weren’t doing anything about it.”

Student retention was going down each year, while the district cities had increases in school-age children. 

“That means you have a reputation problem,” said Osorio. 

Osorio added communication staffers, who began building ISD 622’s social media presence. Then she hired a company to survey the people open enrolling in and out of the district. They found only 4 percent of parents open enrolled out because of actual experience. 

“Most of it was what they heard,” said Osorio. “That tells us we had a marketing problem, it wasn’t a performance issue.”

 

By the numbers

As for those coming into ISD 622, Osorio said the district primarily sees “white flight” and some people of color, coming from St. Paul Schools. Then, those same people were funneling out to Stillwater, Roseville and Mahtomedi. “We’re kind of a pass-through district for white flight,” she said.

“We’re a lot more diverse than Woodbury ... a lot more diverse than White Bear Lake. We are a lot more urban looking and feeling than districts that are bordering us to the east,” said Osorio. 

She said parents react to reputation because they are not education professionals and don’t know where to find useful data or how to interpret it. Before she came to ISD 622, she devoured data and decided to send her daughter to Tartan High School instead of a school like Woodbury.

“I always tell people I didn’t work here at the time,” she said. Still, her daughter’s Woodbury friends would call Tartan and North High School ghetto.

“Why do you call it the ghetto schools, because black and brown kids go there?” Osorio said she would ask the girls, asking anyone who made such a comment. 

People would say it wasn’t about race, but about low test scores and fighting.

Osorio said a quick glance at average test scores doesn’t tell the story of a school’s curriculum efforts. In ISD 622, where 55 percent of the students are of color, many students are learning English for the first time while taking tests. 

If you take out the English learners and compare the native speakers and ontrack students, Tartan and North’s test scores are competitive. Also, because North is much bigger than Mahtomedi, it offers far more college courses. A North student can graduate high school with two years of college under the belt. A Mahtomedi student, said Osorio, can’t say the same. 

 

‘That’s perception’

Last year, Tartan did not have one fight. “Ask how many fights there were at Mahtomedi High School last year — oh, quite a few,” said Osorio. “Its perception. People think it’s so great because it’s whiter.”

“But that’s perception. We’re on a mission to show that highly diverse schools can be excellent.” Osorio noted that kindergarten classes in the district are closer to 80 percent kids of color. 

Efforts by Osorio and her new regime have turned around retention. For the first time in about a decade, the district is growing.

Each open enrollment story is Osorio’s new favorite. There was the theater-obsessed Woodbury junior who signed up for a summer program at Tartan, saw all the different kinds of people and the sheer amount of them, and transferred to the high school for her senior year. One family pulled their kid out of Hill-Murray School because they could get more college credits at Tartan. 

Retention is but one aspect of Osorio’s ambitions. She directed the creation of a strategic plan, another thing the district did not have prior to her arrival. It’s one page — a length Osorio said she is proud of — and lists four chief objectives. 

Open communication is one — Osorio was quick to share Tartan has had one fight this year. Osorio and the district also aim to partner with companies within its boundaries like 3M, engage with diverse students through recruiting and retaining a diverse staff and increasing translation services, and setting up paths to competitive careers in technical fields with career curriculum. 

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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