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Eau Claire school district reaches out to minority parents

Fatima Sanchez pointed to a location on a globe in front of her, then spun it slowly as she described how the southern portion of the multicolored sphere tipped toward an imaginary sun.

“Right now the southern part of the world is tipped closer toward the sun,” Sanchez, a DeLong Middle School sixth-grader, said Monday during a breakout session from teacher Nick Sirek’s science class. “That’s why it’s warmer there now.”

Sanchez went on to describe how the tilt of the Earth, and not distance, helps account for the seasons different parts of the world experience at different times of the year. Then, after a moment, she smiled and offered further explanation.

“We’re not in summer here right now,” she smiled, a reference to record snowfall and bitter cold temperatures in Eau Claire the past few weeks.

Moments earlier Asenet Pastorello, a bilingual assistant at DeLong, manipulated the globe as she spoke in a mix of English and Spanish to Sanchez. Pastorello works with Latino students who speak Spanish and some of whom English is not their first language.

“Good work,” Pastorello told Sanchez after the student improved her previous score on a quiz. “You did a good job learning the concepts we discussed.”

Such efforts to better educate the Eau Claire school district’s nonwhite students are becoming more commonplace as the district’s population becomes more diverse, school officials said. A Monday night meeting at DeLong was an example of how district officials are attempting to reach out to the parents of those students as well.

That meeting, at which district officials discussed possible changes to elementary school boundaries and related topics, was translated in Spanish, an effort to engage the parents of Latino students who were invited to the session. A similar approach will be taken at a meeting next month aimed at Hmong parents in the district, one of seven such meetings about possible school boundary changes occurring this winter/spring. Monday’s meeting was the third of those.

“Parent involvement is one of the markers of students’ post-secondary success,” said Kim Koller, the district’s executive director of administration. “The more we can engage parents in their children’s educations, the better those outcomes tend to be.”

Such attempts are increasingly important, district officials said, as the number of nonwhite students attending Eau Claire schools grows. According to 2018-19 figures, Asian students make up 9.6 percent of district enrollment while the Hispanic figure is 5.5 percent. Another 5.4 percent of students come from backgrounds of two or more races.

Black students make up 2.6 percent of the student population, Native Americans .6 percent and Pacific islanders .2 percent. Those figures are generally comparable to Eau Claire’s population makeup, according to U.S. census data.

To engage parents of minority students, the district is communicating beyond its normal methods, reaching out to leaders of Hmong and Latino populations, Koller said. Written information increasingly is posted in those languages as well as English, she said.

“We are really trying to tap in to community partnerships” to increase the number of people coming to our meetings and events, Koller said.

Such efforts are needed, given the feedback of parents of schoolchildren in the Eau Claire Latino community, said Mireya Valadez, an advocate for that population locally. Many have described not feeling they understand what is happening in schools, she said.

“Parents have voiced concerns about this,” Valadez said. “What (district officials) think is a regular means of communication does not work for some people.”

Dave Oldenberg, the district’s academic services director, acknowledged communications challenges posed by culture and language differences. To address that, district officials are partnering with community leaders to more fully engage citizens, he said.

“We are learning who to partner with,” Oldenberg said. “We are trying to focus on active versus passive engagement” with those groups.

Valadez credits the district for reaching out to the Latino community and others. District officials meet quarterly with Latinos, she said, and such efforts as a proposed Spanish dual immersion language program and a Hmong history class taught at high schools are signs they are committed to diversity.

“They are asking what are our concerns and how can they improve communication,” Valadez said. “There is dialogue, and that is promising.”

EC school board adds three school days to make up instructional time

The Eau Claire school board moved at its Monday night meeting to add three additional days to the district’s academic calendar in order to make up for inclement weather days.

Elementary and middle school students are now required to attend school on Thursday, and all students will be required to attend school on Monday and June 7. School was not originally scheduled on these dates.

Because the option left additional needed instructional minutes for high school students, the district will also be looking into cutting lunch time and additional non-instructional time.

The original district calendar had allotted for five inclement weather days. But because of the extreme cold, snowy and icy conditions the Eau Claire area has faced in the past three weeks, the district has closed for seven days and had two delayed start days that have contributed to lost instructional minutes.

Two days were not able to be absorbed, as well as the two delayed start days, creating the need for 2½ additional days of school.

“We’ve had a very unusual and out of the ordinary winter, as you can see by this chart,” schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said, gesturing a slide showing the missed school days. “I know it’s a very difficult decision to be made, but it must be made.”

The board’s decision, which came after more than an hour of discussion, also forces the district to cancel elementary school conferences, which were originally scheduled for Friday.

Board members Lori Bica and Chris Hambuch-Boyle voted against adding school on Friday because it resulted in the canceling of conferences.

“It’s such an important piece,” Hambuch-Boyle told the board. “Sitting down with parents is such a critical time. I’d have a hard time (voting yes on this motion) on this short of notice.”

The board considered four options to fulfill the missed instructional minutes, electing to select none of them in their original form.

The first option was to re-purpose non-student days within the existing academic calendar to instructional days. Those dates originally proposed included Thursday, Feb. 21, Friday, Feb. 22, Monday, Feb. 25 and Friday, June 7.

In the case that school be canceled again, the district would next propose holding classes on May 17, according to meeting materials.

Hardebeck said during her Monday presentation that the benefits of the option include: recovering full days of instruction — especially prior to AP and other high stakes assessments — as well as the district’s summer school program remaining in tact and families end up being impacted by fewer days overall.

This option also would not cost the district additional transportation costs.

The second and third options were to extend school days between March 1 and June 6, either by 17 minutes per day or 30 minutes. Adding 17 minutes to each day would not allow a cushion in the case of further inclement weather days, Hardebeck said, but 30 minutes would create a cushion.

Those additional minutes would need to be made up before school due to transportation feasibility, Hardebeck said. Additional costs for transportation for this option were estimated at more than $70,000, plus an additional $90,000 to $180,000 in overtime compensation for hourly school employees.

Hardebeck also noted adding time to the school day may negatively impact students who have part-time jobs and other commitments before and after school.

The fourth option the board considered was to maintain the current academic calendar and extends the school year to June 11. In the case that inclement weather forced the district to miss further instructional minutes, that date would be extended again.

This option, Hardebeck told the board, would impact summer school and other summer community programs scheduled to begin June 11. It would also impact families who have already-scheduled vacations.

“No matter what we do somebody is going to be inconvenienced,” board President Joe Luginbill said during the discussion. “But we have to do it.”

Local primaries are today

Voters in several primary elections in west-central Wisconsin will winnow the field of candidates who will go on to appear on April 2 ballots.

While there is no statewide election today, there are primaries for hotly contested local government races and a recall election for one rural school district.

Hopes to get a seat on the Eau Claire City Council will end for the two bottom vote-getters out of the 12 people running in today’s primary. The 10 winners will go on to compete in spring’s election for the five at-large seats on the council.

Incumbents Catherine Emmanuelle and Kate Beaton; former Councilman David Klinkhammer; and newcomers Kirk Ausman, Chandler Lorentz, Kate Martin, Laura Benjamin, Donald Motzing, Dale Poynter, Echo Reardon, John Lor and Kyle Woodman are on today’s ballot. Eau Claire voters can pick up to five.

A race for an open Barron City Council seat is shaping up to make history for the community with a growing Somali population.

Isaak Mohamed and Faisal Ahmed — the first Somali men to run for public office in Barron — are competing with Barron native Paul Solie in today’s primary.

Voters can pick one and the top two finishers will appear on the April 2 ballot.

A rural school district will decide today whether two school board members should be ousted.

Flambeau school district, which is primarily in Rusk County but also small parts of Chippewa, Taylor and Price counties, is holding recall elections for two school board positions.

President Sam Stewart is facing challenger Sara Baker, and board clerk Danielle Zimmer is facing off against Ruth E. Opachan.

Petitioners collected 579 signatures opposing Stewart’s re-election late last year and 569 against Zimmer getting another term. A minimum of 398 signatures was required to force a recall election.

Three men are vying to serve as mayor of the Clark County city of Owen in today’s primary.

Incumbent Charlie Milliren faces challengers Robert Wilczek and Kevin Molitor. Today’s top two vote-getters will advance to the spring election.

Races in two Chippewa County school districts also attracted enough contenders to warrant a primary.

Seven people — incumbents Donna Albarado and Char Seibel, plus challengers Holli Sande, Kathryn Siverling Vander Molen, Brad Sonnentag, Richard Vander Molen and Alan Sonnentag — are running for three seats on the Cadott school board. The person who comes in last in today’s election will not appear on April 2 ballots.

One seat on the Cornell school board is sought by three candidates. Incumbent Greg Baker faces challengers Josh Schwingle and Donna J. Kendall today with the top two continuing on to the spring election.

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. Voters must bring valid government-issued photo ID at the polls. For the location of your polling place and other voting information, go online to or contact your local municipal clerk’s office.

Fireplace blamed for blaze that destroyed ex-state senator's home

Former state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and her husband told authorities their fireplace was the cause of the blaze that destroyed their rural Alma farmhouse early Saturday morning.

Vinehout, who just left office last month after 12 years representing a swath of west-central Wisconsin from Alma to Eau Claire, and her husband, Douglas Kane, said they were the only ones home when they were awakened at about 1 a.m. by the sound of fire alarms going off and quickly realized their house was engulfed in flames, according to a news release from the Buffalo County sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s office received a report at 1:17 a.m. Saturday from a neighbor saying she woke up and noticed the home at W1490 Cesler Valley Road was on fire.

When emergency units arrived, about a third of the house was up in flames, the news release states.

Kane told authorities the couple had started a fire in the fireplace and that it was still going when they went to bed.

The Alma, Mondovi, Fountain City, Tri-Community, Nelson and Waumandee Montana Lincoln fire departments fought the fire but were unable to put it out, with weather and road conditions near the house hampering their efforts, the release indicates.

After a post on Vinehout’s Facebook page reported the news that all family members and farm animals were safe but that a fire had destroyed the house and all of its contents, the family received an outpouring of sympathy and support on social media, with many people asking how they could help.

That prompted Eau Claire City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann, state Democratic Party chairwoman Martha Laning and 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party chairwoman Lisa Hermann to launch a Facebook fundraiser Sunday to help the family start over.

“Kathleen and Doug got out with only the shoes on their feet and the clothes they were wearing,” Werthmann wrote in a Facebook post. “While their insurance will eventually help them with a new home in the coming months, they are in need of immediate help with basic necessities such as clothes, shoes, phones, winter jackets, and food.”

The fundraiser ended Monday morning after exceeding its stated goal of $20,000. The total raised was $22,045.

“Our family is eternally grateful for all the love and support everyone’s shown us these past couple days,” the family said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Between the texts, calls, food and clothes from strangers, and donations on the Facebook fundraiser, we couldn’t ask for a more resounding response in these troubled times. We’re beyond blessed to be a part of this community. Thank you.”

“People really stepped up to help,” said Werthmann, who was Vinehout’s campaign manager for her first state Senate run in 2006 and then worked on her staff and has remained a family friend. “There was so much love for Kathleen and her family after some of the things she’s done.”

While Vinehout was a proud Democrat representing the region, Werthmann said it was heartwarming to see supportive comments and donations from people on both sides of the political aisle.

“I think that speaks volumes for how people put political things aside to try to help (in a crisis),” he said, noting that he spoke to Vinehout on Saturday and she was in total shock about the fire.

One example of the bipartisan nature of the support on Facebook came in a comment regarding the fundraiser from Republican state Rep. Bob Kulp of Stratford.

“I just heard about this, and I needed to share it,” Kulp wrote. “Former Senator Kathleen Vinehout lost their family home on Saturday morning, and although Sen. Vinehout and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, I donated to her family’s rebuilding efforts, and if you feel lead to, I’d encourage you to do the same.”

Vinehout was elected to the Senate in 2006 and re-elected in 2010 and 2014. She did not seek re-election last year because she ran for governor.