NEW ULM - The need to think strategically, anticipate challenges and be pro-active - rather than simply reacting to changing circumstances- has been a frequent motif in statements by Particia Hoffman who is completing her first, four-year term on the District 88 Board of Education.
Hoffman is one of eight candidates running for four seats on the board and the only incumbent seeking for re-election.
"I have been on the board for four years and feel that many good things have been accomplished, but because of the issues with state funding, there is so much yet to accomplish," said Hoffman. "We especially need to have funding we can count on. We have had to focus on our budget so much these past four years that I hope we can turn our attention to more long-range strategic planning."
Hoffman grew up in Roseville and attended Mounds View High School. She received a bachelor of science (teaching) degree as a French teacher; a master's degree in special education; her licensure in English as a second language; and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Minnesota. She has taught French, special education and English learners in a variety of settings, including a large suburban district, several small rural districts, a private school in Bogota, Colombia, and in New Ulm. She taught education classes at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Hoffman is currently a professor in the College of Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is on special assignment for three years in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, working with professional development in teaching and learning for faculty.
Hoffman is currently president of MinneTESOL, the state organization for teachers of English learners. She is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Education Research Association. She has written numerous journal articles and several book chapters. She is currently finishing a special project for the Minnesota Department of Education working to reduce over-representation of minority students in special education.
Married to a school superintendent, Hoffman has four children who graduated from New Ulm Public Schools.
Her previous experience in teaching and professional development in education, her educational research and her previous experience on the board qualifies her for the position of school board member, the candidate believes.
"I try to be a good listener and consider various alternatives," she said. "I am a good problem solver and work to be collaborative. I know there are many challenges facing our district, but I believe we can persevere and figure them out."
"In serving on the board, there is a steep learning curve," Hoffman adds. "Education laws, requirements and funding are changing as is the knowledge base of best practices. There is always more to learn but that is part of what I enjoy."
Asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the local school district, Hoffman says:
"There are great teachers and staff who are dedicated to providing the best education possible for our children. However, morale could be improved as scarce resources and budget cuts have been stressful. I would also hope we could be more innovative and truly understand the challenges our children will face working in the 21st century. We need more conversations with the community, businesses, parents and the students to rethink some of what we are doing."
The school system can be improved by honestly assessing its strengths and weaknesses; by better communication; by realizing the entire community has a stake in providing a quality education for all students; and by listening and by helping other people listen and understand, sums up Hoffman.
"Besides the budget and financial pressures, the greatest challenge is to help parents, students, the community, teachers and school leaders understand that education must respond to the rapidly changing world around us," she said. "We are so used to using a model of education that was meant to prepare individuals to work in fairly prescribed jobs, but now it is all about problem solving, innovation and collaboration. Critical thinking skills are more difficult to assess, but are better indicators than basic skills tests, of whether or not a student can become a positive and productive member of society."
Hoffman believes budget challenges to the school district are a result of insufficient state funding.
"We have cut the heart out of many programs," she says. "I hope the community realizes there is nowhere else to cut. The budget problems are mainly because of state funding, so I appreciate the support the community does provide and am especially appreciative of all the volunteers working to raise money for the district. They are also working on an endowment fund, which would help. ... We do need to pass [the upcoming local levy] referendum, but we also need to raise our voices more loudly with our state representatives to demand fair funding for rural schools."
As a professional in the field, Hoffman is perhaps especially well-qualified to assess the district's success in teaching diverse student groups.
"We have an impressive special education and early childhood special education program, showing real leadership in working with children on the autism spectrum," says Hoffman. "We have had CRIC (integration) funding for many years, first to teach Spanish and culture and now to work with diversity through literature and reading.
"Beyond that, it is knowing that every child has strengths and areas for growth. Differentiation of our teaching strategies and in curriculum should be a continuous focus for improvement. SmartBoards and other forms of technology help with this, and the PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) have helped teachers share expertise and ideas with each other so we are on the right track. It takes time and focus to keep building on these strengths."
Asked how the district could counteract what some see as diminishing choice resulting from declining enrollment and funding, the candidate says:
"We have to rethink the way we do school. We are used to having students work at a grade level based on their age, and stay with a group of students for a period or all day. We really have many more options than that. The six-period day did help people start to think outside the box - now we need to continue those conversations with a variety of stake-holders to get even more innovative ideas. We can make use of many online offerings and other ways of individualizing for students."
Other views shared by the candidate:
On the upcoming school referendum:
"I am definitely supporting the referendum. I hope everyone in New Ulm understands the harm it will cause the community if we don't pass this. Business leaders know how important it is to our economic growth and attractiveness for new business. With the money we will restore what has been cut, prioritizing those programs that have been most affected, and especially reducing class sizes. We have also made some upgrades in technology and now have the capacity to have a proactive focus in better integrating technology into the teaching. What teachers most need is time to do this."
On potential cuts in the kindergarten program to save money:
"While all-day kindergarten is not fully funded by the state, we would really need to think twice before eliminating it. We may have to get creative and think about how we group students though. Right now class sizes are unacceptably high, especially because there are many children who have special needs."
On a "four-day" week:
"The four-day week is a misnomer. There were many great ideas being discussed that meant a more flexible learning calendar. I am in favor of continuing discussions about how we could make the school calendar more effective, including looking at the long summer break because many students lose a tremendous amount of growth when they are not in school for long periods of time."