Minnesota's New Education Commissioner On Helping Students Overcome Learning Loss

Minnesota will have a new commissioner of education, Dr. Heather Mueller, on April 1 (6:05). WCCO Sunday Morning - March 21, 2021

Video Transcript

ESME MURPHY: Minnesota will have a new commissioner of education on April 1. She is Dr. Heather Mueller, who will have to help students overcome what for many is a year of learning loss. Earlier this morning, I spoke with her. Take a look.

And joining us right now, Dr. Heather Mueller. Thank you so much for coming on.

HEATHER MUELLER: Thank you for having me.

ESME MURPHY: All right. I want to start with the latest news. $1.32 billion. Minnesota's going to get that just for schools from the stimulus bill. How are you going to spend that money?

HEATHER MUELLER: Well, I think there's a couple of ways we want to be able to think about spending those money. First, we're deeply appreciative that the federal government has recognized that schools and education should take priority, especially as we are working through the pandemic. We know that we need to continue to be able to help to focus on ensuring that we are closing any gaps that have been created as a result of the pandemic.

We need to ensure that we're providing not only academic supports, but social emotional supports, mental health supports. We need to make sure that we're providing professional development and support for our educators and trauma-informed instruction, as well as anti-bias instruction. We need to ensure that we're able to continue to reinforce and utilize those dollars to bring forward opportunities to increase our social emotional learning staff, our student support staff like our social workers, school psychologists, our school nurses, our chemical dependency counselors as well.

And just understand that as we are moving forward out of this pandemic, there are a lot of additional needs outside of academics, and all of those needs are continually reinforced inside of academics as well.

ESME MURPHY: Well, Dr. Mueller, let me ask you. I can't imagine how hard it's been for parents. My children are older, but I know it's been so tough. I guess the first question I'm hearing from many parents is, I'm worried my child is behind. I don't know where they are right now. Where can they get that help or that assessment to figure out exactly where they are in terms of where they should be?

HEATHER MUELLER: Well, I think that first, you want to just continue to communicate with your student's teacher. Teachers are consistently monitoring the progress of our students. They're learning and using diagnostic learning assessments to really help inform instruction and meet the needs of individual students.

Every single day that our students are interacting with their teachers, our teachers are getting a sense as they're having those conversations not only of that relationship building, but they're also having a sense of where they are in their learning. They're listening to them read. They're reviewing their assignments. They're giving them feedback. And they can give you an idea, or actually tell you pretty concretely, where your student is in their learning and what they're doing to be able to help to support them. Our teachers are very savvy in assessing their learning.

ESME MURPHY: I mean, I think most parents would like to see that money from the stimulus go to be able to help individually each child to assess their needs, because every child has been impacted by this. What about summer programs? I know the governor talked about that. The legislature has not yet moved on his $150 million program that he's talking about. But this stimulus money could obviously go to summer programs.

HEATHER MUELLER: The stimulus money could definitely go to summer programs, as well as some additional funding that we need to be able to provide. In our current summer package, we really are looking at ensuring that we're expanding opportunities for students to catch up, to reinforce, and perhaps learn some of the pieces they may not have learned this first time through in a really robust approach.

We're also looking at being able to continue to expand mental health and well-being supports, looking at individual student needs. And so also, things like field trips and having the opportunity to have hands-on learning, the opportunity to engage our youngest learners and have our youngest learners, who may be four and five-year-olds, who have not yet been able to attend summer-- or learning. They decided to maybe hold off maybe their kindergarten year to kind of help to reinforce them and have them in their preschool programs, as well as support adult basic education.

But we know that each individual student is going to have individual needs, and we want to make sure that as we are supporting them, we have those tools readily available within our school districts and charter schools, that they're able to ensure that we are providing one-on-one conversations with our students and doing small group instruction, which is part of what teachers do across the state as we're moving forward.

ESME MURPHY: When do you think parents will have the menu of summer options? Because now's the time people need to sign up. And if they spend some money on a camp, that might be right when the summer school is offered for their district.

HEATHER MUELLER: Right. Well, it would be nice for us to be able to clearly do that now. We know that a lot of our schools start planning for summer actually in January. We're figuring out staffing. We're figuring out transportation, nutrition services, mental health supports, physical health supports.

What we need to be able to identify is how much funding we're going to have. Other than the federal funds, how are we going to be able to utilize the money that's before the legislature? And how are we going to utilize the funding that-- the federal funding that came through prior to this last release of dollars?

And so the sooner we know that information, the more-- more available the information is around how we're going to be able to provide those summer programs. It'll be individual by district and what they're going to be able to provide for those summer programs.

ESME MURPHY: And you have been, of course, deputy commissioner for a while. You're going to take over as commissioner on April 1, so congratulations to that appointment from the governor. You have a big job ahead and a lot of people are looking to you for guidance.

HEATHER MUELLER: Yes, I am so looking forward to being able to continue to partner with our school leaders, with our educators across the state, with our transportation and our nutrition services paraprofessionals. We know that every single person that interacts with the students every single day is making an incredibly important difference for that student. You never know which adult is going to build those relationships and really help to maintain and engage our students.

And so every single person matters, and at the center of that always is our students. And I'm really looking forward to ensuring that every single student every single day has the access, they're able to participate, and they're represented in their classes and in their schools, and they're seen and valued and heard.

ESME MURPHY: All right. Well, soon-to-be Commissioner Mueller, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

HEATHER MUELLER: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.