The school van started slowly at 5am last Friday. Journalism instructor Wayne Stender stopped in front of Hillcrest's main doors to meet five students. The van warmed as Hillcrest's main doors opened and the students descended the stairs. The ladies wore high heels and business attire, the young men were presentable, wearing a shirt-and-tie in their Sunday best. They were advancing to the State Capitol to learn how to communicate with representatives. Their mission Friday was to share the impact of private schools.
Hillcrest belongs to the Minnesota Independent School Forum (MISF). The Forum organizes political advocacy for private schools. The event on Friday was a private school advocacy day where MISF organized speakers to communicate the value of private education in the state of Minnesota. While the event was designed for administrators, Stender arranged a group of students to attend, "I think sometimes we forget the role citizens play in government. We talk a lot about being involved in government at Hillcrest, so this trip is natural in our program."
Students listened to Senate Minority Leader David Hann share details on the Educational Savings Accounts for Student with Special Needs Act. Hann shared that, "One of the biggest challenges in education is designing special education programs that meet the unique needs of our students. This proposal puts parents right in the center of the decision making process, because they know better than anyone how to help their children." The proposed act would give parents of children with special needs the power to choose the best educational options for their kids. It allows parents to use their child's per pupil funding and allocated special needs education dollars in ways that can optimally serve their child. The parents could direct their state-allocated per-pupil funding for education related therapies, tuition and fees at nonpublic schools specializing in a therapy or disability, textbooks and tutoring, or other education resources.
MISF coordinated with groups to train administrators to visit with representatives at the Capitol as part of the advocacy day. Hillcrest students feverishly took notes, holding a side-meeting with Stender to discuss the bills and how they impact Hillcrest. Huddling together, the group outlined basic points they would present in 15 minutes for the representatives.
The students arrived in Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen's office shortly after noon. Their appointment with the Assistant Minority Leader, representative for District 8, started with handshakes and smiles. Julie Kasulis was the first to speak. As a tutor in Hillcrest's Online Learning Lab, Kasulis spoke to the intentional arrangement of the program. The Learning Lab, as Kasulis called it, is a classroom where students with learning difficulties sit side-by-side with students taking college classes online. The innovative classroom allows students who are struggling with a subject to receive support from fellow classmates, while also receiving attention from paraprofessionals.
As Kasulis closed her presentation, Hillcrest senior Kevy Konynenbelt shared her excitement for the opportunity the bill affords families. She spoke to the benefit in seeking smaller learning settings with the freedoms a nonpublic school offers. JeeHoon Park, a representative of the student body from South Korea, shared a story of how Hillcrest supports students who have difficulties in traditional classrooms. He referenced chapel presentations and special concerts that students with alternative learning styles conduct on Hillcrest's campus as part of the student body.
The students closed the day visiting Representative Bud Nornes, Chair of the Education Policy and Finance committee. The 10 term representative listened intently as students shared the value of their experience at Hillcrest. Kasulis highlighted how Hillcrest's small environment caused her to build patience working with friends and tutoring students. Evan Malmstrom from Battle Lake, MN spoke to his preparation and desire to serve in law enforcement. Stender also shared important points in the meetings, notably the economic impact nonpublic schools have on private businesses and the state education program.
The group congregated near the rotunda following their day at the Capitol. Kasulis recalled how easy it was to visit with representatives. Stender noted that students saw good examples of public servants. "We didn't have a meeting setup with Bud (Nornes). So we were walking to his office to tell his secretary we stopped in. We saw him in the hallway and he opened his office door and spent forty-five minutes with us. It was incredible for our students to see."