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Want Successful Education Reform? Talk to James Cutshaw, Wolsey-Wessington Supt.

Last updated on 2013.01.28

James Cutshaw, superintendent of the Wolsey-Wessington School District, testified against Senate Bill 85 last Thursday. In his five minutes (starting at 2:38:00 in the hearing record from SDPB) He many a number of comments relevant not only to the debate over open enrollment but also to the broader debate about education reform in South Dakota.

Superintendent Cutshaw came to Senate Education to ask the committee not to reduce the funding it currently receives under the small-school adjustment thanks to the increased number of open-enrolled students that come to Wolsey-Wessington. Cutshaw says that when he started in Wolsey-Wessington in 2007, his school had 209 kids, 20 of whom were open-enrolled. Today Wolsey-Wessington has 305 students, 116 of whom are open-enrolled. Over a third of the district's kids come from elsewhere.

What's changed? I don't put advertisements in newspapers. I don't take out radio ads. I don't put up billboards.

Here's what I did. the teachers who weren't doing their jobs are gone. Regardless of tenure, they're gone. ...We changed the culture of our school. We focus on academics. We focus on behaviors. The other day I had some kids who weren't behaving right, so I suspended eight kids from our school because of bullying. We don't put up with bad behaviors.

Parents who are looking for that atmospehre for their children send them to us. Parents who are looking for good teachers who focus on the students send their kids to us because we do a great job. My recruitment tool is the job we do with kids [James Cutshaw, superintendent, Wolsey-Wessington School District, testimony to Senate Education Committee on SB 85, Pierre, SD, 2012.02.09].

"Tenure" and continuing contracts haven't stopped Cutshaw, an administrator relatively new to the district, from getting rid of teachers who wouldn't perform to his standards. He didn't need Pierre to take away due process from all teachers to clear the decks and assemble a staff good enough to attract eager parents and increase his district's enrollment by 50%. He also doesn't appear to have needed some in-house competitive merit bonus plan; he needed a team of professionals dedicated to academics and discipline.

To maintain services for all those open-enrollees, Cutshaw needs to not lose the funding SB 85 would take away. He points out that his open-enrollers come primarily from lower-income families, and lower-income kids tend to have more educational needs. His open-enrollers tend to leave their home districts because they are struggling academically, because they are being bullied, because they aren't getting the services they need. Those open-enrollers thus tend to bring higher needs. They cost more to teach. Cutshaw and his board scrimp on sports and secretarial staff to spend more money on math and reading help for those kids outside of class. Cutshaw can thus make a strong case that extra money the small-school adjustment attaches to each new open-enrollee that comes from a larger school to his district acknowledges the extra work Wolsey-Wessington then does for those generally higher-need kids.

Senators Bradford, Rave, and Rampleberg listened to Cutshaw; Senators Johnston, Kraus, Schlekeway, and Gray did not. The latter four moved SB 85 on for passage on the Senate floor today.

More legislators ought to listen to James Cutshaw. They ought to take a couple days off from session and travel to Wolsey to see what Cutshaw and his staff do each day to create a successful school district. Maybe our legislators would realize that Wolsey-Wessington's extra efforts are worth extra money. Maybe they'd also find some practical policies Cutshaw is using that are already doing more good than Governor Daugaard's wishful thinking on bonus pay ever will.


  1. carl fahrenwald 2012.02.14

    Supt. Cutshaw did present a compelling case for the merits of open enrollment and the need for the additional funding. Real kids with real needs that weren't being met at their previous school. Didn't quite understand the implied negativity about advertising. So are we going to add public education to the list of things that shouldn't be advertised or only advertised under the strictest regulations? We have those consumer "protections" in place and prohibit ads for tobacco and alcohol that target minors, etc. Might as well add public education to the list of things not ethical to promote with ads...... seems a little wacky to me.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.14

    I would think legislation banning advertising by schools would face a First Amendment challenge, wouldn't they?

    Have you visited with Cutshaw about his reforms at Wolsey-Wessington? Are they really working? Are there lessons we can apply to other school districts?

  3. Charlie Johnson 2012.02.14

    Would it not be much cheaper for 105 legislators to visit a small school like like W-W, a Rutland, or a Ramona than to spend $15 million on HB1234? As one local teacher who has worked in a large school, alternative school, and now a small school-told me recently, "small schools are now the alternative schools since that function has been shut down by the state".

  4. carl fahrenwald 2012.02.14

    No, I haven't had school reform conversations with Supt. Cutshaw, but from what he describes in his testimony the elements of success at Wolsey-Wessington are similar to Rutland. Of course the practices can be applied elsewhere- this isn't rocket science (though we do cover a bit of that in Physics, lol).

  5. carl fahrenwald 2012.02.14

    Good idea Charlie. Oddly enough, Legislator Jim Bolin has visited Rutland. He was one of the "no" votes I believe on the Gov's reform package. Not sure whether it had anything to do with his visit though as the reform ideas are perfectly capable of failing on their own merits (or rather lack of). Jim Bolin has been a teacher himself and thus recognized the folly of it all...

  6. Charlie Johnson 2012.02.14

    Jim Bolin's comments in the Argus leader were excellent also. By the way, don't many small school across the state have excellent test scores in their student achiement and post grad in college entrance?

  7. mike 2012.02.14


    Do you have any idea which Republican Senators are likely to vote no on the education bill?

  8. carl fahrenwald 2012.02.14

    yes, test scores and post high school achievement levels for small school graduates are excellent. Check out this link to research that was done by the Argus Leader on this last spring.

  9. Bernie Hunhoff 2012.02.15

    In my travels I encounter a lot of really impressive small schools (not that there aren't great big schools too ... the point being small isn't necessarily bad, as evidenced by their successes with open enrollment.) Elkton is another interesting story. They get amazing support from the little town's big business community. The school board chairman built a gym for kids at his own expense ... and they get lots of open enrollment kids, including a bunch of students from Minnesota paid by Minnesota.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.15

    Charlie, indeed, sharp observation: Russ Olson shuts down the alternative schools, and schools like W-W and Rutland step up and fill the need. There is no free lunch when it comes to teaching kids with extra needs.

    Mike, I have no special knowledge of who's leaning which way in the Senate. Senator Rhoden says he opposes merit pay, but his comments Saturday in Belle Fourche suggest that he feels the local teacher reward plan alternative and the opt-out provision are enough to excuse the state for mandating a really bad idea.

    Bernie, I hope you're not suggesting that a new gym increases open enrollment... or academic achievement! I might have to get out my pitchfork. :-)

  11. Steve Sibson 2012.02.15

    I have been following the South Dakota legislature for a number of years now. This year's is the most troubling that I have witnessed. It is really frustrating to know that the budget crisis last year was fake propaganda. There is plenty of money, as evidenced by the huge one-time spending passed by the Senate yesterday, to restore the sate aid formula and reimbursement rates to medicaid providers. Instead the fascist RINOs want to use the money to control us. The RINOs have a majorioty and are using it to trapple on the minority rights of both Democrats and conservative Republicans. And that thin majority is maintained by issuing threats to conservative members of the GOP. If you want a future in the SDGOP, then do things our way. And we have two former Democrats in the Senate who have jumnped into the fascist movement in order to have a little say. Very little say.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.15

    Mike, the first seven senators who matter on this issue are the Senate Education committee members: Bradford, Vice-Chair Gray, Chair Johnston, Kraus, Rampleberg, Rave, and Schlekeway. See any viable targets in that group?

  13. Michael Black 2012.02.15

    Cory, can you provide some detail on how the elimination of alternative schools took place.

    I know that AIM High helped some area kids successfully graduate high school that otherwise would've never finished.

  14. carl fahrenwald 2012.02.15

    Just for clarification- Rutland is not promoting itself as a replacement for alternative schools. We are a "alternative" school only in the general sense of the word. We offer a different educational setting that is desirable for families with students of all ages/needs for many reasons. Our K-12 setting means siblings are together in same building (doing some things together at school) throughout their K-12 career. Also our smaller class sizes of 15 students for grades K-6, and 20 students for grades 7-12 means a more individualized approach. Yes, we do have high school students that open enroll with credit recovery issues, etc. But we are faced with the same challenges here as the larger schools. How to accomplish credit recovery without the resources to run summer programs or the additional class options/schedule of the specialized, alternative school school setting.
    This is just one reason why we continue to advertise our school. A primary function of advertising with any product/service is simply to inform.

  15. Steve Sibson 2012.02.15

    "Bradford, Vice-Chair Gray, Chair Johnston, Kraus, Rampleberg, Rave, and Schlekeway. See any viable targets in that group?"

    The best we can hope for is Bradford, Kraus, and perhaps Rampleberg. The other 4 are solid fascists.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.15

    ...and Sibby proceeds to alienate a majority of the committee. Anyone else have suggestions?

  17. Steve Sibson 2012.02.15

    Yes Cory, the truth nowadays tends to alienate, just ask Stace Nelson.

  18. Steve Sibson 2012.02.15

    The only chance is to hope the Senate amends and it goes back over to the House. Then we need to turn some conservatives around to vote against this. If you want of list of candidates, check those who voted "Yeah" to strike the "not" on yesterday's smokeout on HB1169.

  19. Steve Sibson 2012.02.15

    I should say smokeout "attempt".

  20. Douglas Wiken 2012.02.15

    The clear-eyed visionaries of the SD Republican Party are promoting eduction changes which have failed to produce expected results when tried elsewhere. Doing the same things over and over again always expecting a different result is one kind of insanity.

  21. Michael Black 2012.02.15

    An FYI for any parents whose high school students need credit recovery. We went through the online recovery classes with our son. It was a serious struggle and we were all highly motivated. We have since moved on to an online higher ed class at DSU. They have a program called "Fast Track" where qualified HS students can apply to take online college level classes that will apply both to college and high school credits. It does take some time and effort to jump through the hoops, but it's an immensely better experience. Costs for an online class (3 credits) will be $831 plus an books - it's billed out at self support rates. There is a decent selection of online courses for this summer. That's important since no one is offering summer school classes that I am aware of.

  22. Jarris Wentzel 2012.02.15

    I thought we sent our representatives to the state government so we would have a voice in government.. not so they have a voice in government. Conversation requires listening and not just talking... Poor kids and teachers....

  23. S. Hart 2012.02.15

    Excellent point, Jarris. They should have to recite a pledge like that at the start of every day. They seem to think we sent them to Pierre because they are so much smarter and because we need them to take care of us because we really don't understand the issues! They certainly don't listen to us. I have contacted my reps from district 10 several times and have not even received an acknowlegement! Guess who won't be getting my vote!!!

  24. tonyamert 2012.02.15

    I had the opportunity to take Calc I/II and CompSci I/II my senior year of HS. It was a very important milestone for me in that they were the first classes I had to put effort into in many years. As I remember, your child is also in the very bright and doesn't have to study category. For me it made me learn how to study again. If I had gone to college without that experience and jumped in with both feet I would have been in trouble. I hope he can get in and develop some good study skills.

  25. Michael Black 2012.02.16

    Tony, I think a taste of college classes will do him good. I wish that he could do the classes in person rather than online, but scheduling prevents that.

  26. Michael Black 2012.02.16

    The original post assumes that everything is always sunshine and roses at a small school. That is not the case. There are still teachers that can be uncooperative for no apparent reason. Like any size school, you have to pick you battles carefully as a parent so that your child can stand up on their own two feet.

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