Return to Headlines

Lincoln Center students and staff give Congresswoman Craig a taste of elementary school life

Cong Craig and district officials walking down hall  Cong. Craig in special education classrom  Cong. Craig with district officials  Cong. Craig at SUN lemonade stand

Friday, May 24, 2019 — A visitor from Washington, D.C. didn’t phase the students and staff of Lincoln Center elementary on Friday as Second District Congresswoman Angie Craig toured the building and classrooms. While in town for the holiday weekend, Craig wanted to visit an area school that helped highlight some of the legislative issues she is championing in Congress, particularly around funding for school infrastructure improvements and full funding of special education.

School Infrastructure

While many buildings in South St. Paul Public Schools (SSPPS) have had updates and renovations over the years, and with more on the way thanks to a state grant for security updates at the Secondary School, perhaps the one with the most needs currently is Lincoln Center elementary.

“This building opened in 1952 as a junior high and it’s built like a Sherman tank,” said Glen Birnstengel, director of buildings and grounds. “But the mechanical systems are outdated, and despite the remodeling and updates we’ve made to the building over the years, it feels like we are just putting on band-aids. It doesn’t get us to where we really need to be in terms of building efficiencies or optimal learning spaces.”

As Craig walked the halls of Lincoln Center and stopped in to visit some classrooms, district leaders pointed out some of the additional needs the building. For example, there are no bathrooms in the preschool rooms or in the self-contained special education classrooms.

“The physical space of this building has been retrofitted the best we can to meet the specific need of our special education programs. The bathrooms are just one example,” said Kelly Tetrick, director of special services. “Our paraprofessionals spend a lot of time taking kids down the hall to the bathrooms rather than helping them with learning in the classroom. Self-contained programs, like our S.U.N. [Students with Unique Needs] classrooms, really need to have access to appropriate infrastructure that supports the specific needs of our programs.”

Special Education FundingCong. Craig learning from special education stduent

Lincoln Center’s S.U.N. (Students with Unique Needs) program provides services to approximately 22 special education students with significant needs, including autism spectrum disorder, cognitive delays and other physical and behavioral disabilities.

S.U.N. teacher Allison Jenson was working with her kindergarten students, many of whom are on the autism spectrum on Friday afternoon when Craig and other district officials entered the room. “Perfect timing,” exclaimed Jenson. “We can practice our social skills with real people rather than the tiger [a stuffed animal she was holding].” The result was several students running to Craig to introduce themselves and giving her hugs.

From there it was off to visit a lemonade and snack stand operated by S.U.N. program students. “Many of the students have goals around functional communication, social skills and social cognition, like eye contact, and self-regulation, like being able to maintain calm in different parts of the school day,” said Jenson. “Projects like the snack cart and lemonade stand give our students a chance to practice those things in real time. They take a lot of pride and ownership of their work with this project. It gives them the chance to get up and move during the day, and to interact with other adults in the building.”

Core programming for special education comes from a combination of state and federal funding. South St. Paul Public Schools (SSPPS) currently pays a cross-subsidy for special education of about $3 million. “We have about $8 million in special education expenditures in South St. Paul, but only receive $5 million in revenue - $4 million of which comes from the state, and less than $1 million from federal funding. That leaves $3 million coming out of the general fund to support the needs of students with special needs,” said Director of Finance Aaron Bushberger. “We strongly believe in supporting the needs of all students and are committed to fulfilling the special education mandate required of us under federal legislation, but we are not receiving the revenue from the federal government that was promised to schools under IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act].”

In all, Craig was very impressed with the students, staff and programs at Lincoln Center. “You can tell the quality of a school by the enthusiasm of the students and the culture of the staff,” she said as she left the building. “It is clear this is a great school.”