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A Seasoned Educator’s Parting Thoughts

May 12, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

Charlie Kyte is a true son of Minnesota.

Growing up on the Iron Range, his two life choices became clear: get a good education or work in the mines. Kyte chose an education. Thanks to strong public investment, he received a great education from kindergarten through university at Minnesota’s public schools. Kyte has gone on to become one of Minnesota’s top education leaders, serving Minnesota schools for 44 years.

Kyte’s career witnessed tremendous societal and educational change. He recounted how he has “watched kids in education from the late 60s through the Vietnam era, Generation X through the 80s and 90s and today."

He also remembers the days when policymakers recognized education investment’s importance and implemented policies to expand opportunities in and out of the classroom. There was a time when he and his colleagues would meet to decide how to best create new programs with budget surpluses.

While dollars spent on education have increased, they’ve not kept pace with inflation or rising educational costs. Today’s funding disparities force educators to stretch resources and accommodate more challenges with fewer finances. There are No Child Left Behind mandates, a growing number of immigrant students, and a widening poverty and socio-economic gap impacting classrooms. Kyte credits educators who’ve experienced these challenges and crafted creative and effective methods in responding to them.

The immigrant community in particular has benefited Minnesota’s economy in many ways. It has also presented challenges for schools in terms of working with students who have limited English proficiency and who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Many immigrant students are refugees with potentially traumatic experiences. They may have emotional needs that can be difficult for schools to address. Kyte’s also observed the difficulties finding teachers from immigrant backgrounds who can relate to these students.

He’s also seen a tremendous resource expansion in better accommodating and educating students with disabilities. He points to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as an example. It was crucial passing IDEA so that children 18 and under with special needs could have better educational opportunities. Kyte notes, however, that the system requires a tremendous amount of paperwork which tends to take away “actually working with the kids.”

Kyte’s own commitment to education began at home. His family, particularly his mother who worked as a principal’s secretary, emphasized the value of an education. Kyte originally entered the University of Minnesota in Duluth as a chemical engineering student, but decided to switch his degree in his junior year to education.

While the job market motivated this choice, Kyte has no regrets. “Fate had somehow guided me to the best of professions,” he recalls.

In 1968, Kyte began his career in education as a high school math, chemistry and physics teacher. He eventually served as a principal, then superintendent in Eden Valley-Watkins and Northfield, receiving a Ph.D. in Education Administration along the way. He’s spent the past 11 years as Executive Director for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

When Kyte was a student himself, teachers were regarded as “kings” where the teacher’s word was gold. This is no longer the case. Teachers have been dethroned and the general public has made a habit of questioning their quality and capability. Kyte believes this “denigration” of teachers has hurt U.S. schools’ performance. In contrast, schools in countries like Finland and Singapore are academically successful, largely because they hold teachers in high regard and respect.

Emphasizing the basics and building on them is important for Kyte. As Principal, and then Superintendent for the Eden Valley-Watkins schools, Kyte created a strong reading program that has lasted three decades. Even with a fairly high rate of low income families in Eden Valley-Watkins, Kyte’s program has helped students achieve at high levels.

Kyte also created an elementary Spanish language immersion program as Superintendent for Northfield schools. As a testament, the program has endured over two decades and approximately 40 percent of Northfield elementary students are fluent in Spanish.

Thanks to Kyte’s commitment and hard work, both Eden Valley-Watkins and Northfield became the first two school districts in Minnesota to ban smoking in all schools and on campuses. He received an award from the American Heart Association for this policy work.

Kyte is reluctant to retire, which he is scheduled to do at the end of this school year, because he enjoys education so much. Still, his life-long experiences help inform several key policy initiatives to move Minnesota education forward.

For one, our educators deserve more respect and should be regarded as honored professionals. Tied closely to that is sufficient state funding that, at the very minimum, keeps pace with educational costs. If we value our educators, we need to provide them with adequate resources and support to succeed. That means sensible education policies that focus on positive educational outcomes rather than sentimental values.

Next is to recognize the positive socio-economic impacts of new Minnesotans and create a mechanism to address the needs of Minnesota’s immigrant student population. And finally, we must remember that sustainable change takes time and commitment. It won’t always be easy, but as Kyte’s experiences suggest, it is absolutely possible.

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