The Chippewa Falls School District may not have managed to pass two multi-million-dollar referendums in 2016, but its emphasis on helping students plan future careers won praise from Wisconsin’s top education official on Wednesday evening.
Tony Evers, Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, spoke to a crowd of Chippewa County teachers and retired educators at the Heyde Center for the Arts.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW), that invited Evers to speak in Chippewa Falls, invited the superintendent before he announced his run for Wisconsin governor as a Democrat in 2018. “This is not a campaign stop,” AAUW member Arlene Wright said Wednesday.
Evers began the evening with a call for bipartisan support for public schools – and praised Wisconsin’s recent record of passing school district referendums.
“If you look at the last three elections in the state, over a million people voted to increase taxes on themselves to support their public schools,” Evers said. “Of those million people, I guarantee almost half were Republicans and half were Democrats. It’s close. What that tells me is, public education in the state has managed to thread the needle.”
Chippewa Falls was not one of the Wisconsin districts that successfully passed recent referendums. In November 2016, the community voted down two referendums that would have replaced Stillson Elementary and Chippewa Falls Senior High School. The Chippewa Falls School Board is currently conducting a survey to gauge community support for potential future referendums.
Peggy Nehring, a former McDonell Central Catholic High School teacher, asked Evers how to promote the teaching profession. Evers agreed that teachers are becoming harder to find, especially for rural districts. “There was a time when it was a revered profession, but it’s been a while,” he said.
He concluded that communities need to speak to their representatives to emphasize the importance of teachers – but also that a big part of the problem begins at college.
“Funding is a huge issue,” he said. “In many cases, higher education leaders think education courses are a good golden calf. They have a low cost, compared to, say, engineering. I think we need to work at the higher education level to make people understand how important (teaching) is to a city’s economy.”
Evers admitted fighting the educator shortage is a slow battle. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to take some time.”
Evers also praised the Academic and Career Planning initiative (ACP), which helps students experiment with potential careers.
On the local level, Chippewa Falls has taken the program seriously. School District Superintendent Heidi Eliopoulos explained on September 19: “All nine of our schools have some level of academic career planning… students start at late elementary, 4th and 5th grade, where they start to explore what types of careers are out there. In middle school they…start to do research on a career field that peaks their interest.”
In high school, students start to think about the workplace, Eliopoulos said. Chippewa Falls Senior High School offers “deeper electives,” multi-tiered classes in subjects such as engineering and the opportunity for students to earn college credits in advanced high school classes.
Sandy West became a survivor five years ago. For Ginger Bluem, it was just three and a half years ago. Sally LaRose conquered that feat three times, the first happening 27 years ago and the most recent bout six weeks ago.
All three women battled breast cancer and won, and on Thursday evening they took some time to celebrate themselves and others at Chippewa Falls Main Street, Inc.’s Paint the Town Pink, in conjunction with Marshfield Clinic and the American Cancer Society.
The event, hosted annually since 2011, features 30 different downtown Chippewa Falls businesses. The event includes music, a car show and free mammogram screenings, Chippewa Falls Main Street Director Teri Ouimette said.
The clinic also had stations at various locations for attendees to discuss healthcare and doctors, Ouimette said.
Combining the crusade for medical awareness with attracting residents to the downtown area of Chippewa Falls has become a commonality, Ouimette said. She referenced HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital’s partnership with the organization for Paint the Town Red for heart health.
“That’s part of our mission; that’s part of our job,” Ouimette said. “We have a vibrant downtown, and we love to feature it.”
Each participating business at Thursday’s event was donning pink and offered favors, treats and specials for guests on the walk. Locations also had drawings and donation baskets, such as the Fill Inn Station, which was hosting a fundraiser for someone locally who is fighting breast cancer.
Bluem, West and LaRose were accompanied by Bluem’s daughter, Colleen Sarkauskas. They started their tour with a little dancing with Travel Leaders Travel Agent Ashley Carothers.
Carothers advised the women to check out the massage chair at the travel agency, much to the women’s excitement.
LaRose, who just finished fighting another form of cancer six weeks ago, and West were attending the event for the first time, while Bluem and Sarkauskas have attended several past events.
Sarkauskas likened the event to “Trick-or-Treating for adults,” while Bluem said she was looking forward to visiting Eevy Ivy Over.
The women said the event fosters educational opportunities for people about breast cancer and the different options available.
Each one still remembers the call confirming their cancer and the fear that came with it, but through events like Paint the Town Pink, Sarkauskas said patients can know they are not alone in their fight.
LaRose, who is open about her fight with cancer, said she will often talk to others about her own battle with breast cancer. She gave an example where one woman “didn’t know anybody else who had it” until LaRose spoke up.
Furthermore, the women said the educational aspect of the event is beneficial to even survivors like themselves.
As a bonus, they knew they would have fun — which is exactly the goal Ouimette said the event organizers had.
“You can get education while you’re having fun, and it’s a great great way to support the downtown as well as breast cancer awareness,” Ouimette said.