Superintendent News

Five.  There are at least a half a page of notes on the mathematical significance of the number five in Wikipedia.  Numerous cultural references include the number five.  A couple of common idioms reference the number five: take five and high five.  Its most important reference might relate to the health and wellness of children.

At the Otter Tail County Family Collaborative annual meeting last spring, speaker and founder of the Institute for Community and Adolescent Resilience (ICAR-US) Derek Peterson spoke about the need for every child to have a web of support.  Ideally, this would include a minimum of five caring adults.  Peterson states. “Our data says every kid needs a personal village.”

How are we doing as a community?  The Minnesota Student Survey is a comprehensive tool used by the Minnesota Department of Education every three years.  The survey covers students in grades five, eight, nine and eleven.  I am going to reference some of the information our district’s students shared with us in 2022 and 2019.  

By the time our female students are in fifth grade, 25% of them feel that the adults in the community care about them only a little or not at all.  By the time our children reach ninth grade, those percentages for both boys and girls have grown to 40%.  Junior girls - a disheartening 49% feel that adults in our community care about them only a little or not at all. 

Examined another way - the percentage of male and female students who feel the community cares about them “very much” is in the single digits from eighth grade on.  

If we try to rationalize it, we might take comfort in telling ourselves that this might be due to some type of fallout attributed to the pandemic.  Perhaps, but let’s look back pre-pandemic to the spring of 2019. 

By eighth grade, 33% of our female students were feeling that the community cares for them a little or not at all and 25% of the male students.  By ninth grade, those numbers grew to 40% and 35% respectively.  Junior female students settled in at 38% while the percentage of boys fell to 22%.  

It is true that the “gap” widened over the pandemic, but the signs were certainly present ahead of it.  

Why?  That’s a tough question, but one that we need to wrestle with as a community to answer.

Having entered my fourth year now in Fergus Falls, I could list numerous ways the community and our school staff support kids.  We have a generous community when it comes to financial support for our children -  the PTO, Dollars of Scholars and 544 Education Foundation being just a small, but notable list.  

We have wonderful amenities.  A beautiful library, Otter Cove, Dr. Allen Magnuson Park, A Center for the Arts, an ice arena, a new outdoor basketball court, bike trails, BMX track, skating park, YMCA and potentially an outdoor community swimming pool and renovations to Delagoon Park.  All of these amenities benefit children and families.  

We have programs for students to participate in:  Boy Scouts, 4-H, several church-based youth groups, robotics, the Fergus Falls School of Dance, the City of Fergus Falls Summer Program and a long list of school-related activities.  These lists are far from exhaustive.  

So what is missing?  While all of these things are wonderful amenities and a fine list of opportunities, in and of themselves, they can still leave kids empty.  The Search Institute has been engaged in work designed to promote healthy environments for kids for over twenty years.  Through research, they created the 40 Developmental Assets Framework.  In addition, they maintain that one of the keys in supporting children is the presence of developmental relationships.  The Search Institute defines developmental relationships as:  close connections with adults, near-peers, and peers that help young people cultivate their abilities to shape their own lives, build resilience, and thrive.

One of the best things a community can do is to create a web of supportive developmental relationships with its children.  These people can be family members, faith communities, school staff, people affiliated with a wide variety of youth programs or basically any well-intentioned community member that has a heart for children.  

The Search Institute surveyed nearly 700 adults and nearly 15,000 young people.  While 83% of adults reported being intentional about building developmental relationships with young people, only 46% of young people reported experiencing strong developmental relationships with adults. 

The Search Institute lists five key elements of developmental relationships:

  •  Express Care
      1. Show me that I matter to you.
      2. Be dependable - be someone I can trust.
      3. Listen - Really pay attention when we are together.
      4. Believe in me - Make me feel known and valued.
      5. Be warm - Show me you enjoy being with me.
      6. Encourage - Praise me for my efforts and achievements.
  • Challenge Growth
      1. Push me to keep getting better.
      2. Expect my best - Expect me to live up to my potential.
      3. Stretch - Push me to go farther.
      4. Hold me accountable - Insist I take responsibility for my actions.
      5. Reflect on failures - Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.
    1.  Provide Support
      1. Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.
      2. Navigate - Guide me through hard situations and systems.
      3. Empower - Build my confidence to take charge of my life.
      4. Advocate - Stand up for me when I need it.
      5. Set boundaries - Put in place limits that keep me on track.
  •  Share Power
      1. Treat me with respect and give me a say.
      2. Respect me - Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
      3. Include me - Involve me in decisions that affect me.
      4. Collaborate - Work with me to solve problems and reach goals.
      5. Let me lead - Create opportunities for me to take action and lead.
  •  Expand Possibilities
    1. Connect me with people and places that broaden my world.
    2. Inspire - Inspire me to see possibilities for my future.
    3. Broaden horizons - Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.
    4. Connect - Introduce me to people who can help me grow.


It is the personal relationships that truly matter.  Every child needs a personal champion or what the CERES Institute for Children & Youth terms an anchor relationship.  Someone who will be there through the good times and the bad.  A shoulder to cry on or a hand to high five.  Or maybe just a simple hug or note letting them know they are thought about. And as it turns out, while a single champion is a blessing, the real target number to best ensure student wellbeing is a minimum target of five champions. 

The Fergus Falls Public School District employs a highly dedicated staff and we are becoming more and more intentional about building positive relationships with our students.  Based on the responses from our students, it is evident that the need for this work continues.  But the real impact and need extends far beyond the school walls.

Of all the gifts we can give to our children, our time and attention is the most precious.  We would love to engage in community conversations about how we can all work together to provide a web of love and support to our community’s children.