ENVIRONMENTAL CHARTER DRAWS KIDS’ ATTENTION IN 1ST YEAR
MAPLE LAKE — If Jack Laumb still went to Technical High School in St. Cloud, he’d be on mid-winter break this week. Instead, he’s coiled up on a couch with his laptop not far from the fireplace of a large cabin on Cedar Lake.
A couple dozen other junior and senior high school aged students mingle around him, through four wings and a central gathering space. This, along with two similar cabins and an administration building at Camp Courage, is Central Minnesota’s latest public charter school — the Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy.
Laumb is one of two seniors. To graduate, he is required to produce a 300-hour learning project in addition to his basic academic requirements. He’s decided to develop a video game using special software to develop 3D models and create animation.
“Video games interest me a lot,” said Laumb, who lives in St. Cloud but travels about 60 miles roundtrip each day to get to the tuition-free academy.
“That’s kind of what I think I want to do when I grow up. Selecting this for my project was the easy part, but then I had to figure out how I could hit standards with it, too. I try to incorporate math into it so I can get those credits at the same time. It shows you can do what you want but still get school credit for it and still learn and get prepared for whatever I do when I graduate.”
That combination of interest and learning is what has drawn most of the schools approximately 90 students. After a morning advisory session, the students have a couple of hours to work on projects that might range from an analysis of body systems to an examination of Civil War medicine. There also is a student working on a stop-motion video with Legos and another debating who is the strongest of the Marvel Comics heroes and why. To be sure, the students still spend time on reading, math, science and the other academic requirements placed on any public school.
Charter schools are increasing in the area. STRIDE Academy has been in operation since 2005 and more recently was followed by the St. Cloud Math and Science Academy in 2014. Athlos Academy of St. Cloud, which has a fitness-driven culture, is expected to open this fall.
At the Goodall Academy, learning often is incorporated into topics that already command the student’s attention.
For example, Jason Haag is a freshman who likes the outdoors and has done projects on dragonflies and minnows. He is looking forward to dissecting a deer heart soon. His mother, Jessica, joined a staff of 17 at the academy this year as a paraprofessional. She has two daughters who go to public school in Delano. She’s seen enough, however, to know this is the place for Jason.
“I always thought he needed to be in a place where he had more hands-on attention and he’s flourished here,” Jessica Haag said. “He’s exceeded my expectations academically and socially. I think it’s because he has more control over what he’s learning. He’s not going to daydream in math class and he talks a lot now. Before, it was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about what he was learning. Now, he says he wants to go to school. That’s a change.”
It hasn’t worked out for everyone. While 100 students started the school year, now there are about 90. About 30 have left but another 20 have come in to replace them, according to Craig Wignes, who is a social studies teacher and school board chair. Enrollment is filled for this fall, with another dozen students on a waiting list.
That’s important, because virtually all of the school’s funding comes from the Minnesota Department of Education apportionment for each student. That differs from case to case, but averages between $6,000 and $7,000 per student per year, Wignes said. The school received a $200,000 federal grant to help pay for equipment in each of its first three years.
“We’re measuring success in many ways, one of which is that students want to be here,” Wignes said. “They have to make progress academically and we want them to be pushed. They’re going to have reading scores and math scores, but we depend on our instructors to chart and interpret the progress of each student.”
It wasn’t planned, but about 40 percent of the students receive some sort of special education, mostly due to emotional and behavioral disorders and autism spectrum disorders. That keeps three special ed teachers and six paraprofessionals busy.
Wignes said a December survey of parents, on which answers averaged 4.05 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best, indicates people are excited with the programming. The waiting list, he said, shows the health of the school. Wignes says the academy can look like organized chaos to a visitor, but part of the program is to put the students in charge of their day planning.
“It’s not for everyone and not every kid has had that ‘ah-ha!’ moment yet,” Wignes said. “But you can see it when it happens. A lot of these kids have lost the love of learning. Now that they’re doing it through things they can relate to, it’s coming back. The idea here is we want them to demonstrate their knowledge, not just regurgitate things they’re told. We want them to become experts in a topic and that doesn’t require so much academic rigor as self-discipline and time management. Seeking answers and developing soft skills is as much a part of the learning experience as anything and prepares you for life.”
In another cabin, a group of students has built a toothpick tower and is simulating the effects of an earthquake on the structure. Elsewhere, students reminisced about a six-week fishing club — for which some received physical education credit — and how barometric pressures, moon phases and other variables affected the fish bite.
Wyatt Munter, an eighth-grader from Princeton, might be a good example of the student who thrives at the academy. He was carving a walking stick from a piece of diamond maple he cut near the lake the other day. He also was on the team that finished first in the fishing competition. He likes the school so much, he rides in a car from Princeton to Monticello where he picks up one of two buses that bring students to the academy every day. He spends at least two hours in transit and makes this assessment.
“There’s less paperwork here,” Munter said as he carved away. “The math is a little tougher, but we get to go outside a lot more.”
Follow Kevin Allenspach on Twitter @KevinAllenspach or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimeskevin. Call him at 320-255-8745.
School open for presentations Tuesday night
The Jane Goodall Environmental Science Academy will be open to the public from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday when many of the students will exhibit projects and speak about what they’re learning on Presentation Night. It’s one of several times during the year when they show off their work. More than 40 projects will be presented, ranging from a stop-motion video using Legos, to a clarinet recital, to descriptions of blacksmithing and soapmaking. There are somewhat traditional history subjects like Lewis and Clark or the Dakota War, and of course other projects involving the outdoors — including student-made spearing decoys, tied flies and fish recipes.
The school is at 8008-83rd St. NW in Maple Lake. More information: 952-852-0129, www.jgesa.org.