Despite the pandemic, a pair of local conservation organizations have continued to make progress on several projects to enhance and expand local wildlife habitat.
Rice County Pheasants Forever, the local chapter of the Minnesota-based national nonprofit, is spearheading efforts to create a new wildlife management area in southern Steele County near Ellendale. Land has already been purchased for the area, which would sit in the Straight River valley.
Jeanine Vorland, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager, said that the understanding is that the land will eventually be donated to the state. For now however, it remains in the control of Pheasants Forever.
Transforming the land into a wildlife area is expected to take about a year, but it’s far from the only project on Rice County Pheasants Forever’s plate. Chapter President Dean Turek said that traditional educational and outreach efforts have continued with only minimal modifications.
Even last fall, the organization’s annual Everett Ostermann Memorial Youth Mentor Hunt proceeded without a hitch. Following a safety briefing and warmup, each young hunter was paired with an older hunter and dog, making for a generally COVID-safe environment.
In addition, Pheasants Forever has received a $50,000 grant from the state to pursue further conservation work. Over the next three years, members will focus on clearing the land of trees and replacing them with native prairie grass, restoring the natural ecosystem.
“The change in habitat will be hugely beneficial for pheasants, turkey and other wildlife,” he said.
While Pheasants Forever sometimes works in Steele County, the county has another organization with similar focus. An independent nonprofit, Minnesota Pheasants Inc. of Steele County pays no dues to a national organization, instead focusing all of its resources on local projects. Its is currently working on a pair of projects in collaboration with the DNR. The most recent effort was to establish a natural nesting ground in the Aurora State Wildlife Management Area, located between Owatonna and Blooming Prairie just west of Hwy. 218.
In exchange for DNR grants, the nonprofit is asked to make a matching contribution of 10%. However, this contribution can be cash or an in-kind component such as volunteer service, donated supplies or use of equipment.
Both organizations suffered their first major blow of 2021 when they were forced to cancel their annual fundraising banquet. A spring banquet is a tradition for about two-thirds of Pheasants Forever chapters, serving as the main fundraiser for most of them.
Last year, Rice County’s Pheasants Forever Banquet was held March 14, squeezed in just before the pandemic brought a mass wave of event cancellations. Turek said that made Rice County one of the few chapters to hold a fundraiser last year.
Minnesota Pheasants scheduled its fundraiser just five days later March 19, but those five days made a big difference. After more than 40 years, the annual tradition was cancelled. This year, neither organization is holding a banquet. Trask said that the organization appears to be in fine financial shape without it, and that the much bigger risk would have been to hold it only to be forced to cancel it at the last minute for COVID-related reasons.
In fact, the Rice County chapter is actually paying to maintain the membership of all 2020 banquet attendees, which would normally expire at the end of a year. Trask said it makes a lot of sense as a way to maintain the membership rolls and keep the national organization strong.
“It greatly helps out the organization as a whole, because those memberships are what helps drive the organization,” he said. “Financially, we’re doing OK, and we will still be around next year to have our banquet.”
Faribault students returned to school in person full time this week, but by experiencing distance learning, some may have realized they prefer a less traditional education model.
Around 30% of Faribault High School students are enrolled in distance learning, and staff wants to ensure these students remain in Faribault Public Schools. As a result, the district has become an online learning provider. While distance learning was government mandated as a response to COVID-19, online learning isn’t specific to the pandemic and serves to expand class offerings with an alternative platform.
Casey Rutherford, Faribault Public Schools director of educational technology and innovation, and Faribault High School Assistant Principal Joe Sage were instrumental in applying for the district to become a state-approved provider. The final step was School Board approval, which occurred unanimously at its Monday meeting.
“Our teachers at elementary school have been doing it all year long, so I think we’re off to a very good start,” said Superintendent Todd Sesker. “ … It’s a good program for the community.”
The district will use ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding to offset the costs of becoming an online learning portal, according to Sesker.
During Monday’s meeting, Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Corcoran described how the Falcons Online program would function for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The younger grades, kindergarten through fifth, will follow a similar model to what the district now has in place. Teachers for these grades will develop their own Faribault-specific curriculum.
For grades six through 12, teachers will partner with the online learning provider Edgenuity to start. Creating a Faribault curriculum for these grades over the summer would be too large an undertaking, said Corcoran, but that will be the long-term plan. Those teachers will instead partner with Faribault staff to ensure solid content is in place when students return to school in the fall.
Students who elect to participate in Falcons Online will have the option to take classes at home without ever visiting the campus, Corcoran said, but schools will also provide spaces for students to complete their online classes at the buildings.
Classes offered through Falcons Online will not only be accessible to students within the district who want to continue learning outside a traditional structure but also to home-schooled students and students from other districts. According to Sesker, about 160 home-schooled students live within the Faribault district.
Being an online learning school keeps the Faribault Public Schools “status quo,” according to Sesker, since many other schools are achieving the same status after the pandemic introduced students to distance learning. Minnesota Virtual Academy in Houston, Minnesota, was once a rarity that attracted thousands of students in a town of just over 1,000. But as more schools offer online learning, the playing field becomes more level.
The decision is not meant to breed competition with other districts, Sesker clarified, but to work collaboratively with Faribault’s neighboring communities.
Corocoran added that most of the Big 9 Conference schools are pursuing online learning as an option with the mindset of working collaboratively so as not to pit themselves against one another.
“It also allows them to still be a Faribault Public Schools student and participate in the many extracurricular opportunities we have so they don’t have to become isolated away from participation in those activities,” offered Board member Carolyn Treadway.
Board member Richard Olson asked Corcoran if there is a concern about online students missing out on working collaboratively with one another in teams and not seeing their teachers in person.
Corocoran said the district has partnered with a program called LiveMore ScreenLess to figure out the appropriate balance between online learning and interactions with teachers and peers.
“It’s becoming more and more popular for students to take classes they want and not sit in the classroom all day long,” Corcoran said. “But I think you’re right in keeping that mental health component in mind.”
The district also set plans in the event of an online student failing classes. One option, said Corcoran, is to offer support in the form of an intervention. The student could either come to the campus for tutoring, or, post-pandemic, the tutors could schedule home visits.
“The big thing is the relationships we’re making with those kids,” Sesker said. “If teachers have made that connection, then they are able to better assess whether that student needs to come in. We have done that; with a couple of kids, with the parents’ support, we asked them to come in every day during this hybrid time.”