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Middle School introduces new program to ensure no student is left behind
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Owatonna Middle School students are ready to “SOAR” this year, thanks to the administration team introducing a new and improved program to give them a second chance at complex concepts and enrich their day with fun activities.

A few years ago, the former Junior High School implemented a program called WIN, or “What I Need,” with the idea to help students who were struggling in certain areas. Still, it lacked the system and organization to be successful. With the implementation of Infinite Campus, the new SOAR program has taken off and been successful in ease of use for students and staff alike.

“We knew we needed to try something a second time around,” said OMS Assistant Principal Matt Zurbriggen. “We knew we needed to find a way to help kids through the learning process.”

SOAR — Skills, Organization, Accountability, and Responsibility — is an intervention and enrichment program that has been built into the school day for students. It is similar to the COMPASS program at Owatonna High School, with two sessions at the beginning of every other Wednesday that run for 36 minutes.

Classes on these days are shortened to accommodate the SOAR sessions. Students can be assigned an intervention time to practice skills they had trouble grasping in courses over the previous days. They can retest on skills, complete homework, or (as the school calls it) practice.

Students who are not pulled into an intervention period may choose an enrichment program such as yoga, card games, sports, PC gaming, cooking, fat tire biking, and more.

Out with the old, in with the new

Due to budget and student access concerns, the middle school decided to eliminate homework help sessions and Saturday school, making the SOAR program that much more beneficial and, in some cases, crucial.

Middle School Principal Julie Sullivan said they’d seen attendance take a downturn for homework help and Saturday school because many kids couldn’t access these resources due to time constraints, or they were unable to get a ride to school early or on Saturday.

During the first SOAR session, 21% of students were pulled for an intervention, according to data provided by Owatonna Public Schools. By the second term, 40% of students were pulled, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. As the course curriculum progresses, some kids may struggle to grasp concepts right away.

Zurbriggen stressed that individuals are often given second chances at tests in life, such as driver’s tests and college entrance exams. He asked, why shouldn’t students be given the same opportunity for a second chance at skills in school?

“We’ve emphasized that in our grading work with assessments being a key part of that primary focus in what’s calculated into the grade,” Zurbriggen said. “We knew we needed a way to give kids a chance to reassess and to have a chance to reteach if they didn’t get something the first time. They need another opportunity.”

In the classroom

Erin Klecker, a math teacher at the middle school, said that her experience with the SOAR program has been nothing short of positive. She took a poll with her students asking what they think of the program, and reported back that nearly all of them responded with thanks. She also said she’s seen a shift in the mindset of her students becoming motivated to learn skills and not fearing being left behind.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my time at the middle school,” Klecker said. “I don’t think in all of those years have we had a time built into our school day to pull kids and work on skills and focus on their learning instead of just getting something done.”

Spanish teacher, and student council advisor Andrew Malo said he was excited to come before the school board to talk about SOAR because he loves it and sees the benefits reflected in his own grade book.

“I’m glad we revisited the WIN program because the point of it was so good,” Malo said. “ We learned from the mistakes and it’s been great.”

In the eyes of a student

Christina Bell, a student at the middle school, spoke to her experiences with the SOAR program at a work session Monday night for the Owatonna School Board.

“It gives you a chance to reboot back into school,” Bell said. “Having a break in the schedule from traditional school work and having time to relax is good for students.”

Bell also talked about how she thinks the opportunity to do a fun activity will drive students to complete and learn the material because they want to participate in the various activities being offered. She also mentioned that she was thankful for the opportunity to retake a math assessment and found value in being able to have more one-on-one time with the teachers to better understand the skills.

“I’m very glad the principals made a change to the system this year,” Bell added at the end of her speech.

The administration team for the middle school have planned and scheduled out the program for the entire first semester to ensure its success.


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Fundraising for regional cancer center continues, remodel set to begin in 2022
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There’s no place like home — especially when you’re not feeling well.

In part, that’s why the Cancer Care Close to Home campaign for the comprehensive remodel of the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at District One Hospital in Faribault is on pace for a successful finish.

“We all know someone who has been touched by cancer, and despite medical advances in the field, it’s not going away,” said Rick Miller, director of operations for Allina Health’s Faribault and Owatonna hospitals.

Though the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute is based in Faribault, cancer patients who go to the Owatonna Hospital are referred to that location, which serves as the regional cancer center.

“We have better screening programs and a prevention focus but when someone gets a cancer diagnosis, the ability to have the right hands holding theirs from the start of the journey is vital.”

Over the past year, the District One board of directors, along with hospital staff like Miller and oncology-certified nurse practitioner Amy Selly, have partnered with motivated community members to meet a $750,000 fundraising goal that will improve local delivery of cancer care services.

“The community has rallied around investing in great cancer care close to home,” said Miller, mentioning that an abundance of $25 and $50 gifts have been received, as well as about a dozen donations in the larger gift categories.

“This is a close-knit health care community, and we’re extremely appreciative of every gift,” he added.

Said Selly, “We’ve been amazed at the support and generosity of this community, which will enable us to continue providing care in a functional environment and offering patients our very best professional support.”

Miller confirms the major remodeling effort may commence in January 2022. Although the bulk of the needed funds have been pledged or received, more donations are required to ensure the project can be completed as envisioned.

“We’re getting close, but those last dollars are really the toughest,” said Todd Markman, a campaign cabinet member.

“We need to find a few more donors to put us over the top so we can finalize the project.”

Permanently temporary

The VPCI remodel is comprised of three major parts: a new room for family conferences; a larger space to accommodate cancer support group meetings, counseling, patient education and/or staff training; and dedicated patient rooms.

“Between the clinic and infusion center, we see between 25 and 50 patients a day,” said Selly. “Patients are typically from within a 30-mile radius of Faribault.

“We are the only accredited cancer center in south central Minnesota, and that accreditation is important because it allows us to provide multidisciplinary care.”

Selly, along with her VPCI colleagues, has made do for years.

“The original space was outgrown by 2015,” said Selly, noting the VPCI opened locally in 2011.

“Ten years after opening, we’ve significantly outgrown the temporary space we moved to in 2015.”

Selly, a Faribault native and one of 13 skilled health care professionals at the District One VPCI, handles direct patient care.

“Truly, caring for patients in our community is my passion,” said Selly. “We have an outstanding medical oncologist, social workers, nurse navigators and nursing staff.”

But what they haven’t had is a dedicated space.

“Currently, our clinic staff are scattered throughout the hospital’s first floor, making patient coordination more challenging,” said Selly.

“We’re located within the surgery center, and there’s a lot of commotion and activity occurring around us as we’re attempting to take care of newly diagnosed cancer patients and those receiving ongoing care.”

The remodel aims to solve that, with a goal of creating a specially designed space for providing optimal cancer care.

“This is a good thing, too, because it’s a remodel of space [on the hospital’s north side] previously used to store medical records,” said Miller, noting records are now digitalized.

“That makes the construction costs less and the timeline shorter than if we were building from scratch.”

Both Selly and Miller emphasize the project’s value to cancer patients and their families.

“We have all the tools, expertise and programs to support cancer care, and we can do it close to home,” said Miller.

“Something even as simple as parking, which is easy and far less stressful here than at larger facilities — and the benefit of having VPCI and Allina Health behind us is we can do everything here they do at Abbott Northwestern or Mayo, and if additional specialized care is required, we can coordinate that for you.

“You get the specialized medical care you need along with the extra tender care of a smaller facility.”

Personal touch

Markman was easily convinced to join the campaign cabinet.

“I was happy they asked me, and the more I learned about the project, the more it made great sense to me from the perspective of keeping cancer care local,” said Markman.

The goal of providing up-to-the-minute specialized cancer care in greater Minnesota spoke to Markman, who moved with his family to Faribault from Blue Earth as an 8-year-old because his mother was battling cancer and needed closer proximity to the Mayo Clinic for her frequent appointments and treatments.

“We had some relatives in Owatonna, and our church family helped out a lot, but I remember her taking numerous trips to Rochester for treatments and checkups when I was a child,” said Markman.

“We [he and his three older brothers] learned some valuable lessons that, no matter the outcome of the illness, community means a lot to a family.”

Markman stresses that having a hospital in town serves everyone; its presence shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“Whether it’s there for children being born, or when you fall off a bike and break an arm, or need other medical attention—to have all that, plus a full cancer center, in our own backyard is pretty important,” said Markman.

“Many other outstate communities have lost their hospitals, and having both Mayo and Allina clinics in town with access to specialists is part of what makes Faribault the great community it is.”

That’s precisely why Miller and Selly are thrilled the remodeled cancer center is on the verge of becoming a reality.

Said Miller, “Our staff are friends, neighbors and relatives of their patients. They really care on a deeply personal level.”


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Owatonna VFW to hold Pheasants for Hospitalized Veterans auction on Saturday
  • Updated

Supporting hospitalized veterans in Minnesota and enjoying a fun Saturday night can sometimes happen all at once.

The Pheasants for Hospitalized Veterans committee will hold their annual silent and live auction on Saturday, Oct. 23, at VFW Post #3723 in Owatonna. With no entry fee and anybody in public welcome to attend, the evening presents a fun and easy way to help celebrate the sacrifice veterans have made for their country.

“It’s a fantastic program,” said Sarah Escamilla, auxiliary president of VFW Post #3723. “It’s very meaningful because it’s recognition. We are not forgetting that they exist and what they did for us.”

Cheryl Bulver, former auxiliary president for the American Legion in Owatonna, emphasized the merit of the cause.

“We raise quite a bit of money each year,” Bulver said, adding that some of the money is used to fund fishing and hunting trips for disabled veterans. “And it’s just a fun thing.”

All proceeds from the silent and live auctions go toward hospitalized veterans, of which there are approximately 1,850 at 16 veteran hospitals and homes across Minnesota. The funds buy the veterans a full pheasant dinner, including wild rice, stuffing and dessert.

“It’s a big meal and it’s really good,” Escamilla said. “I’ve gone to a dinner. It’s excellent food, they really outdo themselves.”

Proceeds from the Pheasants for Hospitalized Veterans auctions go toward buying full pheasant dinners for veterans in hospitals and veterans homes across Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of the Owatonna VFW)

Providing full pheasant dinners to veterans in Minnesota veterans hospitals and homes has been going on since 1941, according to a statement put out by the Pheasants for Hospitalized Veterans committee.

“For decades, the program involved pheasant hunters donating part of their harvest, and featured the delivery trucks of the Minneapolis Star Tribune collecting the hunters’ donations,” the statement reads.

Only in the 1980s did food safety laws force the program to donate farm-raised birds, rather than those personally hunted by individual donors.

According to Escamilla, though Steele County didn’t get formally involved in the organization until 1963, it has contributed more to the program in the state of Minnesota than anywhere else.

The mostly elderly hospitalized veterans, many of whom fought in World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War, are also served by auction funds in other ways. Beyond the pheasant dinners, proceeds go toward other veterans programs in Minnesota, including Trolling for the Troops and Disabled Veteran Turkey Hunt, both of which are put on by Minnesota Veterans Outdoors.

Auction night at the VFW

Doors open to the event at 4 p.m. with an open kitchen and bar. The silent auction begins at 5 p.m. Tickets for the meat raffle, 50/50 raffle and wine pull are sold during the silent auction, which closes at 6:45 p.m. The live auction begins at 7 p.m.

For the wine pull, bottles donated from Hy-Vee and Cash Wise will be set up on a wall with numbers on them which match the numbers on people’s tickets. One higher-end bottle is also set up in the middle, with the names of wine pull ticket holders going into a separate bucket for that particular bottle. Those names are pulled out during the live auction.

The night’s festivities will include a wine pull, featuring bottles donated by Hy-Vee and Cash Wise. (Photo courtesy of the Owatonna VFW)

“Typically we have 100 or so items on our live auction that we present throughout the night,” Escamilla said. “It’s just a really good time, especially with the live auction because you have people vying for that specific thing that they want. Everything is set up so you get to see everything.”

The live auction — made up of items donated from members of the Owatonna VFW, American Legion, local businesses and community members — has no particular end time. It ends whenever the last item from the live auction has been claimed.

And beyond all the fun, auction participants can know that they are supporting a cause that matters.

“A lot of [these hospitalized veterans] didn’t get to have the choice when their country called and said, ‘You’re going,’” Escamilla said. “When they come back here — if they make it back — it’s just our way of saying thank you and we recognize you.”


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