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Owatonna football coach Jeff Williams addresses his team last Saturday following a 35-28 victory over Rochester Mayo in a Big Southeast District showdown at the OHS stadium. The Huskies hit the road for the first time this season to face Rochester John Marshall on Saturday at 1 p.m. (Jon Weisbrod/SouthernMinn.com)

Julie Scott hits a return in giving tennis lessons to Clara Leonard and others in the beginners class this summer through Tri-City United Community Education at Le Center Middle School. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Owatonna School Board reviews career pathways for students

Anisha Zak of SteeleCoWorks has been helping Owatonna students plan for a life after high school for a little more than two years.

Zak helps students understand the various skills and aspects of a potential career. From there, she often connects students to local businesses which align with the student’s interests. SteeleCoWorks has partnered with these businesses to offer students opportunities such as facility tours, job shadowing, internships and even potential employment.

“My main goal when I meet with a student is just try and validate their feelings, so if they come in and they say, they have this outlandish idea of what their future looks like, I would never tell them no,” Zak told the Owatonna School Board on Monday. “I want to explore it, I want to see how can we help you, either bring that to life or come up with another option for you.”

Her work compliments Owatonna High School’s career pathways initiative. SteeleCoWorks is a collaborative partnership between the United Way of Steele County, the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce, Workforce Development Inc. and the Owatonna Public Schools. It’s funded by the United Way and operated by Workforce Development Inc. Zak is the SteeleCoWorks’ workforce coordinator and helps people 16 to 24 years old who are looking for guidance in development their own career goals.

Zak reports the summer was a little slow, but she was still able to virtually meet with students and share resources with them. Now that school year has started, more students are eager to learn about the opportunities SteeleCoWorks has to offer, she said in her update to the school board.

She spends a lot of time at the Owatonna High School and the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center, bouncing back and forth making sure to connect with group A and group B, as Owatonna high schoolers are learning in a hybrid model due to the pandemic. She also works with Blooming Prairie High School and Medford High School, however those schools are not allowing outside services into the building this year, she said. Blooming Prairie and Medford students are still being referred, many by their school counselor, to meet with her virtually.

For now, Zak is continuing to familiarize herself with Owatonna staff and what classes they teach.

“That has been my number one goal right now, is I want to know what every teacher at our high school teaches and what careers line up with that, so that way, if a student comes to me and says that they want to go into engineering, I’ll already have my database of businesses that offer engineering,” Zak said.

She said if a business approaches her seeking to hire a student, she’ll know what teachers to ask to help recruit students. Updates and more information about the SteeleCoWorks program can be found on the Owatonna High School Compass newsletter.

Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath said he hopes to see the SteeleCoWorks program align more closely with the schools’ already-existing career pathways program, ideally creating a central hub for high school students to find career resources.

“What we do like about that is with our Compass program, specifically now Career Pathways, our ninth-grade curriculum is aligned to introduce them, to Anisha’s position, to what their guidance office can do for them in multiple aspects,” Kath said. “Our Compass program, which is truly that advisement program that every student belongs to will have access to the introduction of Anisha,” Kath said.

When Zak first started working with the school district, she said she had about 10 connections to local businesses to share with students, and now she has close to 100 businesses who have offered some sort of career opportunity to students at some point throughout the years. Although, some of those opportunities have been suspended for the time being due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blooming Prairie to use COVID-19 funds for new police radios

Blooming Prairie Police Department will be using some of its federal COVID-19 funding to purchase encrypted radios, which prohibit the public from hearing the calls.

The Blooming Prairie City Council approved Monday spending its the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to purchase seven encrypted portable radios. City Administrator Andrew Langholz also gave the council an update on the city’s spending of other CARES funds and an update on the Blooming Prairie CARES Business Grant Program.

Under one of Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency executive orders, cities are allowed to purchase portable and vehicle-mounted radios for its police and first responders, with the requirement that the radios be encrypted, according to Langholz. The executive order limits the information a 911 dispatcher can share about whether a person has COVID-19 to first responders via a system that can be heard by the public.

The Blooming Prairie Police Department’s current radios aren’t encrypted and were due to be replaced in the next couple years, Langholz said. The current radios don’t have a trade-in value and will be shared with the city’s Fire and Public Works departments, Langholz said.

Langholz continued to update the council on other COVID-19 related upgrades taking place in city hall and throughout Blooming Prairie.

Owatonna Heating and Cooling received a building permit to replace five furnaces in City Hall in an effort to improve air quality. Work on that project has begun. Updates to make City Hall’s bathrooms touch-free have been completed with touchless toilets, faucets and soap dispensers.

In September, the city council approved moving forward with the purchase of an audio visual system, with the intent on streaming future meetings to the public. A bid was accepted for the project from AVI Systems Inc. for $12,481. The upgrade is scheduled for early November.

A total of seven applications for the Blooming Prairie CARES Business Grant Program were received by the deadline on Oct. 12, according to Langholz. Requests were capped at $5,000 and a total of $33,000 was requested.

“We did say we’d be able to increase it,” Langholz said, adding that the city allotted $41,000 to the program and the county allotted $34,000.

The application encouraged businesses to provide their full eligible expenses in case the city had some extra funds to distribute. Since only seven businesses applied, those businesses which are eligible may receive more.

According to the CARES Act, the funding must be spent by Nov. 15 or returned to the county.

The Blooming Prairie Economic Development Authority approved that tier one businesses, which were closed by state mandate and/or were required to operate at 50% capacity, could receive a maximum of $15,000 and tire two businesses, who had proven negative impacts from the pandemic but weren’t mandated to close, could receive a maximum of $10,500.

Langholz is currently determining the eligibility to receive the funding for the businesses who applied. Applicants with incomplete applications will have one week after being contacted to submit proper documentation. The city will award grant funds and notify businesses during the week of Oct. 26 and the city will distribute funds by check the week of Nov. 2.

Senate President Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, adjourned the Senate for the start of the fifth special session of the year in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)

Center for children, adolescents on autism spectrum coming to Medford

Raising a child with autism can feel isolating and leave parents grasping for answers, but the truth is they are far from alone.

About one in 54 children in the country has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC estimates that statistic to be one in 44 in Minnesota. Tony Thomann, the director of strategy and innovation at the Minnesota Autism Center, knows all too well the overwhelming feelings a parent can go through as they learn to navigate life with a child on the spectrum.

“It certainly can be a challenge,” said Thomann, who is a father of two children diagnosed with autism. “I didn’t know what to do at first because I wasn’t on the spectrum, but my children are who they are, and I was able to eventually gain skills to be able to assist them.”

The Minnesota Autism Center will be bringing its programs for children and youth with autism to the Medford, Owatonna and Faribault communities with a new location opening in Medford in the coming months. The new facility will provide a broad range of programs, including early intervention, life skills development, group learning and school readiness opportunities.

“Demand is large anywhere and everywhere, but we have particularly seen a lot of demand in the Owatonna area from families that are currently driving to our Eagan, Rochester, or Mankato locations,” Thomann said. “Medford’s proximity to both Owatonna and Faribault is geographically going to be really good for all communities.”

The new Minnesota Autism Center will be located at 118 South Main Street in Medford, with a tentative schedule to open in mid-November. The center will provide daily applied behavior analysis – or ABA – therapy for ages 18 months to 21-years-old.

“ABA is kind of the gold standard of day-to-day therapy,” Thomann said. “Our kids will come to the center for the day, receive therapy for the day, and continually acquire new skills to function day in and day out.”

Though there are opportunities in the area for children with autism to receive one-on-one coaching, such as the brain training sessions provided by the LearningRx cognitive center in Owatonna, the center in Medford will be the first of its kind in the area. Thomann said the programs at the center largely focus on repetition to help kids learn very specific steps to exhibiting behaviors that will be beneficial to them throughout life.

“It can be very nuanced between person to person, but the idea is we being to reinforce positive behaviors around different things they may struggle with,” Thomann said

He used examples of kids who are unable to stop hitting or sit still. They’ll try keeping their hands closer to themselves for a few seconds or sit in a chair for five seconds and then incrementally increase that with positive reinforcement to change the behavior, he said.

“Instead of saying that’s wrong, we try to show them how to deal with a stressor that creates the behavior in the first place,” he continued. “Sitting down for five seconds could be a big deal for someone who can’t sit still and just a little bit of that could help a child jump forward – sometimes it just can be a really hard process.”

Thomann said the center will open with 15-20 available slots, which he anticipates will fill up quickly. The participants will come to the center 40 hours a week, though some of the younger kids may come for just half days. Though Thomann knows the demand in the area will be higher than what they can initially provide, he said it will be important for them to gauge the need to determine next steps for services provided.

“This is one of those things where we have to walk before we can run,” Thomann said. “There’s always going to be more demand for what we can do than what we can provide, and we have to balance quality service and qualified staff. But this will help give us insight to what our next steps will be – perhaps provide the service in the home.”

The amount of time a child spends in the center’s programs will also vary case by case, as Thomann said he has seen it range from one year up to 15 years in the program. Overall, he said it is very dependent on what the family’s needs are and what the center can do for the child.

Most importantly, however, Thomann said they are excited about a chance to remind families and communities how special and wonderful these children truly are. They want to see the perspective change for people who may think a child with autism is “naughty” or not capable of doing certain things. Many people with autism are highly intelligent and capable of dealing with everyday life, but they just might have behaviors that are expressed in ways that need assistance, he said.

“It can be a difficult and hard process, but the first time a child who has never said a word asks for juice, it’s astonishing,” Thomann continued. “We have all seen that with babies, when they say it’s their first word – it’s such a miracle and a beautiful thing. When a 10-year-old does it, it’s beyond belief.”