A non-profit youth center may be coming to Owatonna, and the community is beginning to buzz with excitement.
Kali Keller and her husband, Steve, have been working on a plan to bring such a place to town, a place where kids can feel they belong and are loved.
“I remember telling my mom that someday I was going to have a family of ‘misfits.’ What I meant was that I had gained an understanding of just how much love and family can change a person,” Keller said. “I wanted everyone to find that understanding as well. My hope in opening a non-profit youth center is one step I can take to sharing that understanding.”
The idea for a center is still in the very beginning stages of planning as Keller is in the process of gathering information from the public on what they’d like to see in a center to guide the creation of an official business plan.
Keller said she’d like to utilize an existing building in Owatonna.
“After we find our home, we will fill the center with the things requested by the community,” Keller said. “I’m finding that cooking classes appear to be very popular.”
Keller has posted survey links to various local Facebook groups asking the public what they’d like to see in a center. So far she has received nearly 80 responses, leading her to believe that the community is on board with having a center come to town.
According to Troy Klecker, the community development director for the city of Owatonna, Keller is not the first who has aspired to bring a youth center to Owatonna.
“A youth center has been talked about as a need in the community for a while,” Klecker said. “The tough part is how. Proposals in the past have run against one obstacle or another, which has kept it from happening.”
The Owatonna Public Library has space and programs oriented for children and adults, but according to Klecker the teenage group is where activities are lacking.
According to youth.gov, children and teens spend 80% of their daytime hours outside of school and 1 in 5 of those children are left alone after school ends. Studies have shown that after school programming, such as those offered by a youth center, show significant improvement in student’s performance at school, reduction of crime, social and emotional learning, promote safety, help to support working families, and many other benefits.
“Our hope is the youth center will benefit the community by building strength through the youth, providing a safe place for them to work out differences in a healthy way, explore different areas of interest while being supported, but most importantly just giving them another place to connect with an adult that cares about them,” Keller said. “We hope that this will provide youth with safe, fun options of entertainment, deterring criminal activity … and as the youth are able to come together, the community will also come together.”
Keller and her husband both grew up in Owatonna and are now raising their three children here. The couple both work for Redemption Church, Kali as a part-time worship leader and Steve as a part-time resident pastor.
Amid tense discussions over efforts toward equity in Owatonna Public Schools (OPS), staff sought to provide a space to describe those efforts and answer questions.
Dozens of women and mothers came to the Tuesday night meeting of the Owatonna Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) held at Trinity Lutheran Church. According to Linda Hoffman, co-president of the branch, the event had been planned back in June in response to members’ questions about changing education standards and discussions around equity. The speakers for the event were Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning at OPS, and Martina Wagner, English language development coordinator at OPS.
Krell and Wagner began by informing visitors on the work OPS is doing to try to achieve goals around equity. These include the school’s implementation of the Minnesota Bilingual and Multilingual Seals program, which allows students with proficiency in languages other than English to earn college credits.
Other efforts include OPS’s adoption of a new literacy program from Fountas and Pinnell, an intervention program that provides intensive instruction to supplement literacy education. Krell said the program has helped elementary school students discover their love of writing.
Krell also sees matters of equity as inextricably linked to literacy skills, which she suggested should be matched by a genuine interest on the part of students in what they are reading. This is why it’s so important, she said, for every student to be able to see themselves reflected in the books they are reading at school.
“Some of our students of color never really saw themselves in a book,” Krell said, adding that OPS has tried in the last five years to insert more books into the elementary school curriculum that reflect the diversity of the students reading them.
These new books, she said, “are really authentic. They celebrate students, they celebrate families.”
Krell later said that while some students might need a four-year college degree to pursue their interests, not all of them do, since there are many jobs in technical, healthcare and other fields that don’t require them. Efforts OPS is making toward this end include a nursing course being offered at Owatonna High School that allows students to earn credits toward a nursing program into which they can be enrolled upon high school graduation.
“We really just need to match students with where their passions are,” she said.
Wagner added that the Owatonna Area Learning Center (ALC) is Owatonna’s best-kept secret for students with a nontraditional path through secondary education.
Questions about equity
After Krell and Wagner’s presentation, visitors asked questions about specific efforts OPS is making toward equity, including one question about efforts to hire young teachers of color. Krell agreed that giving students of color nonwhite mentors is very important, though she added “it’s really hard to hire teachers of color.”
“We’ve made some progress but we have a long, long ways to go,” she said.
The work OPS is doing toward that end, Krell said, includes the grant the district was awarded by the state of Minnesota through the Grow Your Own program, which provides programming and college credits toward an education degree at Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU). The goal of the grant is to funnel more students of color into the education field to diversify the teacher population.
The district is also organizing affinity groups for teachers and staff of color to help them feel supported so they stay in the district.
Another visitor asked how OPS is dealing with the pressure faced by Owatonna School Board members during tense discussions or public comments regarding racial equity. Krell said that the district is in “a very delicate position to be responding to that.”
“First of all, we are 100% not offering critical race theory,” she added, referring to the pilot course called “Critical Race Theory” previously offered at Owatonna High School through Minnesota State University, Mankato, which has stopped offering the course to high school students due to staffing issues. Though the course was “well-received” by the upperclassmen in Owatonna who Krell said took it last year and enjoyed how it “gave them a voice” to tell their stories, the backlash against it has been difficult for the district to deal with.
“The work we’re doing around equity is in the best interest of students,” Krell said. “There’s no white shaming, there’s no white blaming.”
Potential projects for county roads and bridges have been prioritized, laying out an ideal map for the next five years.
During the Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved the adoption of the 2022-26 Highway Capital Improvement Plan. The board also amended the use of the transportation sales tax.
County Engineer Greg Ilkka said during a public hearing last month, regarding the plan, there was only one comment from the public, which was more of a concern about the amount of gravel roads located in the Deerfield Township on the northwest side of the county.
“Staff will continue to evaluate these roads annually based on traffic volumes and maintenance needs,” Ilkka said.
Some of the projects listed in the five-year plan include a maintenance projects on CSAH 2 between CSAH 7 to Interstate 35 within Owatonna city limits; a rehabilitation project on CSAH 12 between the Union Pacific Railroad and CSAH 8 in Merton Township; and constructing a roundabout at the intersection of CSAH 48 and 18th Street SE within Owatonna city limits.
The new roundabout is due to a School Traffic Impact Study completed by Owatonna Public Schools, in relation to the new high school being built east of this intersection. The study identified significant operational and safety issues associated with the increase in traffic volume expected at the intersection.
All of the above projects are tentatively scheduled to take place in 2022.
Since the public hearing, Ilkka told the board that staff amended the plan to include an updated cost estimate for the County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 2 concrete pavement rehab project for next year and the corresponding funding increase through the sales tax fund balance.
As a part of this adoption, the board also approved amending the use of the transportation sales tax to allow additional projects to be funded by it. Though the plan already identifies sources for each project, Ilkka said this amendment will provide more opportunities to complete important improvements.
“The resolution provides for the use of the transportation sales tax on any of the projects,” Ilkka said. “This allows greater funding flexibility in the event some projects come in higher than expected.”
The purpose of the five-year capital improvement plan, as laid out in the final plan that was approved this week, is to effectively maintain and improve the infrastructure for which the Steele County Highway Department is responsible. The plan aids with budgeting, planning, programming, project development, design and construction of highway and bridge improvement projects.
The county highway infrastructure consists of more than 377 centerline miles of road and 129 bridges within Steele County. The county highway system is broken down by funding source, with the CSAH system being the largest with 313 miles of roadway. The county roads system consists of 64 miles.
The gas tax revenue is distributed by the state of Minnesota to assist in the construction and maintenance of the CSAH system, while the local property tax levy, wheelage tax and local sales tax are sources of funding for the construction and maintenance of all county roads.
Ilkka reminded the board that the plan is intended to be flexible, recognizing some projects take significant time, resources and coordination to implement. Until projects are approved by the commissioners as a part of the annual budget, all the projects listed in the plan are tentative.
Also during the meeting, the commissioners approved the renewal of the three-year lease agreement for the Rice/Steele County 911 Center, located in Owatonna. Joint Dispatch pays rent to the county and city for the space used at the Law Enforcement Center on Pearl Street. The lease agreement will run through 2024 and will increase from $11 per square foot for the rest of this year to $17 per square foot in 2022. The rent will then go up $1 per square foot each consecutive year.
The county also recognized multiple employee anniversaries during the meeting, including ShaLee Ebertowski, records specialist at the Sheriff’s Office, one year; Josh Steinberg, road deputy with the Sheriff’s Office, three years; Melissa Trihus, technical clerk in the Recorder’s Office, six years; Lucas Dreher, correctional officer at the Detention Center, six years; Dawn Grunklee, programs assistant at the Detention Center, 14 years; and Debbie Grems, office support specialist with Public Health, 15 years.