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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD 

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Minnesota Vikings cornerback, Mackensie Alexander, talks with reporters after Tuesday’s Training Camp practice at TCO Performance Center in Eagan. (Photos by Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Local teachers receive a science education at Arkema

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — As the company has done for more than two decades, Arkema’s Blooming Prairie facility is mentoring local science teachers this week, and this year’s batch of six educators received their scientific kits Tuesday.

“Typically, we try to do three schools in the area annually,” said Michael Green, Arkema plant manager.

And this time, Blooming Prairie, Owatonna, and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva were all represented with two teachers each. Every teacher is matched with an Arkema mentor for one-to-one professional development over the three-day workshop, as teachers tour the plant, learn more about Arkema, tinker with their kits, try out experiments, and ask questions.

Teachers have their pick of kits based on content, classroom, and school needs, Green said. There are “so many kits” focused on topics ranging from geology to electricity to biology.

Wendy Schultz and Amy Johns, both third-grade teachers in NRHEG, selected environmental kits.

“Kids love learning about living things, and, anything hands-on, it seems they like to do,” Schultz said. The kits also came with videos, and “it’s nice for teacher prep to see it” rather than only “read it.”

The environmental kits consist of four “investigations,” and each investigation has “extension” opportunities, as well, Schultz said. “There’s really a lot that comes with the kit.”

The first investigation examines the life cycle of a mealworm, so students observe and document how movement, structures, and behaviors impact survival of the creatures, Johns said. It’s a six-eight week unit.

The second investigation, also six-eight weeks, entails observation of behavior and movements of fish in an aquatic ecosystem, Schultz said. Students will understand how various environmental factors can affect survival of the species.

The third investigation, into hatching of brine shrimp, is “very interesting,” Johns said. Students examine how various amounts of salt in water affect the time it takes shrimp to hatch.

The final investigation delves into water tolerance of pea, barley, corn, and radish seeds, Schultz said. Students will compare and contrast seed growth based on water exposure.

The extension for that investigation asks students to compare growth of seeds impacted by varying levels of salt water, Johns said. “There are math extension questions, too,” as well as various books in the kit.

Kayla Harvey, who teaches fifth grade in Blooming Prairie, and Matt Kittelson, who will transition this year to teaching sixth-grade science, chose a kit with a litany of attributes.

Electricity, magnets, and light are all featured prominently, and Harvey can utilize the kits for practice with the scientific method, a focus for fifth graders in Blooming Prairie, she said. With simple circuits in the kits, students can test whether or not a bevy of items function as conductors, and “we’re excited.”

In sixth grade, “we do lots of work with energy,” and this kit fulfills myriad state standards for science, Kittelson said. Students will learn more about “different forms of energy, how it can be transferred, and how it can be transformed,” as well as potential and kinetic energy.

The kits can also aid other subjects besides science, he said. For example, the kit offers miniature Morse code machines, which students could use to enhance spelling or vocabulary study.

Paige Gilligan and Amy Wencl, both fifth-grade teachers at Owatonna’s McKinley Elementary, opted for kits that use makeshift cars to teach forces of motion and simple machines.

“It’ll be really cool with our simple machines unit,” Wencl said. It’s “really engaging.”

“As our unit progresses, (students) go from playing with cars to propeller challenges,” Gilligan said. “It builds along the way,” and “they see how weights can affect different things.”

“They can design and tweak the base car,” as well as “add in technical drawings,” she added. “This is how it is in the real world.”

Like Kittelson and Harvey, Wencl can see numerous connections to other subject areas with her kit, she said. As students observe their vehicles and test them, they’ll need to employ math skills like mean, median, mode, and line plots.

“It’s awesome to work with experts in the field” during Arkema’s science week and “incorporate all subject areas” with “these great kits,” Wencl said. The kits will allow students to learn “in a hands-on way.”

Teachers can return Arkema’s summer science camp multiple times, and that was the case for half of 2019’s group of six, Green said. Participants also typically present the ensuing spring at a community advisory panel to explain how they’ve used their kits with students at their schools.

Schultz is making her third appearance over the past quarter century at Arkema’s science camp this year, and, amazingly, she’s had the same mentor each time, Ricky Soto.

“You learn a lot,” and “it’s very beneficial to learn new things,” Schultz said. As a teacher, “you’re always trying to improve.”

This is also Harvey’s third time at Arkema’s science workshop, and it’s “nice to take time in the summer to really explore your teaching materials,” she said. “It’s tough to do that” when school is in session as teachers are focused on “the business” of the day.

She also welcomes collaboration with other teachers, even from neighboring districts, she said. Furthermore, Arkema “treats us so well, and they want to help us grow.”

Gilligan is another returner to the workshop, and she “piqued my interest” in the camp, said Wencl, a first-timer. “Arkema is so gracious. These kits are not cheap, by any means, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

After experiencing the workshop, she’s certainly a convert, she added. “I would definitely recommend it to other” teachers.

It’s often a “struggle” for Arkema to attract and retain qualified workers in its rural setting, and “we have lots of upper-level STEAM jobs,” Green said. “The best thing in the world is to get some kid in Blooming Prairie, turn (him or her) into a great engineer or chemist, and then have them work at Arkema.”

Obviously, it’s much easier for Arkema to hire individuals who already live in Blooming Prairie, or who grew up in the community but moved away for school, than to relocate someone unfamiliar with the culture, he said. Considering America’s low unemployment rate, and a persistent skills gap, companies often complain about a paucity of qualified employees.

However, “if I’m going to talk about a problem, I need to do something to solve the problem and help our community stay strong,” he said. By continuing to invest in education with the annual science camp, “we can keep places like this viable.”

This program is run in communities where Arkema has either manufacturing or research facilities, according to Arkema’s Sandi Mayzlik. Since its inception in 1996, teachers who have participated in the program have shared what they have learned with more than 50,000 students nationwide.

Blooming Prairie teachers have attended for years and added numerous tools to the district’s education arsenal. In 2017, for example, elementary teachers Angie Avery and Chelsea Van Roekel emerged from Arkema with a Maker Space, and, the previous year, Blooming Prairie representatives brought back Legos, which led to an after-school Legos club.

Jake Schwarz, Blooming Prairie’s elementary principal, actually participated in Arkema’s science academy 15 years ago, so “I know it’s good stuff” teachers “are bringing back,” he said. “It’s quality curriculum they can use right away.”

The fact that so many teachers, like Schultz, Gilligan, and Harvey, return to this workshop after initial visits — and that the camp attracts new members each year, such as Wencl — is a testament to the instruction of mentors and the efficacy of the kits, he added. “In the science field, this is about as good as professional development gets.”

Salvation Army handing out backpacks, school supplies for area children in need

OWATONNA — Back-to-school can be a stressful time between kids fighting off the end-of-summer blues and teachers having to help their new students cope with the transition. One thing that should not be a cause of stress, however, is parents trying to figure out how to afford the school supplies that their children need.

“People start reaching out to us a month before school saying they need backpacks,” said Candy Buck, a board member for the Salvation Army in Owatonna and coordinator for the organization’s longstanding back-to-school backpack program. “Some of their students that don’t have backpacks end up just carrying their papers that aren’t making it home.”

On Wednesday, Buck and her army of volunteers will be handing out backpacks stocked with all the most essential school supplies to local students entering kindergarten to sixth grade at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Owatonna. The 400 backpacks filled on Monday will be on a first-come, first-serve basis from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Referencing the Salvation Army’s mission to serve the community, Buck stated that the true beauty of the backpack program is that it is entirely made possible by the generosity of the community we live in.

“When we do the Red Kettle Campaign over the holidays, this is one of the ways that the funds are dispersed,” she explained. “We put more than $5,000 back into the community with these backpacks. It’s the community that’s doing this. They’re giving back and making it all possible.”

Buck admits that without the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign — for which she also serves as the coordinator — the backpack program would not be possible. Aside from the distribution in Owatonna, the Salvation Army also dropped off 50 backpacks in Ellendale and 50 backpacks in Blooming Prairie for organizers to hand out to children in need before the school year begins.

Though the backpacks generally go to low-income households, Buck said that there is no income requirement necessary to receive a backpack filled with supplies. Buck said the reason behind not basing the program on income is simple: sometimes life just happens.

“Let’s say there’s a family where both the mom and the dad are working, but Mom is about to go on maternity leave and Dad was just in a car accident,” Buck said. “Technically they may feel they don’t meet the qualifications, but they are currently in need because of these unforeseen circumstances that happen all the time. It could just be a one-time thing, but they’re going to be really grateful.”

Helping any person who is in a place of need is especially important to Buck who found herself out of work once upon of time due to an injury. She said at that moment she knew she needed to take advantage of resources that she hadn’t previously known existed, leaving her with the desire to pay it forward in the future.

“I knew I needed to give back,” Buck said. “Life happens. The unforeseen is unexpected. Sometimes we just hit a hard time and need a little help.”

In her three years of heading up the backpack program for the Salvation Army, Buck said that she has never once encountered a family who either wasn’t in need of a little help or who wasn’t extremely appreciative.

“The joy on the faces of the kids who receive the backpacks is just amazing,” Buck said. “I know sometimes parents can feel ashamed when they need help, but I just want them to know that they don’t need to feel bad about having this need. Let this be one less stressor for you and your student.”

The distribution of the backpacks will begin at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at the Salvation Army Thrift Store located at 1810 S. Cedar Avenue in Owatonna. Backpacks will be handed out until 6 p.m. or until supplies last. To receive a backpack, bring a valid ID. Recipients will also be asked to fill out a form for the Salvation Army, which can be filled out at the time of pick up or prior to the start time.

Those interested in volunteering for the backpack distribution can call Candy Buck at 507-649-2703 or come to the store around 1:30 p.m.

Anne Kopas / By ANNE KOPAS 

Owatonna seventh-graders Cody Shaw, Devin Haddy and Mason Masche point out a water scorpion (a type of insect) discovered in the River Bend pond. (Photos by Anne Kopas/The Kenyon Leader)

Olson at peace with retirement after 43 years in education

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — After 43 years in education, Barry Olson is at peace with his decision to retire from his role as Blooming Prairie’s superintendent this summer.

“I feel good,” the longtime educator, coach, and administrator said earlier this summer. “Our district is in a really good position.”

“The team is in place, and we’re financially stable,” he added. “Our facilities are good, (although) we’re outgrowing some.”

Olson’s final day as superintendent was June 30. Chris Staloch, who has been the elementary principal for the past decade, took over from Olson July 1.

“I wouldn’t be in the position I am today — or in the position I will be in soon — without (Olson’s) support,” Staloch said during Olson’s final school board meeting June 17. “We greatly appreciate everything you do.”

Olson’s proudest achievements from his four-plus decades in education involve “watching students grow and graduate with the skills they need to do whatever they want,” whether that’s “taking over the farm” or becoming a “doctor or lawyer,” Olson said. As educators, “we gave them those skills.”

He’s also pleased with the bond passed in 2007 to renovate the high school, a remodeling effort that included the addition of a multipurpose room, media center, library, and commons area. In addition, taxpayers in the district voted “Yes” on all three questions they were asked during a referendum in November of 2017, agreeing to minor tax increase in order to support technology improvements in schools and keep class sizes small.

That 2007 bond is tinged with regret for Olson, however, as the second question of that referendum would have paid for an auditorium and other additional spaces. That second question was rejected by voters.

“It would have been nice to get an auditorium and more space,” he said. “That’s probably my biggest disappointment.”

“We need an auditorium, more gym space, and more classrooms at the elementary building,” he said, noting the growing enrollment and early childhood offerings. “We’re bursting at the seams at the elementary.”

Olson began his education career with seven years teaching in Nebraska, then four years in Blooming Prairie as a high school teacher before 12 years in Owatonna, where he was also the head coach of the OHS girls basketball team, averaging 18 wins per season and three times reaching the state tournament. He returned to Blooming Prairie in 1999, where he was the high school principal for a couple of years before adding the superintendent title.

“I’ve always wanted to be in education,” Olson said. “I’ve enjoyed my years.”

Among the momentous changes during his 43 years in education is the role of technology, he said. Blooming Prairie is a one-to-one district at the secondary building, and “the elementary uses iPads a lot.”

On balance, technology is more positive than negative, but “kids now expect immediate feedback,” and “technology can create some tough situations if not used correctly,” he said. It’s incumbent upon not only schools, but “parents and the community, to teach responsible technology” usage.

Community support for education in Blooming Prairie has been outstanding, including the Blooming Prairie Education Foundation, he said. “Blooming Prairie is a very good place to teach,” a “hidden gem” where “kids are excited to come to school.”

Ali Mach, the district’s director of activities and high school associate principal, praised Olson for his “support” as she’s moved from teacher to administrator over the past couple of decades.

Olson has been “a great mentor and role model,” Mach said. “We’re definitely going to miss (him).”

Olson will miss the people he’s worked with — “you form some really good relationships in this business” — as well as “the challenge of continuous improvement,” he said. As a teacher, coach, principal, and administrator, “we always tried to get better.”

What won’t he miss?

Trying to decide whether to have classes or cancel school during inclement weather and “angry parents,” he said. “It’s a fun job, but you have your hands in so many different things that you’re constantly thinking about something else.”

“There are a lot of challenges in education right now,” including staffing, as it continues to become more difficult for districts — especially small, rural ones like Blooming Prairie — to attract quality teachers and coaches, he said. “Teachers put in the time and they’re professionals, (so) they deserve higher wages, but the only way we can create money is by taxing people, and you know how hard that is.”

As a district, Blooming Prairie’s teacher retention rate is commendable, but luring them to town in the first place is a hurdle, he said. In addition, “the expectations we have of teachers are continually growing, so we need to pay them the wages they deserve.”

Funding from the state needs to increase for “small, rural communities to have quality schools,” he said. Special education costs, in particular, continue to soar, as “there are so many special cases.”

As costs for serving special education students continue to rise, districts have to allot dollars from their general funds, a process known as the special education cross subsidy. The average cross subsidy for Minnesota districts is $820 per student.

School districts are also “asked to deal with a lot more,” from mental health concerns of students to hunger, he said. Blooming Prairie now has a mental health professional, Susan Arnold, on staff, and “she’s busy,” and the district is a partner for the Blooming Prairie Backpack Program, which provides weekend meals to children in need.

At age 65, “I’ll take it easy” in retirement, because “43 years of being run by the bell and the calendar is enough,” Olson said. He’ll spend more time with his wife, his three children, their spouses, and his six grandchildren.

He’ll also be able to visit his lake cabin near Alexandria, fish, and golf, he said. Travel is on the docket, too, as he and his wife are visiting Germany this month.

The couple does plan to remain in the same Blooming Prairie neighborhood they’ve called home since the 1980s.

“Our neighborhood has been together for 36 years,” he said. “It’s like a family.”

“It’s been a good ride,” and “I think we’ve accomplished much,” in the school system and the community, Olson concluded. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do, and what we’ll continue to do.”