What a great start to the school year! Over the past month, I have received numerous comments from staff, students and parents regarding our school district and how the school year has started off great. I give credit to our amazing staff and building administrators for creating welcoming environments that work to build relationships with students and their families.

I want to spend this time highlighting two innovative programs that continue to ‘grow’ and enrich our students’ learning:

Outdoor Learning Space

A little over a year ago, Dr. Tom Meagher, District STEM Coordinator, presented a concept to the school board about creating an outdoor learning space on our Owatonna Middle School grounds. Fast forward to today, and I continue to be amazed at how quickly this project has taken shape. The project was mostly funded through state and local grants to provide a unique outdoor learning space that furnishes our middle school students with an authentic environmental experience.

The outdoor learning space was carved out on the east side of the middle school campus. Several ecosystems were conceptualized using a short-grass prairie, long-grass prairie, native trees, shrubs and bushes, a pond from rainwater run-off and a designated pollinator area. The district worked with Tree Trust from the Twin Cities to plant 14 different native species of trees and shrubs. We worked with Prairie Restorations from Cannon Falls, Rice County Soil & Water Conservation District, the Steele County Soil & Water Conservation District and Blazing Star Gardens of Owatonna to plant the following:

Trees & shrubs: 14 native species

Rain garden: 12 species of wild flowers (forbs) & 6 grasses & sedges

Short grass prairie: 4 species of grasses & 10 species of wildflowers

Tall grass prairie: 4 grass species & 10 wildflower species

Pollinator area: 21 species of native wildflowers (forbs)

Prairie Restorations provided seed mixes to over-seed each of the areas where students planted 1,400 plants grown in 3”-6” pots. This fall, students from 7th grade life science & living green classes will be collecting seed heads from other prairie areas across Owatonna, identifying species and transporting seed to the OMS outdoor classroom. Transporting seeds from here in town ensures that the genetic diversity of the prairie plants are well adapted to the Owatonna climate conditions.

Staff and students are utilizing this area on a daily basis for science, math, language arts and many more content areas. A big thank you to Dr. Meagher, our local businesses that support this effort, and to our students for their work in making this a reality.

SteeleCoWorks

I would also like to highlight our continued partnership with the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Steele County for SteeleCoWorks. This initiative continues to grow on a yearly basis. Last year, the program connected over 200 seniors with job opportunities in Steele County. SteeleCoWorks Workforce Coordinator, Anisha Zak, spends time in our high school as well as Medford and Blooming Prairie to help students make a connection to the workplace. Last spring, nine graduating seniors signed letters of intent to join the workforce in Owatonna. We could not provide these opportunities if we did not have a supportive business community that allows our students to take part in mentorships and internships. These opportunities provide “on-the-job” experiences that help our students identify whether or not a particular vocation is a good fit for them. Furthermore, they help students understand what training or education they will need to continue in that line of work.

Owatonna High School is preparing to host the 8th Annual College and Career Fair for students in grades 9-12. The event is scheduled for Tuesday, October 22 and will host 51 colleges, 3 military branches and over 50 businesses. A special thank you to Anisha Zak and OHS business instructor, Tate Cummins, for their continued efforts in providing opportunities for our high school students. It is our vision that these valuable experiences, coupled with our continued progress with Career Pathways at Owatonna High School, will best prepare our learners to take the next steps in their life journey.

This week we are celebrating homecoming week. It’s always a great week to showcase our pride for Owatonna. I hope to see you at one, or all, of our festivities and activities that are being planned for this week.

Go Huskies!

Jeff Elstad is the superintendent of Owatonna Public Schools. He may be reached at the district office at 444-8610 or via email at jelstad@owatonna.k12.mn.us.

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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