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Preparations for school at MinnWest continue: Information meetings on charter school begin Monday

WILLMAR — Preparations are under way to open a new charter school offering project-based learning this fall in Willmar.

Technical Academies of Minnesota is awaiting state approval to start a school for grades 7-12 in a building at the MinnWest Technology Campus. It would be a public school, but it will not be affiliated with area public school districts.

Parents and students can learn more about the school at informational meetings Monday and on Feb. 22. The meetings will be at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday in the Life Center Building on the Technology Campus at 1800 18th Street N.E. in Willmar. A third meeting will be at 11 a.m. Feb. 22 at the Life Center Building.

The school will be located in Willmar but plans to serve students from a broader area, said Tammie Knick, a Willmar native who serves on the Technical Academies of Minnesota School Board.

The school will be a tuition-free public school open to any student, she said. The plan is to open with no more than 150 students at the Willmar site. If more than 150 students register for the school, a lottery would be held.

Technical Academies of Minnesota is planning to open a similar school in Owatonna this fall. Future academies are planned for Rochester and Jackson.

Knick said the school will use student projects to address the required state educational standards, with the help of a database system called Project Foundry. The database will track a student’s work, offering suggestions about how standards can be included in a project, she said. Parents will also be able to check Foundry online to track their child’s progress.

For some subjects, probably math, the school will probably offer traditional classes or online classes, she said.

Students and teachers will be assigned to small learning communities with a planned ratio of 15 students to each teacher. The teachers would help guide students in their projects and in meeting standards.

Students will take Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in the spring, like all other public school students in the state, she said.

Extracurricular activities will be handled in affiliation with Community Christian School of Willmar.

Knick emphasized the school’s willingness to accept any student. However, it may be more suited to some kids than others, she said. Young people who don’t fare well in traditional school settings may be attracted to the different atmosphere, she said.

Home schooling families may be interested in what the school can offer their teens, too, she added.

Students at the school would need to be “self-motivated,” as they will be working on their own at times during a day.

Students who graduate from the school will need to have completed one of four goals — complete a year or more of post-secondary credits; complete an industry-recognized certification; participate in occupational training, like carpentry or cosmetology; or complete an internship.

Many who graduate from the school could be ready to go out and get a job out of high school, she said.

Knick expects the school to have students from a wide area. Families from Litchfield, Raymond, Olivia and Spicer have contacted her to learn more about the school.

Awaiting approval

The state approved an affidavit last year allowing Technical Academies of Minnesota to develop four schools serving grades 9-12 in communities across southern Minnesota. The state is now reviewing a revised affidavit to add grades 7 and 8 and to change the locations of the schools. That review is expected to be done by the end of February.

It isn’t uncommon for a school to hold community meetings before an affidavit receives final approval. “One of the things they have to prove is the interest in the school,” said Cindy Murphy, director of the Charter School Center at the Minnesota Department of Education. “There’s phases of developing a charter school, and things can happen concurrently.”

Technical Academies of Minnesota is unusual in several aspects, Murphy said. The school applied to start schools in four sites right away, she said. That’s not prohibited by law, but it’s more common to apply for one site at a time.

It’s also unusual to have a school switch communities during its planning process, she said. The school’s revised affidavit says that facilities in some original locations were inadequate, and community needs changed in some areas, too.

While charter schools are public schools, they do not operate under supervision from the state. The state has investigated and approved about two dozen authorizers who oversee and contract with charter schools.

The revised affidavit from Technical Academies of Minnesota will be reviewed to be sure the authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools, followed all the procedures and guidelines spelled out when it was approved by the state, Murphy said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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