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DREAM school opens

Karina Gonzalez, 15, holds up her fashion designs at DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar. Students are separated into groups instead of grades and still have to take state-required tests. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)1 / 4
Students play outside DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar recently. It is located on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)2 / 4
Mara Lambert is settling in to her new school: DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar. It has been in session for about two weeks. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)3 / 4
Tammie Knick, social worker for DREAM Technological Academy in Willmar, said project-based learning isn't for everyone, but some enjoy it. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)4 / 4

WILLMAR — Mara Lambert is studying Egyptian history, more specifically the Egyptian concept of the soul.

It sounds like a heavy topic for a seventh-grader, but Mara, of Atwater, is digging right in at the DREAM Technical Academy charter school in Willmar.

Mara, 12, said she has been interested in Greek and Egyptian mythology since first or second grade, when she listened to her mom read aloud from a library book her older brother had picked out. The Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan, a series that includes a mixture of fantasy, adventure and Greek mythology, heightened her interest.

Nearby, Karina Gonzalez, 15, of Willmar, was working on fashion designs.

Two weeks into the school year, students at the new charter school on the MinnWest Technology Campus are settling in to the routine of working on independent projects. Math classes start this week, and they are accustomed to having everyone in the building stop to read during each day.

The school uses a system of project-based learning to help students meet the state’s academic standards. The academy is a public school, and its students will take the same state-required tests as students in traditional schools.

The project-based learning system isn’t for everyone, School social worker Tammie Knick said. Two students realized that in the first week and returned to their traditional schools.

Some kids blossom in the setting, she said. She has had parents tell her they have never seen their kids excited to go to school before.

Teacher Nikki Bettcher Erickson said this week her students are already working on a wide variety of projects. She pointed to a student filling out a grant application for a camera to be used in a photography project. Another had just given a presentation on the liver and how it functions.

The school has eight advisory groups with 15 to 20 students and one teacher in each. “We aren’t set up by grade or ability level,” Erickson said, and it seems to be working out well.

While each teacher is assigned to an advisory group, students can consult with teachers outside their group for advice in a specific field.

Students will participate in the math classes according to their skills, she said, and the school has a math teacher on staff to offer assistance where needed.

Aries Tetzloff, 15, of Willmar, is working with a partner to research the history of the MinnWest campus, formerly a regional treatment center for people with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

“We have our school here; I thought it would be a little bit more interesting to be about campus,” she said.

Aries said she chose the academy to get away from the “drama” of public schools. “I thought it would be better, and it is.”

With the help of Minn-

West officials and historical records, the students have learned a lot about the large campus and its historic buildings.

Aries said they have heard ghost stories and learned about the facility’s once-forgotten cemetery.

A few of the stories were “a little creepy,” she said, but it’s all been very interesting.

For Karina, her fashion designs are something she has been thinking about since she was little. If she is successful at it, she said, “It could be a chance for me to go ahead and travel.”

After she designs collections for women and men, she said, she plans to sew them to fit some of her friends and classmates so that they can model them.

She will be demonstrating how she learned to measure her models and translate those measurements into patterns for the clothing.

“I’ve never been to a school before where I can actually do what I love,” she said.

Knick said the logistics of getting a new school up and running occupied much of the first week or two of the school year.

In the first week, some new students arrived who had not had a chance yet to prepare their desks. Each advisory group has a kaleidoscope of purple, teal, red and neon pink desks sitting side by side.

Most students painted and built their desks in August, but some desk building was still going on in the first week as new students arrived. Students also participated in team building exercises and got to know each other.

Last week, the school distributed Chromebook laptops to the students and helped everyone get set up with email and with Project Boundary, which they will use to track their work. They also loaded the software for their online math classes.

The school is still working out a catering contract for school lunches, Knick said. For now, students are bringing their lunches. For those who cannot afford to do that, donations from the Willmar Area Food Shelf, Jennie-O Turkey Store and other sources have been used. Once the catering contract is established, the students will be able to receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Students participate in sports and activities with students of Community Christian School in Willmar. The school is also developing a dance team and a yearbook staff.

The school still has some slots open before hitting its enrollment limit of 150, Knick said. Most of the students come from Willmar, where the academy is located. It’s the largest city and the largest public school district in the area.

The students are from 15 different communities: Atwater, 7; Benson, 1; Clara City, 3; Kandiyohi, 8; Kerkhoven, 1; Lake Lillian, 4; New London, 7; Olivia, 2; Pennock, 5; Prinsburg, 1; Raymond, 5; Renville, 2; Spicer, 3; Sunburg, 1; and Willmar, 83.

Knick said the school is interested in hearing from people in the community who would like to present a seminar, be a mentor or provide an internship to a student. Contact the school at willmar@technicalacademies.org.

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

(320) 214-4340
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