New school a true community project
New school a partnership between city of Tower and school supporters
Marshall Helmberger
M. Helmberger
Vermilion Country board chair Jodi Summit explains the design of the school’s new art room to board member Richard Hanson and School Director Ken Alexander.

After more than five years of effort, all the pieces are finally falling into place for the new Vermilion Country charter school, in Tower.

­“It was a very good week,” said Board Chair Jodi Summit, as the grades 7-12 school received good news on several fronts. “We were pleased to hear that Frandsen Bank had approved the loan to fund the school renovations. It’s great to see the local bank making a commitment to finance such a valuable community project.”

The roughly $360,000 to $400,000 loan will go to the Tower Economic Development Authority, which owns the building. Loan repayment will be made possible by state charter school lease aid, which will range from $70,000-$110,000 annually depending on student enrollment.

The renovations are being overseen by Max Gray Construction, of Hibbing, and work crews have already made substantial progress, roughing in walls, new electrical, plumbing, and a series of exterior windows that will fill the school with natural light.

“You can really see the school beginning to take shape,” said School Director Ken Alexander. “Everything is coming together this time.”

Max Gray project manager Jesse Brunner said the project remains on schedule for completion by the end of May. That will give school representatives more than three months to get the facility fully equipped, furnished, and ready for students.

“We expect to have a small army of volunteers working in the school throughout the summer,” said Summit. “This is a true community project. And we want to get students involved in a lot of it. How many kids get the opportunity to help create their own school? It’s really exciting.”

Strong reviews

The extent of community support for Tower’s new charter school is unusual and that’s something that impressed the education professionals who reviewed the state’s most recent round of charter school start-up grant requests. While Vermilion Country received its grant award in January, the Minnesota Department of Education just released the scoring and comments from the grant reviewers this past week. Vermilion Country was ranked second out of the ten applications, and reviewers offered many accolades for the project. “Vermilion Country combines the innovative approach of project-based learning with a site-specific commitment to the Tower-Soudan region and Vermilion Reservation,” stated the reviewers. “From a school board rich in experience and truly reflecting the diversity of the community to a school leader well versed in project-based learning to a community eager to raise over $33,000 dollars over six years in anticipation for this school, Vermilion Country represents exactly what charter schools can and should be in the state of Minnesota.”

Reviewers gave high marks to the diversity of the school’s governing board, and the rigor of its educational goals. “The applicant’s academic achievement goals are ambitious, rigorous and strongly correlated with the state’s MMR accountability system,” wrote the reviewers. “Clear and concise information is included about numerous assessments that will shape teaching and learning and will be valid measures of progress towards the school’s achievement goals.”

Reviewers were also pleased with the school’s marketing proposal, noting that school organizers had crafted a well-designed plan that was likely to meet or exceed enrollment projections.

But reviewers were most impressed by the community support for the project.

“The application describes phenomenal support and contributions for this school,” stated one reviewer. “It is one of the strongest examples of community involvement for a charter school that this reviewer has seen.” Another reviewer wrote: “Wow! The applicant truly presents an incredible story of broad-based community support for the school and self-supporting parent and community involvement as a result of the community’s commitment, to education and the founders seven years of ground-laying efforts.”

Vermilion Country received $125,000 in funding for the planning phase of the project, and is now qualified for two additional allotments of implementation funding, expected to total approximately $250,000 over the next two years.

“The grant funds allow us to get all our staff hired and trained, our financial and student management systems in place, and all our technology installed and operational before students arrive in the fall,” said Summit. “This is why we decided to delay the opening last year. We needed these extra resources to ensure a smooth and effective opening. Now, the pieces are all in place.”

School ramping up

The school’s director, Ken Alexander, has been working full-time since February to establish the school’s organizational structure and begin purchasing and hiring. The school hired an experienced business manager late last month, selecting Kevin Kroehler, of Edvisions, to manage the school’s budgetary matters. Kroehler has more than 20 years of experience operating project-based charter schools and currently serves as business manager for two other charter schools.

In just the past week, the school hired three community recruiters, who will be meeting individually and in small groups with parents and students to answer questions about the school and gather enrollment forms. Interested parents and students can contact the school at 753-1246 if they’d like to meet with a recruiter.

Meanwhile the school board is beginning to conduct interviews with prospective teachers and board members hope to begin hiring by early May. “We have some very exciting applicants,” said Alexander, “and we’re excited to finally sit down with them and talk in more depth.”

Teachers will start their duties in late June with an intensive, four-day training seminar in project-based teaching methods. Teachers will take part in at least two additional weeks of training and program development in August. “Project-based teaching is different from the traditional model and we want our teachers well-versed in the approach before the doors open in September,” said Summit.

Besides regular teachers, the school will hire at least one special education instructor and any number of aides or para-professionals depending on enrollment.

The school has also begun advertising for an office manager, who will handle a wide range of duties, including some bookkeeping and data management.

The school will also be hiring a full-time cook later in the summer. The school will have a full kitchen, in order to serve students meals made from real ingredients. “Quality, healthy food is a far more important factor in a school’s success than many people realize,” said Summit. “Too many schools have turned to pre-made, heavily-processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, and it contributes to behavioral problems as well as obesity. We will have a real focus on healthy eating.”

A rigorous educational program

School officials are also working to finalize their educational program and policies, and that’s helping to provide more clarity about how students will be graded. While some project-based schools have eliminated the traditional grading system, Vermilion Country will establish a letter or numerical grading system so students will maintain a GPA on their transcripts, which is important as students move into college or vocational training. “And because they’ll be working on significant projects, students will also develop a portfolio of their accomplishments,” said Summit. “Those can be an even more valuable way for a student to demonstrate their educational achievements.”

But the project-based system means that expectations for students will be different, and often much more rigorous than in many traditional schools, according to Summit. “Students won’t be skating by doing C-minus or D work at Vermilion Country,” said Summit. If students don’t complete projects, or fail to demonstrate mastery of the skills the project is designed to build upon, students will have to go back and keep working. We’ll be setting high standards from the start and will expect our students to perform at the top of their ability. This is about making sure that when students move on to college or careers, they’ll have the skills and the confidence to succeed.”

For a traditional teacher, the project-based model can take a little getting used to. But Vermilion Country board member and retired mathematics teacher Richard Hanson said he’s grown increasingly excited as he’s learned more about how the school will function, and about how rigorous the standards are going to be. “I like that we’re going to be demonstrating to kids that we don’t accept projects that are half-done. It doesn’t work that way in real life, and it shouldn’t be that way in school.” And while Vermilion Country will offer traditional grading, Hanson said he’s pleased that grades won’t be the primary emphasis. “I think we’ve made kids too focused on grades, where grades are more important than learning. In our case, learning will be the top priority.”

No tuition, but students must enroll to attend

While the Vermilion Country charter school is a tuition-free public school, and will receive state and federal per-pupil funding just as other public schools do, students must apply to attend. Summit said the school will likely limit enrollment to 70 students this year, so she said parents and students interested in attending will need to get enrollment applications in as soon as possible. “Once we reach our target enrollment, we’ll have to start a waiting list,” she said, “so if people want to guarantee a spot, they should contact us right away.

More information and enrollment forms can be found at the school’s website, at www.vermilioncountry.com. Or people can contact School Director Ken Alexander at 753-1246 and request a visit from a school recruiter.

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