Excitement for Learning

Published 6:14 pm Friday, June 25, 2021

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SMEC Academy gets students moving and thinking


It’s officially summer, but things were hopping Wednesday at the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium.

At various points in the building, kids were using critical thinking to get around problems, artistic vision to create new experiences, and getting their hands dirty to understand the world around them.

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It’s all part of the SMEC Academy, a three-session Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) camp that is not only geared toward fun and learning, but also is a chance for students to catch up in areas where they might be falling behind.

“They might be gifted in reading, but struggle with math,” said Grand Meadow Middle and High School Principal Matt Rosaaen. “It’s STEAM targeted work. They’re getting science with math and learning about different things. They’re so excited (about coming) that they aren’t realizing they are learning.”

From the beginning, it’s important to understand that this is not summer school. Students from the seven districts that make up the consortium — Grand Meadow, Southland, Kingsland, Lyle, Glenville-Emmons, Alden-Conger, and LeRoy-Ostrander — are not required to attend. It’s an optional program that just happens to be seeing a good amount of success in the first year.

This was a program that brought parents on board with a way to further learning in a fun environment.

“All the parents wanted their kids to do something this summer,” said Denise Kennedy, SMEC Director. “They just wanted their kids around other people.”

The original plan for the SMEC Academy was to kick it off last year. Rosaaen, Kennedy and Kingsland Elementary Principal Scott Klavetter met the year previous and started bringing the program together.

It was the right mix of all levels of education to firmly build a base for what they were planning.

“We were ready last spring,” Kennedy said. “We had the classes set up and we had our plans.”

“Matt was in high school, Scott was in elementary school and I had a special education perspective,” Kennedy continued. “We had everything at the table we needed.”

What they didn’t count on was an all-too familiar twist in the plot when COVID-19 became firmly entrenched in day-to-day life. But the trio took the time to bring everything together.

“It gave us time to add more classes,” Rosaaen said. “Gave us more time to sit and plan.”

A year later, SMEC Academy is fully underway. A walk through the school will bring a visitor to a classroom where they are making paper mache balloons and decomposing items collected to reuse them for a different purpose.

A short walk down the hall and kids are formulating and building their own escape rooms. Students are outside learning about gardening, using computer programs to design T-shirts, building toys and trying to “sell” them to their teacher like you would see in the TV show “Shark Tank.”

Around every corner is something new for the students. There are currently 205 students signed up for the three sessions with the second in July and a third planned for August.

There’s plenty of laughs and shouts of accomplishments, but while the kids are having fun, they are also catching up.

Students from the seven-district consortium inevitably fell behind because of COVID-19 and that’s where the dual aspect of the Academy pops up.

“It meets the needs of filling in the gaps,” Kennedy said. “Schools had to find a way to make it up.”

The targeted aspect of the Academy helps fill that gap. If a student fell behind in math, there was a way to help make up some of that ground so when the school year starts over, the student is where he or she needs to be without the risk of falling behind.

“We’re trying to get them caught up now,” Kennedy said.

There’s yet another side of this as well. Not only are the students getting enjoyment out of SMEC Academy, but teachers are seeing a rejuvenation of sorts – an energizing spirit that comes from thinking outside of the box when it comes to delivering material.

“Creatively … teachers are surpassing what we had intended,” Rosaaen said. “They meet standards and they get to teach a class they’ve always wanted to.”

What’s important is that the students are being reached — not just students with special needs which is how SMEC initially started, but all students.

“When we built the SMEC education center, this was our dream,” Kennedy said. “We wanted to meet the needs of all kids.”

“Whatever you can get out of this,” Rosaasen said. “Two days is better than zero days. We’re seeing confidence built by the kids by just being around other kids.”

Even though there are still two more sessions, organizers are already planning for next year with an eye to offering more and involving more people in the planning.

Being able to bring new perspectives is an important part of continuing the Academy’s successes.

“We are prepared for much bigger numbers next year,” Kennedy said.