BACK TO SCHOOL: Learning center gets trial run at Park Side

Editor’s note: This is the second in a back-to-school series.

MARSHALL – As educators involved in the new Park Side Innovative Learning Center made final preparations this past week, they could hardly contain their excitement for the upcoming venture.

The cutting edge center combines one section each of kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students into one common learning area, which is the former media center at Park Side Elementary, with the purpose of providing personalized learning opportunities for each student involved.

“It’s kind of an ungraded concept, with kids moving to the level they’re at,” said Sue Strautz, who will teach the kindergarten standards at the Center. “We have assessments we will give them to know where they’re at. So if they know the kindergarten standard already, then they’ll move to first-grade and so on. And that’s for reading, writing and math only.”

Participating students will still have the opportunity to interact with their peers, as the students will be at their grade-level for science, social studies, gym, music and lunch.

“That’s something that we wanted to make sure of, that the students still get interaction with their peers,” said Maggie Jans, who has taught first-grade at Park Side for six years. Jans will now be in charge of the first-grade standards at the Center, while second-grade content will be instructed by Karissa Jiskoot, who has taught for eight years, three of which have been at Park Side.

“The kids were chosen by application,” Strautz said. “They had to apply. We actually had to turn a few darlings away. But they’re on the waiting list. It’s exciting.”

Roughly 70 students are taking part in the new program, which will have a strong focus on structured play, integrated studies, service learning and 21st Century skills in addition to the personalized academic learning.

“I’ve read a lot of articles lately about the power of play and how recess and unstructured play is so important for building those social skills,” Jiskoot said. “And it’s something they’re not going to learn in your typical classroom. They learn how to communicate, about conflict resolution and just build those everyday life skills.”

Community involvement is also important and will be incorporated into the standards, the educators said.

“We’ll do a service learning project together,” Jiskoot said. “We’ll talk to the kids about what a service learning project is and ask them what they’d like to do, to get their input, and then do something for the community.”

The Center will also have flexible seating options for students. New furniture is expected to arrive some time in September.

“So those kids who have difficulties sitting still will have choices,” Strautz said. “We’ll have rocking chairs, wiggly stools, the floor and we’ll have study carrels for those students that need that focus. So there are options for kids.”

Strautz said that the benefit of the alternative options is that it better meets the needs of the students in the changing world.

“Everything around us has changed, so why wouldn’t schools change?” Strautz said.

Jiskoot said the new concept would provide the opportunity to “incorporate 21st century skills better.” Data-driven information also helps take the guessing game out of the equation when it comes to students’ needs, the educators said. There will also be more consistency as incoming kindergarteners at the Center will be in the program for three straight years.

The educators are excited about the potential of doing more small group work and teaching to students whose skills are more compatible with each other.

“We’re going to be teaching to a specific standard and group instead of trying to reach such a wide range,” Jans said. “And working in smaller groups, it’s easier to focus on what they need then.”

After seeking direction from Park Side Principal Darci Love some time ago, Strautz and fellow kindergarten teacher Erica Hess put together a design team and toured Impact Academy at Orchard Lake Elementary in Lakeville.

“we got a team together and checked it out. Then we came back here and tweaked it a little to make it our own, “Strautz said.

Along with Strautz, Jans and Jiskoot, paraprofessional Heather Purrington will be a full-time fixture in the classroom. Two grandmas will also help out on a part-time basis. Along with the assistants, the educators are also pleased to have the support of administrators, parents and school board members.

“We’re excited and I think the parents are pretty excited, too,” Strautz said. “It’ll be so nice to have the four of us who are going to care about these kids, help them and see their growth. Maggie and Karissa were both my student teachers and now we’re all back together. It’s pretty neat.”

In preparation for back-to-school time, the Innovative Learning Center has been painted, though the mission statement and front door sign is not yet completed. The media center has moved to a kindergarten classroom and is more of a library type environment now, Strautz said, while Title I has moved across the hall from the center.

“Each of us has an area and then we have a shared corner for community stuff,” Jans said. “And we have a play area. We got to help pick out the colors. We changed the colors to blue, yellow and green, to brighten it up.”