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MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Sixth grader Victoria Roy, right and her mother Audrey register to attend TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School on Thursday evening during an orientation. TrekNorth with its new facility has expanded to offer classes for sixth grade students.

New school, new students: TrekNorth celebrates new home, new grade level

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BEMIDJI -- Welcome students!

For TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School this year, students aren't really coming back to campus as much as just coming to campus.

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The charter school this year relocated, having completed a move into its own building. It vacated its former location on the back side of a strip mall to take up residence in a more visible location in a standalone building along Paul Bunyan Drive Northwest.

"Our old space served its purpose, it got us through our first 10 years," said Dan McKeon, executive director of the public charter school.

TrekNorth, which opened initially as a high school in fall 2003, now boasts 21,000 square feet in its main building, compared to 15,000 in its old location.

McKeon said school staff was able to take its experiences from the past decade and apply them into designing its new site, located at 2400 Pine Ridge Ave NW across from Paul Bunyan Mall, as the building was converted from a retail store into a fully functional school.

"All the things we've learned in those 10 years of running the school, we've put into use (here)," McKeon said.

The most notable improvements include a commons area, a multifunctional space right off the lobby that serves primarily as a cafeteria. But all-school events and gatherings will be held here as well, offering a place to bring all students into one location.

"We didn't have this in our last space," McKeon said. "We would kind of spider-web out into the hallways, which was awkward."

Here, he envisions holding choir concerts, perhaps even graduation ceremonies.

"We're hoping to house more our own stuff here that we used to have to leave (campus) to do," he said.

Another big improvements was in art, which now is housed in a large, spacious classroom with a tiled floor and a new kiln, welcoming students as they pursue creative outlets.

"Our old room was this long, narrow, very awkward teaching space," McKeon said.

In science, two labs were designed, one offering space for more traditional lecture-type classes and another for more hands-on lab work.

The other obvious improvement is in outdoor space, as the school for the first time has grass available for outdoor activities, though students are being asked to refrain from using the yard until spring, so the grass can take root.

Also outside is a 3,700 square-foot climate-controlled storage shed, with areas designated for each classroom and activity.

"(Before), people had to store everything in their classrooms so space just got encroached, encroached and encroached," McKeon said. "Having storage is really another big improvement for us."

Additionally, students' lockers are now three times larger and there are more pull-out offices for teachers and specialty staff.

The computer lab increased from 18 desktop systems to 25 and has added amenities that will allow TrekNorth to offer certain activities, such as Advanced Placement testing, on site.

The school building was planned to keep instructional space separate, set off from the lobby and commons area by double doors. Not only is that a functional lockdown option -- the doors can be locked by a push of the button from up front -- but it also allows staff to lock off the classroom areas for nighttime events, such as, for example, an evening choir concert.

The project was financed by the Naylors, who previously operated a retail store at the site. The renovation costs were worked into the 11-year lease agreement with TrekNorth.

But McKeon said he expects the school will stay in place beyond then.

"From a public perception, it was hard. We were in a strip mall before," he said. "It's hard for parents, a community, to think of a real school existing in a strip mall. So I think having a standalone building with green space, a more traditional physical appearance, it just says 'school' more than the old place did.

"We're excited."

A new grade

There are about 240 students enrolled at TrekNorth this year, up from about 193 last year.

McKeon said there are 113 new students this year, the most since the school opened.

But a big chunk of that figure can be attributed to TrekNorth's first sixth-grade class.

This fall, the school expanded into the sixth grade, marking the first grade-level expansion since TrekNorth in 2006-07 expanded to offer seventh- and eighth-grades.

Acknowledging the incoming younger students, McKeon said the goal is to keep them somewhat separate from the entire student body but to also make them feel welcome.

"Our goal is to have have their own program and be really strategic about when and how they're interacting with the older kids," he said, noting that most sixth-graders are 11 years old. "We want to keep them comfortable. But we also want to include them in the larger school community, meaningfully and safely."

Sidebar

TrekNorth has long focused on its Advanced Placement curriculum.

This past year, however, Dan McKeon, executive director of the junior and senior high charter school, expected his students' average AP scores to take a dip.

Not because they weren't prepared, but because they took so many of them.

In 2011-12, 41 ninth- through 12th-graders took 58 total exams, scoring an average of 3.3.

In 2012-13, 45 students took 81 exams.

"I knew we were taking a lot of tests, so I was expecting that number to go down," McKeon said. "I thought, if we stayed at 3.3 that would be a good, strong year."

Instead, the average increased to 3.6.

"I was pretty excited about that," McKeon said.

For AP tests, students are graded from 1 to 5, with a 3 or higher considered passing.

McKeon broke down his students' scores into subcategories, noting that 18 students who receive free or reduced lunch all passed at least one of their tests, and 9 of 10 American Indian students who took an AP test passed one of them.

Overall, TrekNorth also scored a few perfects: All 11 students who took the U.S. History test passed, the seven students who took the Studio Art test passed, and both students who took the AP Biology test passed,

Fifteen of the 16 students who took the psychology test passed and 12 of the 13 who took the AP Literature & Composition test passed. Eight of nine students who took the AP environmental science test passed.

Coming Tuesday

The second part of our Back to School report:

Paul Bunyan Elementary is ready to welcome its students to campus.

The school this summer underwent an extensive renovation to make room for three additional sections of kindergarten, this time welcoming students from the Horace May attendance area.

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