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On a Voyage for growth: Voyageurs Expeditionary School expanding

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Middle school teacher Katie Boell looks over the shoulder of Christian Demuth as he writes in a journal during an English exercise Friday at Voyageurs Expeditionary School. The school added a middle school this year.

BEMIDJI -- This year marks a new adventure for Voyageurs.

Voyageurs Expeditionary School, a public charter school at 3724 Bemidji Ave. N., has ventured into younger territory, for the first time serving middle school students.

The school, founded in 2003, now has programming available for students in grades 6-12.

"I'm excited because all the middle schoolers seem very enthusiastic," said Julie Johnson-Willborg, director of Voyageurs.

This year, there are 15 sixth- through eighth-grade students; some are siblings of existing Voyageurs students and others were chosen by lottery for open slots.

"All 15 seem to really like it here," Johnson-Willborg said.

With a half-dozen others on a waiting list, Johnson-Willborg said the middle school will expand to about 30 students next fall.

In order to do that, however, the school first will have to physically expand.

Johnson-Willborg said staff is working with its landlord to add on about 3,000 square feet to the building to increase capacity and provide a home for the middle school, keeping those students relatively separate from the older high-schoolers.

"It's the perfect site for us," Johnson-Willborg said of the school's location, which has been its home since 2009. "We just need it a little bigger."

Voyageurs aims to provide meaningful education through hands-on learning. This summer, school staff underwent training in San Diego as it prepared to transition from student-initiated, project-based learning to more teacher-directed project learning.

"What we found over the years is that project-based learning is an effective way of learning," Johnson-Willborg said.

Students were learning through hands-on activities, collaboration, fieldwork and more, but some students simply need more direction, she continued.

"Some kids just didn't know how to proceed," she said.

This year, staff is implementing more teacher-directed, project-based learning, still allowing for options and student choice, but providing a framework for the students' education.

Meanwhile, the school will continue to support and strengthen its commitment to service learning and exploration.

This fall, students will travel to the Twin Cities for the Renaissance Festival and also volunteer at Feed My Starving Children. Others will be camping this fall at a yet-to-be-determined state park and the middle-schoolers soon will go through team-building exercises at C4, the high-ropes Character Challenge Course near Park Rapids. Later, school staff will finalize their choices for their annual trips. Last year, for example, contingencies of students visited Chicago, Yellowstone National Park and Washington, D.C.