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Schoolcraft Learning Community: Bemidji's first charter school celebrates 10 years

Scott Anderson, director of Schoolcraft Learning Community, stands in front of Paris, the main building of the Lac du Bois French Village site at Concordia Language Villages, located northeast of Bemidji. SLC, Bemidji's first public charter school, turns 10 years old. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

Schoolcraft Learning Community has offered students an education for 10 years.

Compared to most school districts in Minnesota, the district is relatively young, but it is the oldest charter school in Bemidji.

Scott Anderson, who has been the director of SLC since its beginning, said the school has overcome big challenges to get where it is today. He reflected on the school's past and present and shared his ideas for the future.

"Our first year, we spent a great deal of time just figuring out how to run a school and dealing with logistics of tables, chairs and schedules," Anderson said. "It was a very busy time."

SLC opened at the Concordia Language Villages in 2000 with roughly 150 students in grades kindergarten through eighth. There were 14 full- and part-time staff members. It was Bemidji's first charter school.

"We didn't have any issues with enrollment," Anderson said. "It was more of the logistics of how many buses were needed and when they would arrive, and the timing and structure of school days. We were kind of learning as we went as far as designing the type of school we wanted to be. It was exciting."

SLC came into existence when Louise Mengelkoch, and her husband, Kent Nerburn, both of Bemidji, were looking for an alternative to the traditional public school setting.

"I got wind of the fact that the state was starting these charter schools," she said. "I had never heard of them before."

Mengelkoch said she contacted Joe Nathan, the founder of the Center for School Change, now housed at Macalester College in St. Paul, who offered to come to Bemidji to inform people about charter schools. Mengelkoch scheduled a public meeting, which 40 people attended.

"That was it," Mengelkoch said. "I knew there were enough people there for enough reasons who wanted alternatives. It gave me more motivation to do something."

Meetings took place and discussions followed. A group of founders was formed. Nerburn said they worked well together.

"Not one of us wanted to create a school from our own children," he said. "Not one of us had our own legislative agenda. We believed in an expeditionary learning model and turning everything into learning."

Over time, a plan was set in place to open a charter school, but the school district needed a sponsor and a director.

Nerburn contacted Anderson, then a teacher at the Bemidji Middle School, and asked if he would consider being the director of SLC.

Within a couple days, Anderson met with the founders and listened as they explained their plan to open a charter school. Anderson agreed to be the director.

Nerburn said to this day, he is happy with his decision to hire Anderson.

"Scott is the rock on which this charter school is founded," he said. "He has a commanding presence and is a gentle authority. He is tight on fiscal management, has surrounded himself with good teachers and has sought ties with the district and the community."

With Anderson as director, the charter school needed a sponsor. SLC first sought sponsorship from the Bemidji School District, but in March 2000 the district rejected the proposal.

"Sadly, at the time, the district saw us as an adversary," Nerburn said. "The district was building a big high school and had to make sure the school stayed full. They didn't want charter schools."

In May 2000, SLC was granted sponsorship from the Minnesota Department of Education.

"(Founding the school) was the most important thing I have ever done in my life," Mengelkoch said.

After the new school was up and running at the Concordia Language Villages, some parents became interested in the possibility of adding a high school.

"We actually had parents that, when they knew we weren't going to expand because of the size restrictions and location, started looking into forming their own charter high school," Anderson said.

Those meetings, he said, eventually came to a point in which the group split. One group founded TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School. Another group founded the Voyageurs Expeditionary High School.

"We didn't establish a formal connection or feeder program with any high school," Anderson said. "It is as it is today - more choices for parents."

Today, SLC has 175 students and approximately 30 fulltime and part-time staff members. Anderson said the school district has come a long way in 10 years.

"There were lots of rumors about us," Anderson said. "People thought we had this ability to pick and choose students, we were a private school, we were able to charge funds and able to design which kids we wanted to have. Some thought with the nature of our curriculum, this was a 'treehugger' school."

He said through the years he has tried to educate people that the school is a public school district and has the same demographics as the Bemidji School District.

The school offers students small class sizes, a unique outdoor learning environment and project-based learning. SLC does not offer organized sports or band, but students can participate in a canoe club in the fall and a cross-country ski club in the winter. They can also choose to perform in choir and/or orchestra.

Anderson has been a strong proponent of allowing charter school students to participate in Bemidji School District extra-curricular activities, which the school district does not allow.

He said he will continue to work through the state legislature to provide more opportunities for students.

"I would much rather do it on a local level and to come to the table and find resolution," he said. "I'm still hopeful."

While some view SLC's presence as a source of competition with the Bemidji School District, Anderson said more choices have improved education in the Bemidji area.

"I think in the early days the feeling was that (charter schools) wouldn't make it. From my observation, I think the district has created new opportunities for parents and offered more choices because of our presence."

Anderson said having the MDE as its sponsor has had a positive influence on the school.

"Politically, for the (MDE) to sponsor a charter school is a risky maneuver," Anderson said. "If we were to bring in any kind of negative attention, it puts charter schools in a bad light and also the (MDE). That's why we've worked very hard to do things the right way and to be financially secure."

There are still challenges ahead for the public school district, such as dealing with limited state funding and making sure the school makes Annual Yearly Progress, which it did not make in 2009 and 2010.

"Everyone is watching the state funding process," he said. "We have to do what we have to to pay the bills."

With enrollment levels growing in the Bemidji area, Anderson said he is continuously asked whether SLC will expand in the future.

"For us, that would involve maybe expanding to another village or having another site in town, like a second campus," he said. "We keep taking longer looks at that. But having another campus, the school sort of develops their own community. Doing what is best for us might not be the best thing for kids."

Anderson said is now hearing from past students who are upperclassmen in high school or in college. A few alumni have their children on the school's waiting list.

"For them to come back and still feel that connection and share stories of how memorable this campus was to them, it's great," Anderson said. "I'm looking forward to the next few years. Every day is exciting."