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Voyageurs weighing adding grades 6-8

Cindy Nelson, English teacher at Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, offers senior Jesilee Rave some advice on a homework assignment. Voyageurs is considering adding a middle school as soon as next fall. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Voyageurs Expeditionary High School is exploring adding a middle school next year.

“We see that as a real need in the community,” said Julie Johnson-Willborg, director of the school.

The school is asking for community input as it studies the viability of adding grades 6-8. A survey is available online at

Voyageurs staff fields dozens of calls each year from parents looking for a non-traditional middle school, Johnson-Willborg said.

There are other charter school options – Schoolcraft Learning Community offers grades 6-8 while TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School hosts seventh- and eighth-grades – but both schools have waiting lists, Johnson-Willborg said. Private schools, such as St. Philip’s School and Heartland Christian Academy, charge tuition.

“We know the need is there for another middle school,” Johnson-Willborg said.

Voyageurs, founded in 2003, has 56 students in grades 9-12 this year.

“We offer a unique setting,” Johnson-Willborg said. “We deliberately have kept ourselves quite small so we can build a community.”

“(The students) know each other,” added Paul Johnson, math teacher. “We’re kind of like a family in a lot of ways.”

Generally, students who enroll at Voyageurs are seeking a non-traditional school setting with smaller class sizes – each grade has around 15 students – and a different learning environment, school staff said. Some students may have been bullied in another school or were not as successful in a traditional school setting. Others might have been homeschooled before high school.

“They’ve chosen to come here because they need something different,” said Troy Johnson, special education teacher.

To add a middle school, Voyageurs would need the OK of its authorizer, the Audubon Center of the North Woods, and the Minnesota Department of Education.

If supported by the community, a middle school could start as soon as next year, but those grades initially would be kept quite small, Johnson-Willborg said.

Voyageurs is in its third year of operation at 3724 Bemidji Ave. N., the former site of Kobilka Sporting Goods. The new location is designed for up to about 70 students so there is existing room for the additional grades, Johnson-Willborg said, noting that the school’s landlord also is open to the idea of expansion, if a middle school proves popular.

School-wide, Voyageurs uses a hands-on, projects-based educational model. For instance, in preparation for a fall visit to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, students first learned about the Medieval times and made their own costumes.

Since community service also is a crucial component of a Voyageurs education – each student is required to perform at least 20 hours a year – the day before the festival, the students packaged 50 boxes of meals for Feed My Starving Children in the Twin Cities; those boxes will feed 30 children for a year.

Voyageurs each spring also sponsors a spring travel trip. Students have gone to Washington, D.C., where they met with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and toured the Smithsonian.

“Those kinds of authentic learning experiences are huge for us,” Johnson-Willborg said. “Sitting and taking notes is not how most of our kids learn best.”