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Josh Clausen, left, and Tanner Bartels perform in the Bemidji High School band. With a variety of school options available in the Bemidji area, each school has its own strengths. For the traditional Bemidji School District, the number of extracurricular activities is consistently considered a draw for potential students. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 3
Fourth-grader Madeline Simula, kneeling in center, and her sister, Ella, a second-grader, help perform a skit recently during the morning assembly at Heartland Christian Academy, a non-denominational school offering a Christ-centered education. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 3
Ilsa Thooft, a senior at Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, enrolled in the school last year after being homeschooled through the first half of high school. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer 3 / 3

BEMIDJI – Elijah is a third-grader who thrives on the interaction with his fellow Lincoln Elementary classmates.

Meanwhile, two of his sisters are flourishing at Voyageurs Expeditionary High School.

And another older sister was home-schooled all the way through graduation.

“I appreciate it a lot, that our community has so many choices,” said their mother, Michelle Thooft.

Between the traditional public school system, charter schools and private schools, the Bemidji area has a variety of educational options for kids.

Bemidji Area Schools, with an enrollment about 5,000 this year, educates the vast majority of local school-age children, boasting seven elementary schools, the Bemidji Middle School, Bemidji High School and numerous specialty and alterative programs.

“There’s just so much more opportunity” at a larger school, said Ron Johnson, whose daughter Jennifer graduated from Bemidji High School four years ago.

Jennifer, set to graduate from Concordia College this spring, was involved in an array of activities at BHS, Johnson said.

“She really enjoyed the instruction there, and the choirs, show choirs, being in the musicals, the band,” he said. “Jennifer just had a really good experience with the school system … I think there’s just so many more opportunities at a big school.”

Area options abound

In addition to the traditional school district, there are three Bemidji area charter schools, which are separate public school districts with their own schools, staff and programming.

Schoolcraft Learning Community, located at the Concordia Language Villages, has about 190 students in grades K-8 this year; TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School now serves 160 students in grades 7-12 and plans to add a sixth grade next year; and Voyageurs Expeditionary High School has 74 students in grades 9-12 and is considering adding middle-school grades this fall.

There also are three private schools in the area. St. Philip’s School, with 230 K-8 students, is located within St. Philip’s Catholic Church. Heartland Christian Academy, a nondenominational school offering a Christ-centered education, has 38 K-8 students; and St. Mark’s Lutheran School, with 15 students in grades 1-8, is run by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod.

Additionally, students can be homeschooled or take online classes.

keeping the faith

For some parents, particularly those with children in parochial schools, how to choose between school systems was never really a question.

Dave and Jennifer Hoefer moved from Grand Forks, N.D., to Bemidji about three years ago, enrolling their two grade-schoolers at St. Philip’s.

“It was a given,” said Jennifer Hoefer.

Their older child, Aaron, now a fourth-grader, transferred from Holy Family-St. Mary’s Catholic School in Grand Forks. Their daughter, Kiera, now a second-grader, started at St. Philip’s as a kindergartner.

As a Catholic family, Dave Hoefer said it was reasonable to have the kids first try St. Philip’s, the only Catholic school in Bemidji.

“Ultimately, though, we would pull (them) if we weren’t happy with the school,” he said.

But that hasn’t at all been a concern, the couple agreed.

“It really feels like family,” Jennifer Hoefer said of St. Philip’s. “Every single adult in that school knows every single student.”

Paul Bellig, who sends his sixth-grade daughter, Sophia, to St. Mark’s, said he “knew early on” she would attend St. Mark’s for her grade-school education.

“The No. 1 reason is I want a firm, Biblical foundation for my daughter,” said Bellig, whose family are St. Mark’s members.

Sophia, who attended Horace May Elementary for kindergarten since St. Mark’s does not offer it, is doing well academically and is growing in her faith, Bellig said.

“Academics is very important but it is secondary” to faith, he said. The family plans to move from Bemidji by Sophia’s high school years to southern Minnesota to be near family and raise Sophia in a smaller, more Christian school district.

“I don’t want to leave Bemidji. I love Bemidji,” Bellig said. “But for this, I’m willing to make the sacrifice.”

A faith-centered education also was a consideration for Adriana Simula, who has two daughters now at Heartland.

“First and foremost, in our lives, faith really does come first, before any worldly success,” she said. “But we are sending them to Heartland to learn. If we felt Heartland was not giving our girls a good basic education, we would pull them.

“We want them to be successful. If they choose to go to college, we want them to be ready.”

Simula said her daughters are getting great educations, which she expected since she, herself, attended Heartland herself as a child, when the school had K-6 grades.

“My experience was very positive,” Simula said, noting she felt very prepared and academically ready to join her peers at the Bemidji Middle School when she transitioned to public school.

‘high value on education’

Amy Beighley’ oldest child, Paige, is a seventh-grader at Bemidji Middle School. Her older son, Parker, is a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary, where Caden, will start kindergarten next fall.

“We’re two miles from Lincoln and we heard it was a good school,” Beighley said about the decision to send the kids to the local elementary school.

The family lives in a development nearby so the children attend school with kids they know.

“We’ve not had any issues or problems with the school. The kids love going there,” she said, noting that, as a mother, she appreciates Lincoln’s curriculum, such as its accelerated reading program.

Her older kids are involved in extracurricular activities, which fit into their decision to remain in the traditional school district. Paige has played volleyball and is involved in show choir while Parker has played T-ball, football and basketball.

“We let them try a lot of new things,” Beighley said.

None of Marcy LaCroix’s four children, ranging from a fourth-grader to a ninth-grader, have purposely never been in a traditional public school setting.

“I wanted my children to place a very high value on education,” LaCroix said.

As a graduate of the Bemidji school system, she said she didn’t feel challenged as a student. “I want my kids to be taught to their strengths. I really want them to know who they are,” she said.

She once saw a bumper sticker for Schoolcraft that said, “Think to learn, learn to think,” and it connected with her.

“That’s exactly what I wanted for my kids,” she said.

Her youngest children – fourth-grader Ann, sixth-grader Honor and eighth-grader Savannah – all attend Schoolcraft and are doing quite well, LaCroix said, praising the school’s small class sizes and hands-on learning.

“It’s all an experience,” she said. “It’s all an opportunity to learn.”

Her oldest, Colby, was homeschooled for kindergarten and attended Schoolcraft for first through sixth grade. He transferred to TrekNorth in seventh grade.

LaCroix said it was a mutual decision she supported, wanting him to succeed academically. Whereas Schoolcraft is a hands-on, expeditionary school, Trek is focused on college-level courses and seemed to meet Colby’s needs better.

“That worked really well,” she said, noting a number of Colby’s friends also transferred to Trek that same year. “All of them have done very well. It was a good move for the boys.”

Savannah, an eighth-grader, now is preparing to transfer to a high school this coming fall, but which school has not yet been decided.

LaCroix said she wants Savannah to attend Trek, but Savannah wants BHS.

“I struggle with that,” LaCroix said. “I’m such an advocate for the different learning and teaching styles at charter schools.”

Savannah, involved in orchestra and choir, responds positively to Schoolcraft’s teaching styles.

“Yes, I want her to go to Trek because it offers more individual attention,” LaCroix said. “But Bemidji High School can offer so many more extracurricular experiences than Trek or Voyageurs can.”

The family said it was still considering and discussing options for the next school year. LaCroix said there also is the third option of an online high school, noting that while it isn’t her top choice, it might be a compromise.

For the Cermak family, an online high school was a good fit. Katherine, 13, and Christopher, 12, both take classes through the MTS Minnesota Connections Academy.

Their mother, Rebecca Cermak, said two older sons struggled in the traditional school systems so she decided to head off additional problems, adding a friend already had signed for Connections Academy.

“I’m very happy with the decision,” Cermak said. “Because of this, I’ve watched my daughter become more confident.”

Teachers work with students to develop lesson plans and schedules and the students take classes remotely from home. They communicate with teachers through email and phone calls and have virtual live lessons online.

Cermak said her children generally do class work six hours a day on Saturdays through Wednesdays.

“It’s been great,” she said.

From home to a classroom

For the Thoofts, all four children, ranging in age from 9 to 21, were homeschooled at some point, but their experiences varied.

“I always said I would homeschool until I couldn’t meet their needs,” said their mother, Michelle Thooft. “It was a blast … for us, we learned through our travels, experiences. We got out and saw what we could see. It was all a learning experience.”

The oldest, Grace, 21, was homeschooled through graduation, though she did take some art classes at BHS.

Ilsa, 19, and Maddie, 16, were homeschooled up until they enrolled at Voyageurs in fall 2011.

Voyageurs is a great fit because they get individual attention in a small school that emphasizes expeditionary and hands-on learning, what the girls were raised on, Thooft said.

“That’s why I love Voyageurs so much,” she said.

Thooft said she’s impressed with how the staff encourages and works with students to help them find their strengths. Ilsa sang in a spring conference last year and Maddie, involved in student council, helped plan the school’s prom last spring.

“They get that individual attention. Students can’t just fall through the cracks,” Thooft said. “I just love this new tagline (for the school): ‘We teach students, not classes.’ I love that.”

Elijah, who Thooft lovingly called her “little dude,” needed to be around his friends in a more social setting, she said. He never attended kindergarten – he was homeschooled – and went to first grade at Lincoln. In second grade, the family sent him to Schoolcraft but transferred him back to Lincoln less than two months later.

“He just didn’t connect with the kids,” Thooft said. “He told us, ‘I want to be with my friends.’”

Thooft doesn’t know what Elijah will decide as he moves toward middle school, since Voyageurs is considering adding middle-school years this fall. She said he wants to go where his sisters go, but he also plays soccer and likes being around his friends.

“He’s got this little band of brothers at Lincoln. I would hate to split that up,” Thooft said.

Elijah also has expressed a strong interest in science. As the family prepared to attend a rodeo last year, most of the family was really looking forward to the event, but Elijah was less enthused.

“He said, ‘Mom, I’m really more of a tech guy,’” Thooft recalled. “I just don’t know. He might end up choosing to go to Voyageurs for the science and technology.”

Bemidji Area Schools registration begins

BEMIDJI – Kindergarten registration begins this week for Bemidji Area Schools’ 2013-2014 school year.

Registration will be 4-6 p.m. at the neighborhood elementary schools. Guardians must provide an immunization record and birth certificate. Those unsure of their home school area should call 333-3100, Ext. 131 or 134.

For those students still needing their required preschool screening, guardians should call 333-8329 to make an appointment.

Registration dates are as follows:

– Horace May: March 12-14. 333-3240.

– J.W. Smith: March 12-13. 333-3290.

– Central. March 14. 333-3220.

– Lincoln: March 19-21. 333-3250.

– Northern: March 19-21. 333-3260.

– Paul Bunyan Center: March 19-21. 333-3119.

– Solway: March 19-21. 467-3232.

For other schools

For more information on other Bemidji area schools, contact a staff member at the school.

– Bemidji Middle School: 333-3215.

– Bemidji High School: 444-1600.

– Schoolcraft Learning Community: 586-3284.

– TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School: 444-1888.

– Voyageurs Expeditionary High School: 444-3130.

– Heartland Christian Academy: 751-1751.

– St. Mark’s Lutheran School: 444-3939.

– St. Philip’s School: 444-4938