BEMIDJI -- After multiple years of preparation since the idea first appeared on the scene, the doors of Bemidji’s newest charter school, Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners, have opened to its first round of students.

Also known as AWCL, the school is not in its final incarnation. Administrators know one day it will move out of its current location and into a permanent home south of town. They also expect their enrollment numbers will climb and that they will add more grades by the time they reach their goals. Nonetheless, they’ve begun to see the beginning stages of their plan come to fruition.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” AWCL Director and Co-Founder Anna Wallin said about how she felt on the school’s first-ever day of class on Tuesday. “It was exciting to see all the families show up and the smiles on the kids’ faces.”

Eventually, the school will operate out of the Nary School in Helga Township, a 100-year-old building that closed in the 1970s, and which has been used for various purposes since. Before the new charter school can move into the century-old building, though, there are a number of upgrades and maintenance issues that need to be taken care of.

So, for now, the new school is operating out of the Early Childhood Family Education space in the county buildings in downtown Bemidji. The timing worked out well since the Bemidji School District’s preschoolers just vacated that space to move into Paul Bunyan Elementary as part of the larger shift of students that resulted from the construction of Gene Dillon Elementary. It’s possible AWCL could be in the Nary School by the start of the next school year.

On Thursday, the school’s other co-founder, Shanna Reiners, led a gaggle of kindergartners to the grass outside the county building. They stood in a circle and threw a ball back and forth as they continued to get to know one another on what was their third day in the new school community.

Shanna Reiners, teacher and cofounder of AWCL, does an outdoor activity with the kindergarten class on Thursday morning.  (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)
Shanna Reiners, teacher and cofounder of AWCL, does an outdoor activity with the kindergarten class on Thursday morning. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)

Since the outdoors will be an integral part of the school’s curriculum, AWCL is also getting some help from the city of Bemidji until it can move out to the Nary School. Once a month, the buses will drop students off at the city park next to the curling club instead of at their downtown classrooms. Once they move out to the Nary School, they’ll have even more flexible options for learning outdoors, since the old school house sits on multiple acres of land.

Instructional Coach Sarah Wilson works with the teachers at AWCL. Wilson said in addition to having the outdoors be a focus at the school, they’ve also geared their lessons so that they aren’t as separated from one another as much as they might be in a traditional setting.

“It’s really an integrated curriculum; the subjects are really tied together,” Wilson said.

The school currently hosts K-6 students, but eventually it will host students through the eighth grade. Enrollment stands at nearly 80 students. Wallin and Reiners are planning for as many as 180 within five years.

Before opening, the staff at AWCL handed out fliers and spread the news of their opening on social media. And now, not even a week into their first year on the scene, they already have a waiting list for the first through fourth grades.

AWCL is one of four charter schools located in and around Bemidji. It emphasizes a concept known as “Place-based learning.” Wallin said that includes learning about themselves, their families, the school community and the larger community.

“I think we’re all offering something that’s needed in our community,” Wallin said about the various charter schools. “That’s where a lot of our inspiration came from -- just knowing that our community is seeking alternative forms of education.”