CASS LAKE -- Learning in the right setting can make all the difference in the world, as one state official learned during a tour to the northland.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker visited The Area Learning Center in Cass Lake on Tuesday, hearing from both students and administrators the value of learning in a space that caters to their needs rather than in a one-size-fits-all system.

During her tour of the school , Ricker referred to education as a concept of constants and variables. She explained that successful graduates should be the constant and the education process should be the variable, instead of the other way around.

“Our constants should be those things we want for our students: we want graduation; we want those career exploration opportunities; we want those successful stories,” Ricker said. “Which means the variables can be everything else: where we’re going to school; the amount of time we’re spending in school.”

Gov. Tim Walz appointed Ricker as commissioner of education in late 2018.

The Area Learning Center is a choice program in Cass Lake, which means it acts as an alternative to the mainstream school district. Part of the school’s mission statement is “to meet the educational, social, emotional, and vocational needs of learners who are at-risk.”

Ricker spoke with Corey Madigan, a student who came into the ALC from the Bemidji School District. His father, Larry Madigan, told the commissioner how his two children's academic performance began to improve once they made the transition to their new school.

“The smaller classes really helped my children out,” Larry Madigan said. “I’m really proud of them.”

Ricker asked the Madigans a number of questions about why they chose to transition to the ALC, what they liked about it, and why it worked for them individually.

Corey Madigan told the commissioner a little bit of his story. He said he didn’t adjust to the environment well in the Bemidji School District and that he often would go to school with “his guard up.” The ALC, he said, allowed him to take a step back and take things day by day.

Ricker said speaking with the family and school officials in Cass Lake reiterated that cookie-cutter solutions in public education are not always the best way to handle problems.

“In public education, one size does not fit all,” Ricker said. “It’s why local decisions really matter because what is a good fit here isn’t necessarily a good fit down the road. And what’s a good fit down there isn’t necessarily what this community values.”