BEMIDJI -- The development of a successful unified school program has been the second-best aspect of Jacqueline Stoffel’s career at Bemidji Area Schools so far -- falling just behind meeting her husband, Coach Bryan Stoffel -- as he is quick to remind her.

The Bemidji physical education and developmental adapted physical education (DAPE) teacher was recently named an Educator of Excellence by the Minnesota Rural Education Association for her work in advocating for a unified champion school program, which blends traditional and special education classes to break down barriers between students and encourage relationship development.

Stoffel graduated from BSU with a bachelor degree in Health, Physical Education and DAPE. She went on to get her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from St. Catherine University. She began her career as an elementary physical education and DAPE teacher in Bemidji and is currently teaching physical education and DAPE at Bemidji High School.

In his recommendation letter on her behalf, Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz wrote, “Jackie Stoffel is an outstanding rural educator because she has a huge impact on both special education and general education students through her Unified Champion School Program. Her mission in this work is to break down the barriers that exist between disabled students and their dreams for happy and successful lives.”

“Stoffel has helped her students develop confidence in themselves and in their unique abilities and gifts, while also developing empathy in students without disabilities who serve as volunteers and who develop relationships with disabled students while learning what life is like for people with disabilities,” he added.

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The Unified Champion School Program consists of three pillars: unified sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement. Within each pillar, the goal is to promote inclusion and create authentic peer relationships for all students with and without disabilities.

“Stoffel's innovative and creative instructional practices impact all students -- those with and those without disabilities. All of her students, whether experiencing a disability or not, develop greater confidence, improved social skills, and empathy,” Lutz wrote.

“As research indicates, students learn better when they interact with their peers rather than merely listening to a teacher lecturing. Through Mrs. Stoffel's Unified Champion School Program, all of her students learn so much more than the academic standards; they learn and develop 21st-century lifelong skills such as empathy, socializing, self-esteem, and teamwork. Mrs. Stoffel has made a huge impact on the school culture of Bemidji High School.”

In the future, Stoffel hopes to continue expanding the program. Going forward, she said she hopes to “have the students be at the forefront of it and have them coming up with more ideas to make school and sports and things like that more inclusive."

"I think just building that student leadership is going to be a big part of it over the next few years,” Stoffel said. “I think having that student leadership is one of the most important things. Providing those students with an environment where they can get to know each other and learn about each other.”

The MREA Board of Directors reviewed nominations from four geographic zones in Minnesota to select the 2020 Educators of Excellence based on their impact, innovation, leadership and collaboration. Stoffel and the three other educators recognized by MREA will be honored at an Annual Awards Banquet on Nov. 15. The banquet will be livestreamed and held in conjunction with MREA’s 2020 Annual Conference: Rural Proud.