BEMIDJI -- On a bright and brisk day in late February, students from the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners had a change of scenery in their classrooms.

The children, who ordinarily have school in the Beltrami County Community Service Center building in downtown Bemidji, were spread out on the grounds of the old Nary School in Helga Township.

Some tromped through the woods building forts with sticks and branches, others learned how to build fires and some burrowed in the snow as a part of the school‘s monthly "Unplugged Classroom" day, a cornerstone for the institution, but one that hadn’t happened yet this school year due to COVID-19.

Jetson Smith, a kindergartener in AWCL's Spark Community, pauses while playing in the snow during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Jetson Smith, a kindergartener in AWCL's Spark Community, pauses while playing in the snow during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

The relatively new charter school -- it first opened to students in the fall of 2019 -- has undergone a number of changes during its short tenure. But through it all, faculty and students have shown creativity and resilience. The school’s numbers are climbing upward as they deal with COVID-19 restrictions, an unconventional learning location, and pivoting from their original plan to move permanently to the Nary School to seek other accommodations.

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Place-based learning

The deeply rooted values of the AWCL school community are on display during its "Unplugged Classroom" days, which take place once a month.

Students use these days to delve deep into nature while being free to create their own learning space, AWCL Director Janessa Green explained.

“We learn outdoor skills and just learn how to be in the outdoors and how to learn out there. They create their own outdoor classroom and create their own space so that way they can keep coming back to their space every month,” Green said. “It’s also just doing our regular stuff outside. Let’s learn about science while we are outside in science. Let’s take our art class and do some photography of nature outside.”

Fifth and sixth graders in AWCL's Radiant Community learn to build a fire during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Fifth and sixth graders in AWCL's Radiant Community learn to build a fire during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

She said these unplugged days were one of the things the school community missed most since the start of the pandemic, as February marked a year since they were able to gather as a whole school outdoors.

On Feb. 24, students worked in small groups divided by age levels and dispersed around the grounds of the Nary School. Older students learned to play broomball, practice ukulele and built fires. Younger students built forts in the words, made art with natural dyes and built tunnels in the snow.

One of the primary goals of AWCL is to provide place-based learning experiences that immerse students in the exploration of Minnesota’s past, present and future and teach the value of academic rigor, diversity and inclusivity, community responsiveness and environmental stewardship, Green explained.

Fostering community is at the core of AWCL lessons.

“(The founders) set out to create a school that was more community-driven, and recognized that there was a need for authentic type learning and feeling a part of a community,” Green said. “What makes our school different is we focused on really in-depth learning, we have a high emphasis on community, community responsibility, environmental stewardship and place-based education -- knowing we are in, about and from our community.”

AWCL is one of four charter schools located in and around Bemidji. It is free to attend and the institution emphasizes the "place-based learning" concept.

Kindergarteners and first graders warm up inside the Nary School with a snack during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Kindergarteners and first graders warm up inside the Nary School with a snack during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

One of the founders explained that the concept includes learning about themselves, their families, the school community and the larger community. It might seem unusual that a school that subscribes to a "place-based" learning environment, is housed in a downtown county building, but Green said, while not the end goal, this location has led to a deeper connection between the students of AWCL and their community of Bemidji.

And while their initial plans were to connect students with nature, now students have also grown a deeper connection to the city of Bemidji, with their downtown location being an asset.

Since returning to an in-person learning format in their downtown location, students often walk around the heart of Bemidji, fulfilling a number of curriculum goals in the process. Green said the circle of what community means grows as the students do.

“Our third through eighth-grade students walk to Paul Bunyan Park for recess every day, in the winter they stop at Library Park and they go sledding every other day,” Green said, adding that the youngest students use the outdoor playground near the county building.

AWCL students (from left) Anjali Zschokke, Trevor Furey and Calla Peterson try their hand at broomball during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
AWCL students (from left) Anjali Zschokke, Trevor Furey and Calla Peterson try their hand at broomball during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on the grounds of the old Nary School on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Students use and visit the Beltrami County History Center, the Headwaters Science Center, the Headwaters School of Music and Arts and the Bemidji Fusion Center.

Growing group

Unlike many other schools during COVID-19, the AWCL school is growing.

When it started, the school had around 80 students and served grades kindergarten through sixth. As of the 2020-2021 school year, the school now has around 100 students and added two grade levels.

Kindergartener Jetson Smith leads a line of students into the Nary School to warm up during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day  on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Kindergartener Jetson Smith leads a line of students into the Nary School to warm up during the ’Unplugged Classroom’ day on Feb. 24. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We did see an increase in our enrollment this year when most schools saw a decrease in enrollment,” Green said, noting that their enrollment grew 17%. “We grew our second-graders and first-graders and added seventh and eighth grade.”

This year, the first crop of eighth-graders will graduate from AWCL and move onto other area schools for secondary education. Of the class of four, Green said only one has decided where they are going so far -- Bemidji High School.

“A lot of our students do stay with the charter school track usually, but this is only our first year,” Green said. “We knew growing eighth grade this year that would be the hardest grade to fill because it’s hard for families to move to a new school for just one year knowing they have to leave, it’s a difficult transition.”

School enrollment at AWCL is determined via a lottery. Enrollment applications for the next school year are open through March 18, and the annual lottery will take place March 25.

Next year, the school expects to have three grade-level classrooms and three multi-aged classrooms with 20 kindergarteners, 20 first-graders, 20 second-graders, 10 third-graders, 20 fourth-graders, 10 fifth-graders, 10 sixth-graders, 10 seventh-graders and 10 eighth-graders.

Overcoming changes

In its inception, AWCL founders had plans to permanently move into the Nary School, a historic building that closed in the 1970s, and has been used for various purposes since.

“Currently, we’re pulling back from that because it’s been four years of up and down,” Green explained.

After clearing a number of hurdles, one more held up the process. To move forward with the school, founders needed to secure a “letter of intent” from the Helga Township Board.

An old sign hangs on the wall of the Nary School in Helga Township. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
An old sign hangs on the wall of the Nary School in Helga Township. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Our founders have been pursuing working with Nary for about four years,” she said. “They, the Helga Township, voted in November to put the school in and it was a resounding 'yes.' But, in the December board meeting our representatives were there and what we needed was a letter of intent from (the Helga Township Board) and they voted 3-2 on not writing that letter.”

The school now has its sights set on a new location, one close to town, that Green said has a great outdoor space but would require them to build, so the school will continue to be housed in its current location for the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 has also thrown a wrench in AWCL’s well-laden plans, but Green said the challenges of building community while distance learning has led to even stronger students and educators.

The school is now under an in-person model, with four days a week in school and a remote learning day on Wednesdays. From October to January this year, they were under a full-distance learning model.

“Our goal is No. 1 the safety and health of our staff and families,” Green said. “Our second goal was to continue that (community) connection.”