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'An anchor in our community': AWCL welcomes students to its new, permanent location

Executive Director Anna Wallin estimates that AWCL now has 17,000 square feet of space, which includes 10 classrooms, four additional spaces and some offices to address the growing enrollment that caused them to outgrow their previous space in the Beltrami County Community Services Center Building.

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A child plays with letters during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — While Sept. 6 may have marked the first day of classes for many area schools, Tuesday, Oct. 25, stands out for the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners as the first day students and staff could walk the halls and take ownership of their new, permanent location, something that co-founder Shanna Reiners described as a dream come true.

“It’s just been a wild ride,” Reiners said regarding their move. “Now we can settle in and just focus on designing the school to be the best it can be.”

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Co-founder Shanna Reiners, right, greets attendees during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

At an open house event on Monday, students, parents and community members could tour the building, located at 3604 Bemidji Avenue, which formerly housed the Sanford Health Release of Information, and visit with the staff that keeps the school moving forward.

“I’m really excited to have a nice, permanent space for the kids,” first-grade teacher Michelle Ryan said.

AWCL has had a temporary home in the Sanford Center since September as renovations and inspections finished up in the new building.

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“That had a number of challenges, but it was also kind of cool,” Ryan added. “Some students never get to go into the Sanford Center unless it’s a very big event, and they could see what it’s about. It’s a nice way to touch base with the community.”

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Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners is now officially located at 3604 Bemidji Avenue, which formerly housed the Sanford Health Release of Information.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Executive Director Anna Wallin estimates that AWCL now has 17,000 square feet of space, which includes 10 classrooms, four additional spaces and some offices to address the growing enrollment that caused them to outgrow their previous space in the Beltrami County Community Services Center Building.

Setting their sights

Opening in 2019, Reiners and Wallin began brainstorming for a charter school that focused on place-based learning in 2017.

“We were really focused on having a high-quality school that was … really getting the kids and community engaged in education,” Reiners said, “then taking science and social studies, weaving that in. It’s this whole philosophy of connecting kids to where they’re at through those two disciplines.”

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Executive Director Anna Wallin visits with attendees during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The initial incarnation of AWCL took place in their downtown location after signing a two-year lease with Beltrami County.

Wallin detailed the nearly 9,000 square foot space having a 150-person capacity limit with AWCL enrolling 80 students when it first started for grades kindergarten through six.

They added grades seven and eight for the 2020-2021 school year and there were 142 students and staff for 2021-2022.

“It was a super great fit for us for about two years,” Wallin said. “Last year we started outgrowing the space, so we had to find a new place for this year.”

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Plans to operate out of the Nary School in Helga Township fell through after the school tried securing a “letter of intent” from the Helga Township Board, which voted against writing the letter in a December 2020 board meeting.

Setting their sights on other options, Wallin presented at an October 2021 Bemidji school board meeting about leasing Central Elementary School, which was closed as a cost-saving measure for the district following the 2020-2021 school year.

The proposal included leasing the playground and gym space for 2021-2022 for a minimum of $10,000, and leasing the entire school building for 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 for a minimum of $600,000.

“We were really hopeful on (leasing Central Elementary) especially because it would’ve kept us downtown,” Wallin said regarding Bemidji Area Schools having other plans for Central.

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A child checks out the ukeleles in the music classroom during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Enlisting the help of realtor Bob Kiewatt, Wallin and Reiners took their first peek at the new location in November 2021 and began drafting a lease with Hill’s Plumbing and Heating earlier this year when they noted its perfect fit.

It would only be perfect, however, with the help of S&J Development, which started renovations this past summer.

“The first time Anna and I toured, it was like a maze. (S&J Development) did so much to this building to change it because it was just aisles and aisles of paper files,” Reiners recalled. “It was in seven sections, so they broke it up and put it in one big space.”

Their new home

Having signed onto a three-year lease with Beltrami County in July 2021, AWCL requested to terminate its lease of the Community Services Center two years early.

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According to work meeting minutes from a December 2021 Board of Commissioners meeting, Kiewatt referenced conversations with Bemidji Area Schools’ Head Start Program director who was interested in using the space leased by AWCL.

Facilities manager Steve Shadrick also indicated the Public Health Department, housed on the same floor as AWCL at the time, would potentially remodel and use some of the space.

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A student colors during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“Commissioners made it clear that they were in support and understanding of the school’s needs to grow and expand. … If there was a way to have the lease fulfilled by another party, the county would be open to that but are not willing to terminate the lease without a solution for the remaining two years and $275,000,” the minutes stated.

“We had a lot of meetings with the county to figure out how to terminate that lease to come (to the new building), so that kind of hung us up a little bit,” Wallin said.

AWCL vacated the Community Service Center in June, and their 131 current students are now accommodated in their permanent building that can hold up to 180 students.

“Even downtown at the county (building), we had art off-site, physical education class was off-site because we couldn’t fit in that little space,” Wallin said. “Now, everyone is in one central space.”

Even with the considerable hassle and difficulty of the past year, seeing the children’s faces as they stroll into their new classrooms and note the familiar faces of teachers makes it all worth it for Reiners.

“Our school community has been waiting so long for us just to have a home … and now that we have it, I can’t wait to see (the students) all come in, fill the hallways and be excited to go into their classrooms,” Reiners left off. “Having an anchor in our community is just the dream. It’s what we needed.”

More information about AWCL can be found on their website at www.aurorawaasakone.org and on their Facebook page.

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Attendees were able to tour classrooms during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Fifth and sixth grade teacher Krystal Watts visits with parents during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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A child enjoys a cookie and visits with teachers during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Music teacher Lisa Dixson plays a song for attendees during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Teachers visit with parents and students during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Children play during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Classrooms are on display during an open house event on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: EDUCATIONBEMIDJI
Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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