Sustaining success in education: State commissioner visits TrekNorth, Bemidji Middle School to learn about academic achievements, Native American curriculum

BEMIDJI -- The leading figure in Minnesota education visited schools in Bemidji on Thursday, leaving with a yellow-and-black beaded lanyard given to her by sixth-graders, and with a better sense of what is and isn't working at the city's schools.

Sixth-grader Grace Baumann (left) and Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius ponder a math question during the commissioner's visit to TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School on Thursday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The leading figure in Minnesota education visited schools in Bemidji on Thursday, leaving with a yellow-and-black beaded lanyard given to her by sixth-graders, and with a better sense of what is and isn’t working at the city’s schools.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius split her time between TrekNorth Junior & Senior High charter school and Bemidji Middle School, bumping elbows in between-classes traffic, dropping in on classrooms studying the food chain or the Ojibwe alphabet.

Cassellius visited Trek first, the most recent stop on the commissioner’s tour of Minnesota schools that have received the “Reward” designation -- reserved for the top 15 percent of Title I schools -- in four or five straight years. Trek, the only Reward School in the area, earned the label in September for the fifth year in a row.

“This is a concerted effort to see schools that have sustained success,” Cassellius told an assemblage of Trek students, teachers and administrators. “What’s that special something?”

Trek high-schoolers gave Cassellius a tour, stopping by math and science classrooms, telling her what they like about their school.


“You know everyone by name,” senior Triston Singleton said.

On school trips to mountains in Wyoming or soup kitchens in Chicago, “you get to know kids you might not talk to at school,” sophomore Lori Martin said. And the kids get a real-world sense of natural phenomena and volunteer work, added Trek director Dan McKeon.

In sixth-grade math class, Cassellius used crayons as props to help a girl add fractions.

Her past as a middle school teacher was showing, she said.

Talking with the commissioner, students and teachers emphasized Trek’s community feel.

“They make you want to make them proud,” senior Bryan Porter said of the teachers.

Those bonds have plenty of time to form at Trek, with a total enrollment near 250, with about 15 students in a given classroom. And unlike in larger public schools, students said they learn under the same teachers for several years, developing mutual understanding and respect.

You can tell, senior Caleb Treuer said, that teachers “work as much on improving themselves as they work on improving us.”


At Bemidji Middle School, in science class, Cassellius watched a presentation by two students about an endangered species, the bald eagle. She received a lanyard with Native American-inspired beadwork from a sixth-grade Ojibwe class.

Students told the commissioner how much it means to learn the language, which has become lost among some Native families.

One boy said his Native birth mother couldn’t teach him the language, because he was adopted.

The class, he said, was a chance to reconnect with his culture.

Superintendent Jim Hess and other administrators from Bemidji Area Schools thanked Cassellius for helping the state grow funding for Native American education.

In Bemidji, funding in the past year jumped from $70,000 to $400,000. “Just like that,” Hess said.

Cassellius followed administrators from the middle school to district headquarters downtown, meeting about ways to close the achievement gap and share resources with neighboring districts.

The conversation was complex and big-picture. They wondered about ways to reach children ill-prepared for kindergarten, often belonging to families that can’t afford to send their kids to preschool or Head Start. They wondered if meal programs would make a difference, and if a more steady stream of funding would help the district plan further ahead.


“Well, you have my cellphone number,” Cassellius told Hess.

“And you have mine.”

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