By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer
WALDORF — There’s no doubt the partners, board members and supporters of Technical Academies of Minnesota have impressive backgrounds in education and business.
The board chair alone, Joan Arbisi Little, is an education consultant and past associate director at Macalester College Center for School Change. She was also a member of the Charter School Leadership Assessment Team at the University of St. Thomas and has a diverse teaching and administration background.
Board Vice Chair Connie Ireland is director of the Office of Innovation and Strategic Alliances at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The schools’ authorizer is Innovative Quality Schools, and EdVisions Schools — behind the highly lauded Minnesota New Country School in Henderson — has been involved from the ground level.
The Minnesota Board of Education in February approved the contract between Innovative Quality Schools and Technical Academies to go ahead with the plan for the four project-based, technical-focused public charter high schools as well, which means the schools can receive per-pupil state funding (about $5,000).
But the short timeline for opening two of the four planned schools by fall this year — Waldorf Technical Academy and a school in Fairmont — has generated some skepticism over whether Technical Academies is trying to move too quickly with its plan.
With reportedly $7,500 in the bank, the group has to raise about $250,000 in start-up costs in the next few weeks.
“There’s lots of opportunities. Some businesses, local and regional, are interested in supporting us and are in the process of learning more about the school,” Little said, adding that federal grants also are being written. “I’m an optimistic person, and it would be a shame if we couldn’t open this fall. We are just going to do our best.”
The Waldorf school building has been vacant since 2010, having been closed due to budget cuts. When discussions began in 2012 with the Technical Academies board to house the charter school there, the original plan was to sell the building to the group for $1.
Later, the Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School Board decided it was best to lease the building to the group and earn a profit, said JWP Supt. Bill Adams. But Adams said he read of an pending plan by Gov. Mark Dayton to put a cap on lease aid to public schools, which would potentially mean the district would remain the owner without gaining anything, he said.
“It didn’t make sense to maintain ownership,” Adams said.
In the meantime, a businessman named George Duncan of Gold Nugget Properties in Missouri offered to purchase the building for $10,000, and Adams said he accepted. The School Board will officially vote on the sale this month, he said.
Adams said Duncan has purchased school buildings across the country and leases them to businesses and schools. News articles from across the country corroborate this statement, but Duncan said he doesn’t feel comfortable commenting until after the sale closes.
Little referred all questions about the Waldorf building to Adams, although she said the Waldorf school building is still part of the board’s plan.
Doug Thomas of EdVisions, who helped write Technical Academies’ state application, said who owns the building won’t matter.
“The charter will lease the facility no matter who owns it,” he said.
Adams said Waldorf Technical Academy will receive lease aid from the state. Little said she’s still in the early stages of investigating the process, so that funding hasn’t been determined.
Adams said due to the lack of airflow as the building has sat vacant, mold needs to be cleaned inside the school. The sprinkler system also needs attention. He guessed Duncan will have about $80,000 in costs associated with cleanup and functional upgrades.
“(Overall) that building’s pretty solid,” he said.
The Waldorf charter school will aim to serve Mankato, Owatonna, Waseca, Albert Lea, Faribault, Blue Earth, Wells, Janesville and surrounding areas.
Less has been released regarding the plan for the Fairmont school except that it will open this fall. Little said she couldn’t comment on whether the $250,000 fundraising goal this spring also included needed funding for the Fairmont school. Nor could she comment yet on whether a building site had been determined in Fairmont, stating that negotiations are in process.
The school will aim to serve the Jackson, St. James, Blue Earth, Madelia and Truman areas.
Bob Wedl of Innovative Quality Schools said the board will have to prove to IQS that the schools are ready to open before they will be allowed to begin operations. Wedl said the timeline for the Waldorf and Fairmont schools is on a “fast track.”
“If we say they’re not ready, they cannot open,” Wedl said. “More than likely, it would be next year (for Fairmont).”
Typically, Wedl said IQS would make that final approval to open six months in advance. In this case, the time allowance for hiring teachers, writing curriculum and recruiting students is tight.
“Because of this fast-track, we’re watching that very closely,” Wedl said.
As a charter school, both schools’ per-pupil funding would come from the state, following those students from whatever district they are currently in.
Little said she’s hoping for about 100 students this fall.
JWP’s Adams said he’s not concerned about Waldorf Technical Academy taking students away from his district.
“Our kids are functioning very well in our district,” he said.
At the same time, Adams said those behind Technical Academies have strong backgrounds in business and education and are capable of opening the schools in such a short time frame.
“I think if they’ve got EdVisions working on it, and (Little) working together, that’s really a good team of knowledgeable folks,” he said. “They’ll get it done.”
Little said the hope is to raise $250,000 in corporate sponsorships, private donations and grants by May in order to open in the fall of this year. She said the funds are needed for curriculum, development, recruitment and hiring staff, among various other things. The ability to open will depend on securing the funding, she said.
Matt Chmielewski, vice president of Pioneer Bank in Mankato and treasurer of the Technical Academies board, didn’t return phone calls regarding funding questions. But Ryan Riebel, consultant for The Design Shop of Mankato, who recently came on board to help with fundraising for Technical Academies, said the group had about $5,000 before a recent pancake fundraiser, which added an additional $2,700 to the total.
Little and Thomas invited Riebel to attend the academies’ board meetings, and a couple of weeks ago he took a tour of New Country School, which Technical Academies, in large part, is being modeled after.
“(I) just fell in love with it,” said Riebel, who has a diverse teaching background in countries such as India and Nepal. “I’m more of a proponent of project-based and experiential learning. ... I was happily surprised.”
Riebel said there’s a need in Minnesota for these kinds of charter schools that he believes follow the European school model of experiential learning that instill “applicable skills to the work force.”
Riebel has been asked to be on the advisory council, and he said he’s taking time first to learn about each organization involved and learning where he can best be of assistance. He’s also concerned about the fundraising goal.
“It’s a tough order — $250,000 in a month,” he said. “Realistically, it’s going to be so hard and so stressful to try and push through for fall 2013. Could it still happen? Yeah, we have capable people.”
But Riebel said if he was a “betting man,” the schools won’t open until fall 2014.
Riebel said he’s had some experience with start-ups, and his concern is that important elements will be overlooked when starting this quickly.
“When you try to start something so fast and go so quick out of the gates, a lot of times you tend to burn out quick,” he said.
Thomas said a federal grant the group is applying for could result in $225,000 in funding if approved. Wedl said that funding would take away the biggest roadblock of the Waldorf school opening this fall, adding that the business community has yet to step up in a major way to support the schools.
“We had hoped that the southern Minnesota business community would have stepped forward,” he said. “... We haven’t seen that yet.”
Proponents: schools needed
Technical Academies’ model is to replicate Minnesota New Country School, while adding career- and college-readiness programs.
Students will be required to participate in programs such as Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, internships or certification programs before graduation, among other things. Through dual-credit high school/college programs, some will be able to complete an associate’s degree before high school graduation, Wedl said.
“I think this kind of a model is going to be very, very attractive for lots of students,” Wedl said, pointing to the high cost of a college education today.
Little said Technical Academies is forming relationships with people from the business sector as well as post-secondary institutions. Little hopes the charter schools’ partners will mentor students, provide opportunities for internships and certification training, give tours, and help students identify career pathways into their fields of choice.
It’s unclear which businesses are on board at this stage in the process.
Part of the vision also is to include dual-credit options with area community colleges. Little said she has been in contact with someone at SCC and also Minnesota State University.
South Central College President Keith Stover said he hadn’t yet heard of the schools but was interested in learning more. Kathy Sanger, Mankato campus director of Rasmussen College, said she also hadn’t heard about the schools.
The schools’ experience-based curriculum will include accounting, agriculture, bookkeeping, information technology programs, poly-engineering and truck driving and others.
“You create your learning plan so you become more engaged and more involved,” Little said.
At the same time, as a public school, Technical Academies’ curriculum will be aligned with state standards, and students will learn all the required skills in all subjects as outlined by the Department of Education, Little said.
Traynor Trucking of Waldorf is a donor to Technical Academies, and owner Tom Traynor said he’s looking forward to seeing the Waldorf school building put to use again.
A formal Waldorf City Council member, Traynor said the building was up to code and had a new roof, among other improvements, before it was closed. He thinks Waldorf Technical Academy will be a good fit in the building and the community.
“Not everybody can afford to go to college and spend $75,000 on an education,” Traynor said, referring to the school’s emphasis on preparing students for technical fields and trades.
Riebel said the academies’ learning model is beneficial to students and employers. Students will be taught the skills they need to find jobs and perform well, he said.
“Now we have workers, students coming into the work force, that are well prepared,” Riebel said. “It helps the southern Minnesota economy. It bridges the gap ... . I truly believe in it and do see it as a wave of the future.”
Wedl said the schools serve as examples of how chartering is remodeling public schools.
“Here’s a charter that’s really redesigning high school/college and making it a lot easier for kids to complete their post-secondary or a large chunk of it at no added cost,” he said.