“While studying animals like zebras and giraffes is fascinating to children, we want them to learn about and be fascinated by the animals that live here, in our community.” – Anna Wallin, Co-Founder & Director, Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners
Anna Wallin and Shanna Reiners wanted to create a school that offered something beyond the traditional education in their community of Bemidji, Minnesota. After three years of researching best practices to provide meaningful educational opportunities, Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners opened its doors with 75 students in grades K-6 this fall. The plan is to expand to grades K-8 next year.
Anna and Shanna met while teaching together in Bemidji. While working together, they came to appreciate the value of expeditionary learning, which strived to emphasize character development over test scores. Given the long waiting list at other Bemidji area charter schools and their passion to provide high-quality education, the two knew there was a need to be met in their rural community, which is located between three of Northern Minnesota’s tribal nations. Anna and Shanna both wanted to bring a purposeful, place-based curriculum to more students in Beltrami County.
Prioritizing Place-Based, Expeditionary Learning in Northern Minnesota
Since opening, Aurora Waasakone (which means “to shine, to glow, and to give off light” in Ojibwemowin) has been warmly welcomed by the community. “We’ve had so much positive response, and I think that has to do with the effort we put into reaching out to the other schools, the county, and families,” said Anna, who doesn’t see AWCL as competition with the other schools, but rather, as one more option in the rural Minnesota county. The vision for the school is that students can learn to use their natural ability to be reflective questioners, articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and skilled problem solvers so they can be leaders of their own learning and successfully navigate the world.
“The links between climate change and history are really valuable – how have choices in our history impacted our environment?” Shanna and Anna asked. This became a leading question in the combined 5th and 6th grade class over the course of their yearlong investigation.
The emphasis on a place-based curriculum shows up in many ways at AWCL. From diving into the history of the land the school is on to venturing out into the woods on “Unplugged Fridays,” the students there are learning firsthand about the ecosystem of which they are part. “We want our students to make connections to where we live,” said Anna. “While studying animals like zebras and giraffes is fascinating to children, we want them to learn about and be fascinated by the animals that live here, in our community.” In addition, students are on a two-year cycle as opposed to one, where first and second graders learn together and can absorb information at a different pace.
Past, Present, Future
An understanding of historical context across all subjects and classes is an essential ingredient of AWCL’s curriculum. Anna discussed that rather than adopting the one-sided framing of history that she remembers getting in school, AWCL makes an effort to prioritize different perspectives and grapple with unjust consequences of the past. “We want students to study the past with a purpose,” explained Anna. “We teach them about different points of view, different perspectives. They think about why people made the decisions they made, and the impact of those decisions on the present.” Aurora Waasakone educators believe this approach equips students to think about how they can use what they have learned about the past to help create a better future.
The school leaders are working hard to build connections with different organizations in their community. “We want all students to see themselves represented in our community experts, books, professions, and celebrations,” said Anna. To that end, AWCL is making connections with Bemidji State University’s education department and the American Indian Resource Center. It has a Language and Culture teacher who shares information about different cultures and languages. The school is also connected with Peacemaker Resources to provide support and professional development for social emotional learning, historical trauma, and how to create a safe and inclusive school environment.
Financing a Startup Charter School
AWCL received a federal planning grant to get the school off the ground, but, as with all government grants, it was a reimbursement grant. Anna and Shanna sought out a line of credit from Propel Nonprofits to help with cash flow through the grant reimbursement process. They worked with Phil Hatlie, Sr. Loan Officer and Financial Specialist at Propel. “Phil went out on a limb for us since we were so new,” said Anna. “Even across the distance with us being near Bemidji and Propel being based in the Twin Cities, he was great about making things electronic and getting money in our bank account quickly.”
Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners is now accepting enrollment applications for the 2020-2021 school year. Learn more about the school at its website: https://www.aurorawaasakone.org/