by Paul Rignell
Principal Valerie Bakken of Ivan Sand Community High School in Elk River noted this week that though her building has been open only since 1998, this alternative education program for students in grades nine–12 has been offered by the Elk River Area School District since 1987.
She speaks with great pride for the school’s graduating class this spring and the academic success they have achieved in the program, suggesting this is a sterling group of students befitting a silver anniversary year.
“This is probably the most academically minded class we’ve ever had,” Bakken said. “They never truly lost sight of their goal to graduate on time. They have the strongest completion rate in our history.”
Some of the graduating seniors, who will receive their diplomas the evening of June 5, credit lower class sizes at the alternative school — and the extra one-on-one time that can afford teachers — for helping them to shine toward the end of their run in the district, unlike some struggles they had in class just a few years ago. (District staff told the Star News that core class sizes average 15 students at Ivan Sand, compared with 29 at Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman.)
“I was failing everything besides P.E.,” said Ivan Sand graduate Ashlyn Sandstrom of her first semester as a freshman at Zimmerman. She transferred to the alternative school for the next semester and remained there through this past March, when she actually completed all of her required credits two months ahead of most of her classmates. Next, she plans to attend Anoka Technical College for general courses and to study pharmacy before moving on to St. Cloud State University for training as an ultrasound technician.
“I miss it (the Ivan Sand campus),” Sandstrom said. “I liked it here. I think I got more out of it (than other schools), and I learned more life lessons.”
Bottomed-out grades were not the only factor that brought graduating senior Sabrina Thompson to the school. “I was pregnant, and I was failing,” she said of her freshman year at Elk River. “Everyone here helped me get back on track to graduate on time.”
Her son, Trey, is now 2 years old. Thompson has taken parenting classes through the district’s Early Childhood Family Education program while completing her schoolwork and also managing part-time employment to earn income in support of her son. She plans to further her education at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and later at either SCSU or the University of Minnesota toward a degree in play therapy, which, she explained, is a science to help children who have suffered abuse or other problems and have been observed to act out abuse when playing with toys.
First, however, Thompson will celebrate her high school graduation with Trey’s father, with whom she maintains a relationship and who is also one of the graduating seniors, she said.
These students are determined
The Ivan Sand graduates note that support from parents, teachers and school administrators can go only so far.
“You’ve got to do your work,” said graduating senior Dylan Jensen, cautioning students everywhere who have yet to reach this point.
“It’s not about how smart you are. It’s how determined you are,” said Brandon Johnson, who plans to study law enforcement at North Hennepin Technical College.
“Don’t get behind,” says Austin Mueller, who is moving to Arizona to train as a dirt bike mechanic. He raced dirt bikes until age 8. “When I was little,” he said. “I don’t have enough money for it now.”
The students at the Ivan Sand campus learn fundamental life and career skills and they follow current events, just like high school students elsewhere.
In February, social studies teacher Deanna Chiodo introduced components of presidential primaries and caucuses to her students when many Minnesotans of eligible voting age were participating in caucuses. When they reach 12th grade, each student is required to compile a “political portfolio,” Chiodo said, that includes answering a survey where their responses indicate whether they may be liberal, moderate or conservative. Understanding what they do about political platforms, the students must write an essay on how they feel about their particular label. They are asked to include five things they like about the United States, as well as five things they don’t like. They must write a letter to a local elected official, and write about their favorite constitutional right. To complete the portfolio, each senior must create a political collage and draw a political cartoon.
Chiodo shared a memorable response from one of this year’s graduates: “She said everyone should know, ‘Who am I? What do I believe in?’”
The school’s atmosphere is fun as well as educational. The male students who spoke with the Star News focused a lot on memorable moments featuring food on campus, not shocking to come from teenage boys who are becoming young men.
Johnson spoke of “real food” including roast turkey and trimmings that the students are served in a “holiday meal” before December break each year. “We all go in there and have a blast,” he said.
Ivan Sand students can opt to pay for daily breakfast along with lunch at school, but the graduating boys noted they will especially miss the baked goods that are brought in for everyone each Friday from Diamond City Bread in Elk River.
On Friday, June 1, these graduates had their final chance to represent the school in an annual softball tournament for teams from many alternative schools in Minnesota, with games in Coon Rapids. “They get pizza for us,” said Johnson.
They’ve shown strength, leadership
Ivan Sand students are representing their school in Elk River district initiatives; in particular, graduating senior Hannah Gibson has volunteered more than 30 hours through three meetings with District 728’s Strategic Plan Task Force. “She’s wowed everybody. She’s just an incredible girl,” said Bakken.
“Our seniors have shown a lot of strength, a lot of quiet strength,” said English teacher Cheryl Netka. “They generated professional leadership, a presence in the building that I really miss now.”
“These are seniors who truly care about their future plans,” said career and work-based learning teacher Sue Yankowiak. “They’re persistent and independent. I see them as resourceful citizens and community members. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them become engaged in local or state initiatives. That’s what I’ve seen.”
If you go:
Ivan Sand Community High School
•When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, at Zabee Theater at Elk River High School
•Attendance: Family members and close friends of all graduates in the class are welcome to attend. (No tickets are necessary)