Star News » Education The Star News covers community news, sports, current events and provides advertising and information for Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman, Minnesota and their surrounding areas. Fri, 30 Jan 2015 14:49:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Elk River juniors Abell, Sullivan are school’s ExCELL representatives Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:27:22 +0000 by Bruce Strand, Arts Editor

Keith Sullivan and Julia Abell are Elk River’s nominees for the ExCEL Award, a Minnesota State High School League program honoring juniors for academic and extracurricular achievement and community involvement.

Julia Abell

Julia Abell

Sullivan has been a vocalist and leader in choir groups throughout his school days. He started singing with Land of Lakes Choirboys at age 5. He was a soloist for the Viking Choir, an award-winning international touring group. He is currently a prefect for North Star Boys Choir, engaged in supervising boy choristers. He toured with the men’s choir “Kantorei” in Europe in 2013.

Keith Sullivan

Keith Sullivan

He’s been in school musicals, Knowledge Bowl, varsity football and Junior Gold Hockey. In the community he’s been active with such projects as assisting a disabled veteran, youth camp counselor, church youth groups leader and youth football coach.

Abell participates in visual arts, choir, volleyball, French Club, Drama Club and National Honor Society. At her church she is active in youth group, fundraising, baking, reading and serving communion. She’s a youth volleyball camp coach.

Especially interested in art, she volunteered to help set up a national Arts in Harmony show at Sherburne County Government and found it inspiring while learning something about the judging process. She created the graphic design for T-shirts, fliers and programs for last year’s spring musical.

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Elk River’s Triple-A picks are Emma Crane, Josh Gearou Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:23:59 +0000 by Bruce Strand, Arts Editor

Emma Crane and Josh Gearou are Elk River’s nominations for the Triple-A Award, a Minnesota State High School League program honoring seniors for athletic, academic and arts achievement.

Crane was also Elk River’s ExCEL Award nominee last year (a program for juniors) and won at the state level.

Emma Crane as Princess Winnefred in "Once Upon a Mattress," the ERHS 2014 spring play. She got the school's "best actress" award.

Emma Crane as Princess Winnefred in “Once Upon a Mattress,” the ERHS 2014 spring play. She got the school’s “best actress” award.

She has earned multiple awards in vocal music, musical theater and piano, as well as the state Peace Essay Contest top prize. She has sung the national anthem at state soccer and cross-country meets and at Hockey Day Minnesota last year.

She ranks fifth in the class of 385 with a 4.123 GPA and scored 32 on her last ACT. Athletically, she participates in Nordic skiing (co-captain this year) and cross-country. She’s active in National Honor Society. Crane plans to major in musical education (vocal) at St. Thomas and continue in choir and theater.

Tennis star Josh Gearou also shines in bands as lead alto sax.

Tennis star Josh Gearou also shines in bands as lead alto sax.

Gearou and his twin, Sam, have led Elk tennis teams to state each year since seventh grade, including one state title. Gearou participates in National Honor Society,

Math Team and History Day and has a 4.129 GPA. As a freshman he placed fifth in the national History Day at Washington, D.C. Musically, he’s been in Black Elk Jazz and Wind Symphony four years and played lead alto sax the last two years. At the state meet both Gearou and his quartet earned perfect 40s.

He has made himself computer savvy and plans to major in computer science at a yet-to-be-determined college, while playing tennis.

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District to stay the course, for now; Board, however, asks that food going into garbage be monitored Fri, 24 Oct 2014 22:32:39 +0000 school lunch

File photo by Jim Boyle Students used to fries cooked in oil have lamented healthier versions now being baked in ovens, without salt, under the confines of the Healthy Kids Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that has been fully implemented as of this year.

by Paul Rignell

Contributing Writer

Lunch may not count as a subject in school, but it has been a hot topic among students in District 728 this fall. The discussion reached the Elk River Area School Board at a work session Monday night, Oct. 20.

Students and staff last month saw a full introduction of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which became law in 2010.

Public school menus in this district and others in the nation had expanded in recent years to include more fresh fruits and vegetables. However, starting this year the menu options have changed in other ways to boost the nutritional value of some long-time favorites. For example, the baking of all breads, rolls and cookies now involves 100 percent whole grains, said Julee Miller, general manager of food services.

Among other menu changes, nothing could be done to rework and retain certain popular entrees such as buffalo popcorn chicken, Miller added while reporting to the board.

She said that she enjoyed that item as much as anyone.

“I miss it,” she said. “It was very good.”

The menu rotations still include all of the common staples. The school kitchens are ordering and using as many potato products as ever, Miller said, whether the spuds are sliced length-wise like shoestrings or diced and compressed as tator tots.

But it’s hard to qualify those shoestring potatoes as “fries” when they are being baked in ovens, without salt, instead of cooking in oil.

The students are eating the new versions, but some of the loudest reviews have not been favorable.

School Board Member Dan Hunt said he has polled district teens in his neighborhood, and they have told him “the fries are terrible.”

Miller admitted that she is still developing her own taste for the new styles of potatoes. “I don’t think they (the fries) taste very good unless you use a lot of ketchup,” she said.

By the nature of required changes, a la carte lunch options at the middle schools and high schools have shrunk significantly. The cookies are still there for individual sale, but they are different when based on whole grains.

Most of those schools’ returning students have been unimpressed by the sweets, Miller said. However, the students who are now in sixth grade and thus new to middle school are simply thrilled to have the freedom of buying cookies at lunch.

“The sixth-graders think these cookies are ‘the bomb,’ because they have never had anything else,” Miller said.

Negative rumblings about the menu changes have been loudest in the Rogers schools, and the School Board was discussing the subject Oct. 20 with the possibility of allowing those schools to enter different regulations for food service.

“(They) would still need to function under rules,” Miller said.

In the end, the board decided for now, anyhow, that they will direct all schools to continue following the current federal guidelines.

Hunt asked and his colleagues agreed, however, that staff should start to make a stronger effort to track food waste at lunch times.

Miller said it has been good for the schools to be incorporating more fresh produce. She reported that one female student at Rogers High School told her that the girl eats most of her fruits and vegetables at school. An active, busy lifestyle outside of school makes it too easy and convenient to be filling up on potato chips, she said.

Hunt said he believes that the Rogers student enjoying the fresh produce only at school would be an exception. “Healthy eating habits do not start in school,” he said.

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Nominations open 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Fri, 03 Oct 2014 17:25:01 +0000 Everyone remembers a favorite teacher, someone who motivates and inspires students for a lifetime. Minnesotans have the opportunity again this fall to nominate that unique educator for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Nominations opened Oct. 1 and remain open through Nov. 15. Nominations can be submitted online by accessing a simple nomination form on starting Oct. 1. The 2015 Teacher of the Year will be named at a ceremony May 3, 2015. The Minnesota Teacher of the Year also becomes Minnesota’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year.

For more information or to receive a nomination form, call Kieren Steinhoff at 651-292-4865 or 800-652-9073.

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High school has time to get ‘healthy’ Fri, 19 Sep 2014 21:17:09 +0000 • State didn’t meddle with Homecoming fundraiser but work toward healthier choices for Snow Week will be expected, state says

by Jim Boyle


Elk River High School could not get an exemption for its homecoming food sale fundraiser, but an official for the Minnesota Department of Education acknowledged this week the wheels for this year’s event had already been turning and change takes time.

Deb Lukkonen, a supervisor of school nutrition programs for the safety, health and nutrition division of the Minnesota Department of Education, told Elk River High School Principal Terry Bizal in an email Sept. 16 that exemption approvals are only given in unique situations.

For instance, a student group that already signed contracts for school year 2014-15 and is in jeopardy of losing deposit money. Or the culinary arts program that might not be able to change the curriculum for the fall quarter, Lukkonen said.

“The food sales for homecoming and Snow week celebrations do not qualify for a special exemption,” Lukkonen said in the email. “However, seeing that homecoming is this week, I’m expecting that you and your students have already gone ahead and made arrangement for food sales. I hope the event is successful!”

She stated in her email the fundraising project is a good one for both the students and the community. Elk River High School students have historically raised about $3,500 each homecoming that has been divided into seven $500 scholarships for graduates. The same has been true of the Snow Week food sale fundraiser.

Effective July 1, 2014, the only snacks school districts may sell to students during the school day – including food and beverages sold in school stores, vending machines and through fundraisers – will be “smart snacks” that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for calories, fats, sugar, sodium and caffeine content.

The new rules on snacks are all part of federal legislation that authorizes funding and sets policy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s core child nutrition programs.

States have wide discretion when it comes to granting exemptions, but the Minnesota Department of Education has decided to toe a hard line.

Bizal told the Star News he was pleased someone from the state got back to him and he foresees a manageable transition to healthier food sale fundraisers.

“I do think we can be successful,” Bizal said. “We’ll have to shift our focus and educate ourselves as to what’s available. It will be a learning process.

“I truly understand the state’s position of wanting to support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

So does Julee Miller of Sodexo, who manages the breakfast and lunch program for the district. She has been working to keep the Elk River Area School District’s lunch offerings one step ahead of the federal government to ease the transition, but it hasn’t been easy. For those that are now feeling the effects of the changes, she says, “Welcome to my world.”

“The state wants to remain a strong leader,” Miller said. “That’s the culture in Minnesota. Healthier is a good thing.”

Lukkonen has asked Elk River High School students to work on securing new food products that meet program regulations for Snow Week.

“Four months is enough time for them to learn about the regulations and work with local businesses to identify products that are just as satisfying to students,” Lukkonen said. “I think that lots of schools will have scenarios similar to yours, and you can be a great role model for taking a long-standing tradition and, with some minor modifications, meet the new regulations.”

Lukkonen even offered some suggestions on food items that might be popular while still meeting the healthy snack requirements.

Bizal said he appreciated the suggestions.

Lukkonen also offered to review any ideas or recipes kids had from a local business that they’d like to use, and she can have one of the department’s dietitians work with it to make it meet regulations.

“I would much rather work with you and the students now than to use this year to ‘search,’” she said “There’s no better time to start changes than the present!

“I’m looking for progress. I won’t let perfection be the enemy of good! I am just thrilled that the school staff and students are really looking at the regulations and talking about it.”

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Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act taking out more than fat Mon, 15 Sep 2014 17:16:59 +0000 • Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will impede Homecoming fund drive for high school scholarships

by Jim Boyle


College scholarships will be some of the newest victims of the calorie-shaving, sodium-lowering Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.

Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the federal legislation that authorizes funding and sets policy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s core child nutrition programs. It also speaks to the drinks and snacks available to students during the school day more than ever before.

Photo by Jim Boyle Elk River High School students are eating healthier, but some say the federal and state government are going too far with its rules.

Photo by Jim Boyle
Elk River High School students are eating healthier, but some say the federal and state government are going too far with its rules.

Effective July 1, 2014, the only snacks school districts may sell to students during the school day – including food and beverages sold in school stores, vending machines and through fundraisers – will be “smart snacks” that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for calories, fats, sugar, sodium and caffeine content.

Sales at Elk River High School’s school store have been cut in half, according to DECA adviser Sonja Weiler.

Weiler said the DECA program is treating the changes as an opportunity to learn, and her students are working hard to figure out what product lines they should sell as food and beverage manufacturers wrestle with the changes, too.

This new wrinkle also applies to fundraisers put on during the school day, such as the two held during homecoming and Snow Week at Elk River High School. Twice a year the school’s student council organizes the royalty court in the participation of food or beverage sales to the student body. They collaborate with the local business community to sell things like slices of pie and other treats made by area businesses.

The royalty has been offering this fundraiser ever since 2004. The food service staff educates the royalty court to ensure homemade items do not enter the school and proper dispensing is adhered, Elk River High School Principal Terry Bizal said.

“Our regular lunch provider (Sodexo) still offers the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids lunch to any student during each of the lunch periods on these two dates,” Bizal said.

Bizal said he has filed for an exemption with the Minnesota Department of Education, which has that authority from the federal government. But as of Wednesday morning, Bizal had not heard back.

The clock is ticking on the homecoming fundraiser that’s slated for Sept. 17. A similar operation will be carried out one day in February during Snow Week, if approved. Each have generated about $3,500 annually.

Bizal said the high school has parlayed the money from those two fundraisers into 14 $500 scholarships annually.

“I can’t make that up,” Bizal said.

The scholarships are distributed to the upper (four), middle (five) and lower (five) thirds of the senior class.

“This nominal, but much-appreciated, amount helps fulfill dreams as recipients pursue postsecondary educational training,” Bizal said.

Smart snack rules have also put school lunch programs in a pinch to fill their a la carte shelves at area high schools.

So few items qualify under the new guidelines that manufacturing plants are struggling to keep up with the demand for the “popular” healthy snacks, according to Julee Miller, the manager of food service that the school district contracts with to provide school lunches.

Miller said the school district and her company, Sodexo, have been able to keep up with most of the changes coming down from the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, because they have been keeping ahead of the changes by using healthier ingredients like whole wheat before they have been mandated.

“The schools have been supportive of the changes and the kids are knowledgeable about nutrition,” she said, noting their willingness to eat healthier options as well as fruits and vegetables.

Photo by Jim Boyle Candy has been removed from the School Store at Elk River High School.

Photo by Jim Boyle
Candy has been removed from the School Store at Elk River High School.

Makers of snacks have been stymied trying to keep up as they work to create appealing products for their consumers.

Miller said manufacturers of baked chips, reduced fat chips and other healthful snacks can’t keep up, but she predicts they eventually will.

She said she’s most concerned about are the sodium restrictions coming down the line in 2016 or 2017.

“The foods that will be needed don’t exist,” she said.

School store adjusts

DECA students, who have removed candy from their store’s shelves, have found some of their most popular sellers, like Arizona brand beverages, have to be sold in smaller cans to qualify.

They also had to change the base of their Slush Puppies from sugar to fruit juice. Whether it sells as well will remain to be seen, Weiler said.

Weiler, who serves on the National Advisory Board for DECA, said chief among her concerns are the impacts the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 will have on curricular programs like food occupations.

“That was a huge topic at our last conference,” she said.

There’s a piece of legislation that has surfaced called the Joe Act that the advisory board is supporting. It was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May. It would amend the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to exempt school-based enterprises that are managed as part of a school’s curriculum from the nutrition standards for foods sold in schools that are not foods provided under the school lunch and breakfast programs.

Bizal and Weiler said they understand the need to provide nutritious lunches, but they question the overall impact of the legislation on educational programs. The loss of scholarships remains the most pressing concern.

The federal government is giving states wide-ranging authority to grant or deny exemptions. Time will tell how the Minnesota Department of Education uses its authority.

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Elk River High School student named a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist Wed, 10 Sep 2014 11:43:33 +0000 Jordan Haack, a student at Elk River High School, has been named one of approximately 16,000 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.

Jordan Haack

Jordan Haack

Haack and these other  academically talented high school seniors have an opportunity to continue in the competition for some 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth about $33 million that will be offered next spring.

To be considered for a Merit Scholarship® award, semifinalists must fulfill several requirements to advance to the Finalist level of the competition.

About 90 percent of the semifinalists are expected to attain finalist standing, and more than half of the finalists will win a National Merit Scholarship, earning the Merit Scholar® title.

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Coding added to school subject list Sun, 31 Aug 2014 14:24:12 +0000 coding 4 coding 3 coding 2 coding 1

• New class at middle schools to help prepare next generation of computer programmers

by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Area School District will begin preparing the next generation of computer programmers when school begins next week.

Sixth-grade students across the district will take computer coding instead of the 21st century skills class this school year, and the school district’s manager of instructional technology, Troy Anderson, reported Aug. 18 the district has selected a ready-made program called Tynker.

Anderson said the educational software was chosen for a few reasons, including the short window for creation of a class and because teachers who would be teaching the class have not taught coding before.

“The curriculum is all laid out for us,” Anderson told members of the Elk River Area School Board.

Tynker has found a way to make teaching of the topic much easier than the traditional computer programming methods, Anderson said.

The Tynker program uses visual blocks and then transitions from the icon-based method to JavaScript when they are ready, according to the educational software company’s website.

“Tynker’s language  extensions, built-in physics engine, animation libraries and character editors provide an excellent outlet for kids to unleash their creativity,” the program’s website states.

Anderson said the course will be a great help to students’ educational careers and future.

“The marketplace has changed drastically,” he said. “Kids need to understand this … so they can be creators of technology and not just passive users.”

Tynker is aligned with four strands of International Standards for Technology Education. They are:

•Creativity and innovation.

•Communication and collaboration.

•Critical thinking and problem solving.

•Digital citizenship.

And while the curriculum is mapped out, teachers have been given the flexibility to move at an appropriate pace for their classes.

“Teachers will modify and adjust,” said Anderson, who noted Elk River is out in front of other Minnesota schools.

Minnetonka is offering coding at the elementary school level this year, but it’s not required, Anderson said.

Out in Silicon Valley, meanwhile, “parents are knocking down the door for this,” Anderson said.

More than 8 million children and 10,000 schools use Tynker to learn programming through:

•Online interactive courses that allow kids to learn programming at their own pace at home.

•Curriculum and classroom management tools for schools and districts.

•Mobile applications for the iPad and Android-based tablets for kids to learn through puzzles and build their own mobile games.

•Instructor-led summer camps and after-school clubs for kids to collaborate.

Anderson expects kids to be a little uneasy at the start of the class, but to become more comfortable through trial and error.

The district administrator also anticipates teachers someday offering their students an opportunity to put on a coding fair.

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Students to explore world languages with new class Sun, 31 Aug 2014 14:20:37 +0000 • New course will give kids a glimpse into
several world languages, and other cultures


by Jim Boyle


Members of the Elk River Area School Board got their first good look at courses that will replace a middle school health and Family and Consumer Science class.

Seventh- and eighth-grade students will be taking Introduction to World Languages, which will provide a chance to explore foreign language classes offered at the high schools and a window into other cultures, according to curriculum specialist Mary Alberts.

Students will learn the skills of listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing a second language. Course time will be spent on the languages’ cultures, along with awareness and appreciation of the contributions of those cultures to contemporary society.

Languages will include, Spanish, French, German and Ojibwe.

Students will be asked to think critically and reflect on the differences and similarities between the target cultures and their own, according to the course description.

“Students will be able to get to know the language, be able to speak some of it and read a little of it,” Alberts said. “They will also talk about the culture, the diversity and what it brings to us as citizens, making us the global community we talk about.”

Alberts said the days of having one language suffice are going by the wayside. She noted a report from the U.S. Department of Education indicated white students will no longer be in the majority in school when school starts this fall.

Minorities are projected to outnumber whites among the nation’s public school students for the first time, U.S. Department of Education projections show.

This is due largely to fast growth in the number of Hispanic and Asian school-age children born in the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.

In 1997, the U.S. had 46.1 million public school students, of which 63.4 percent were white. While whites will still outnumber any single racial or ethnic group this fall, their overall share of the nation’s 50 million public school students is projected to drop to 49.7 percent. Since 1997, the number of white students has declined by 15 percent, falling from 29.2 million to 24.9 million in 2014, the Pew Research Center reported.

“We really need to think about having more than just one language in our back pocket,” Alberts said. “When you travel to Europe, people usually speak English along with two or three other languages.”

Students taking the introductory course will create an interactive notebook-passport that will contain all their notes and handouts.

At the end of the quarter, students will participate in a Festival of Nations activity, choosing a country that speaks one of the languages studied and creating a small presentation.

“This course is meant to pique students’ interest to learn a new language,” Alberts said. “We’re excited about that.”

To keep students engaged, teachers are being given a book titled “An Invitation to World Languages.” The book gives teachers ideas of how to present information and keep students engaged.

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Bezek praised for his work by board Sun, 31 Aug 2014 14:18:51 +0000 • Perfomance on stated goals nets school chief bonus


by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Area School Board gave Superintendent Mark Bezek high marks during a recent performance review.

He scored well on all nine factors he was evaluated on as part of the review and on all four of his stated goals that go beyond general duties and responsibilities to earn him a $10,000 performance bonus.

“The 2013-14 school year was a very busy year with some unexpected challenges as well as major strides in implementation of the strategic plan,” School Board Chairwoman Jane Bunting read into the record from a prepared document.

Some of the unexpected challenges included the controversial delimiters process and an uproar over the discipline of a Rogers High School student for a two-word tweet.

This is the second year of a three-year contract for Bezek, who oversees the eighth largest school district in Minnesota.   He provides leadership to a public school district of approximately 13,600 students and oversees an annual operating budget of more than $125 million and the largest workforce in the district.

He was evaluated on educational leadership, board relations, staffing and policies, community and professional relations, finances, contract negotiations, operational goals and projections and strategic plan.

One board member said: “I feel Mark is a born leader. His knowledge of the entire district shows how much he loves his job and excels at moving the district forward.”

Board members did suggest Bezek provide more leadership this year to the Collaborative Leadership Team as “they are still cutting their teeth” on what their role is during educational reform.

School Board members expressed a need for greater community understanding to provide faster resolutions.

“(Bezek) is performing above standard in all categories, with significant levels of performance being noted in board relations and community and professional relations,” Bunting read.

Bezek also is asked to assess his own body of work, and he and the School Board are in agreement over staffing and policies, community and professional relations, finance, contract negotiations and operational goals and projections.

Two areas where there are significant differences are with educational leadership and strategic plan.

“This disparity in perceptions will require that priorities are clearly identified and mutually supported,” Bunting said.

School Board Member Jolene Jorgensen said thank you to Bezek.

“I think it was a great year, even though I didn’t agree with some things that the board or superintendent (sought),” she said. “It was always done professionally.”

Bezek’s four stated goals dealt with leading the development of the strategic plan and change strategy, developing a plan to improve access to opportunity, leading a multi-district legislative initiative to secure metro funding and to research and develop new and innovative academic opportunities.

“(Bezek) made steady progress with all four goals, despite the fact that a few significant challenges demanded his full attention for periods of time during the year,” Bunting said. “He achieved a 3.0 or higher ratings on all four goals thus achieving the full bonus of $10,000.”

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