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SonRise recovering from tornado damage

Brenda Finch of the SonRise Christian School near Bluffton spent her summer getting a great "tornado tan."

Finch, a teacher and administrator at the rural Bluffton school, had to spend most of her summer helping to put the 30-year-old school back together.

That "tornado tan" she picked up is a lot like a "farmer's tan," according to Finch. It is not the kind you get at the beach. When you are clearing brush and tree limbs you have to dress for it.

Many of the trees around SonRise are stripped, twisted and broken. The school lost a number of trees and a huge oak tree, more than 100 years old, crashed down on the building. Many of the school's windows were also broken in the tornado that swept through the area on the afternoon of June 17.

"We had to replace an entire classroom," Finch said.

Finch had to look at a lot of destruction following the tornado. She lives on Eighth Street in Wadena where a different tornado struck less than an hour after the one that damaged SonRise. She found herself working on a shattered home and a shattered school. The challenges were mighty.

"It's a nightmare," Finch said.

Volunteers helped the SonRise staff put the school back together. Some of the free help was provided by Alexandria contractor Gary Bjorklund and his crew, who later received the job of rebuilding the damaged classroom. Grateful for the work, the Clear Vision Construction contractor and his crew donated money to the school's recent fundraiser that cleared $2,500.

SonRise opened one month late but the four teachers and 18 students who make up the school are back at the books, or in some cases, their laptop computers.

Finch supervises the online work of the SonRise high school students who are taking online classes from i.q. Academy in Fergus Falls. Students submit their work to their instructor online. The instructor reads and grades it and then sends it back. In some classes, SonRise students can hear their instructors and can communicate with them on their laptop. While i.q. Academy is based out of Fergus Falls, instructors hail from a number of Minnesota cities including Brooklyn Center, Brainerd and Fergus Falls. There are i.q. Academies all over the United States.

Finch revels in the freedom she has that other teachers do not, she said.

"Because we have smaller class sizes we have a lot more time to spend helping the students and I personally think it's good because they learn a lot better and a lot faster," Finch said.

SonRise students who transfer to a public school setting generally have to move up a grade because they have covered information other kids their age have not seen.

Online classes are common enough but most are taken from home. SonRise students take their classes in a structured environment. They take six classes a day and they have assignments to complete every week. They are also around other students.

"It gives structure to the day and it allows for social interaction," Finch said.

Sonrise lost nine high school students over the summer, dropping from an enrollment of 15 to just six. Some were displaced by the tornado and had to relocate but Finch believes others were taken out by their parents because of the economy. She is hopeful that last year's enrollment of 38 can once again be achieved.

Having students of many different ages in the same building has actually been a blessing, according to Finch. The older ones are role models for the youngsters and will sometimes take part in their activities.

The Christian-based educational facility opens with bible school in the morning and there is a strong emphasis on life skills.

"If they get the life skills down that is the whole thing," Finch said.