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New Staples high school to begin classes this fall

Pictured is the Founding Board of Connections High School, a new charter school opening this fall in Staples. Shown are, back row, from left, Jeff Wig (not currently a board member), Lisa Kajer, Sue Boehland; front row, from left, Donna Bestland, Kerry Lindgren and Jim Hofer. Not pictured are Laurie Bach and Steve Jennissen. Photo by Zach Kayser, Pioneer Journal

Classes are planned to begin in September at Connections High School, a new charter school that will operate out of leased space on the Central Lakes College Staples campus.

Interim Director Wendy Schluender said the hope is that Connections can enroll between 30-50 students its first year, eventually increasing to around 120 students. That smaller size is typical of most charter schools, Schluender said.

Charter schools differ from regular schools in that many of them have a specific educational focus, Schluender said. Connections High School's mission is to educate students in grades 9-12 on career and technical knowledge.

Schluender added that the Minnesota Department of Education has designed a variety of career "clusters" made up of related job types, and Connections will help students decide which cluster they want to pursue, then prepare them for working in that cluster. Schluender listed examples of clusters that the Department of Education had developed, which include ag, food and natural resources, marketing, business management, administration, arts and communications.

Schluender also said the curriculum will be project-based and custom tailored to each student's desired career path.

"The individual learning plan focuses on student needs, interests and their future career interests," Schluender said. "The graduation includes Minnesota standards met, as well as project credits and 21st Century skills obtained."

Connections Founding Board Chairman Jim Hofer is a former middle/high school principal from the Staples-Motley school district. His connection with the existing school system in Staples exemplifies what he said was a unique bond between Connections and the local independent school district.

Hofer also said charters and conventional schools are often in competition, but that is not the case with Connections and Staples-Motley.

"We're trying to be a solid partner with the Staples-Motley school district; a wing of them even though we're a separate legal entity," Hofer said.

Other differences charter schools have from conventional public schools are that although charters are tuition free, they cannot levy money from local taxpayers.

Hofer said Connections faces a specific financial challenge in that it has not yet received any state or federal funds.

"Many charters get upwards of $200,000 a year for three years (in) startup money. We have none, other than a small grant from the Blandin Foundation to keep us on track so we can at least explore opening next fall," Hofer said. "Enrollment will dictate how successful we are in that endeavor."

Although Hofer was hesitant to speculate why Connections hadn't gotten government funding yet, he guessed that one reason may be that the new school is erroneously seen as redundant since its ties with the existing Staples-Motley school district are so strong.

The fact that Connections has not yet received a government startup grant has dismayed Bob Wedl, former Minnesota commissioner of education and current leadership partner at Innovative Quality Schools, a nonprofit that helps Connections and other Minnesota charter schools get started.

"We're somewhat chagrined that the state Department of Education will not give this very innovative school a startup grant," Wedl said. "The state has millions of dollars of federal charter school startup money, and this model of school is really now being pushed by the commissioner, but yet the state will not give Connections the grant."

Wedl said despite the lack of startup grant money, the planners are still soldiering on to get the school up and running.

"They're very determined to start," Wedl said.

An open house and informational session for parents interested in enrolling their children in Connections will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 25 at Central Lakes College in room E100.