Bertha-Hewitt School's entrepreneur program recognized for innovation

It's the third award in three years for their entrepreneur program.

Bertha-Hewitt junior Ashley Warren works with fellow NextGen Bear students Zachary Baumgartner and Jorja Weishalla on tweaking a design on the CNC machine. Photo by Dana Cantleberry, Bertha-Hewitt School

Bertha-Hewitt School's NextGen Bears entrepreneur program was the recipient of the 2021 Innovation Award from Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA) recently.

Each year, MREA recognizes school programs that serve as an example of educational opportunities for rural students with the Innovation Award. For 2021, Bertha-Hewitt School and Menahga School received these prestigious Innovation Awards.

Selected programs must display innovation, benefits for students, collaboration, and ease of adaptability. Programs throughout MREA member districts are nominated and then selected by the MREA Board of Directors.

NextGenBears Award pic1.jpg
At the MREA awards ceremony, from left: Sharon Thiel, Bertha-Hewitt School Board Chair; Heather Mueller, MN Education Commissioner; B-H Supt. Eric Koep; B-H Principal Darren Glynn; and Karla Weishalla, NextGen Bears Program Coordinator. Contributed photo


The NextGen Bears program is a student-run business that teaches Bertha-Hewitt students real-life experience and skills needed to run a successful business. From office management to e-commerce, from graphic design to running the laser-cutting machines, the NextGen Bears operates as a real business creating custom-made metal and wood signs.

In 2020, Bertha-Hewitt School partnered with Kern Laser Systems of Wadena to add another laser-cutting machine. This allowed NextGen Bears to cut plexiglass, wood or metal with great detail.

Bertha-Hewitt School Supt. Eric Koep said he is very proud of the entrepreneur program and its impact on students in a short time.

Bertha-Hewitt sophomore Julia Allen grinds the metal sign to a shiny smooth surface to prepare for painting. Photo contributed by Dana Cantleberry/Bertha-Hewitt Schools

“NextGen Bears is in its third year of existence, and this is its third award for this program — pretty special,” he said.

Koep said the program has been successful for many reasons.

“Dedicated staff members, hard-working kids and return customers are the top three. One goal I had with this program was to make it replicable for other schools in the state. We have had numerous schools visit our program and I would welcome more. I want to see more programs like these for kids in our area,” he said.


Bertha-Hewitt FACS Teacher Karla Weishalla has served as entrepreneur coordinator the last two years. She accepted the Innovation Award at the MREA Awards Program on Nov. 14 at Cragun’s Resort on behalf of the school.

“Anytime the students can get recognition for the hard work they do as part of this program, is a win. It is also a win for the school and communities of Bertha, Hewitt, and Eagle Bend to be recognized for their support of this innovative program,” she said.

Bertha-Hewitt junior Ashley Warren has been involved in the NextGen Bears entrepreneur program since the summer of 2020. She said she’s learned the “business” inside and out and currently serves as NextGen Bears office manager.

“I love to control a part of business as a student. It gives us as students a type of control that no other class would let you do. Students get to choose what part of the department that they want to work in which I think that is really cool too,” she said.

Warren said being a part of NexGen Bears has given her a definite direction for her post-secondary plans.

“Being in this program helped me choose what type of major I want to focus on, which would be business, of course. With this program, I am a manager and I think that this is what I plan to do in the future,” Warren said.

Koep is encouraging more schools in Minnesota to have programs like NextGen Bears to increase student engagement and confidence. He said the school has noticed a direct improvement in absenteeism from students in the NextGen Bears program.

“It brings kids to school and gets them excited.”


Bertha-Hewitt's Zachary Baumgartner pulls a metal sign off the laser-cutting machine Photo by Dana Cantleberry, Bertha-Hewitt School

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at or 218-640-2312.
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