As a teacher at SonRise Christian School in Bluffton, Diane Fortney communicates with parents and students daily during distance learning. She uses the online software Ignitia, A Beka curriculum, reads stories for her first grader on Zoom, edits essays with limited options for leaving feedback and explains Algebra 2 for her high school students.
Photo courtesy of Diane Fortney
As a teacher at SonRise Christian School in Bluffton, Diane Fortney communicates with parents and students daily during distance learning. She uses the online software Ignitia, A Beka curriculum, reads stories for her first grader on Zoom, edits essays with limited options for leaving feedback and explains Algebra 2 for her high school students. Photo courtesy of Diane Fortney

The classroom became two computer screens, one for the online software Ignitia and one for Zoom. Daily inspirations and a “Good morning” greet students at 7:45 a.m. The interactions with students, the “Oh, now I get it” moment in a lesson come through screens instead of personal interactions. The students, the reason first to 12th grade teacher Diane Fortney enjoys and continues to teach, are spread out in their home classrooms instead of together in the small setting of SonRise Christian School near Bluffton.

Education hasn’t stopped and teaching students that education is important hasn’t either. Fortney said education has always been important in her family with her dad majoring in English and her great-grandmother saying she continued to learn even at 100 years old.

“My dad and his dad always said that (education) was one thing they could never take away from us, no matter … how poor you are … or what’s happening they can’t take that away from you,” Fortney said. “We’re always going to learn. My great-grandmother lived to be a 107 and she said she was still learning.”

Fortney has been teaching for 15 years though this is her first year at SonRise. One of the rewards Fortney finds in teaching is seeing the transformation of students into “wonderful adults.” Teachers, after all, don’t teach for the money, as Fortney said. These days, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fortney confirmed in an email that she is working without pay.

“I love teaching. I love the interactions with the kids. I love watching that light go on, when they all of a sudden, ‘Oh, now I get it,’” Fortney said. “And you can see the growth. I mean I’ve seen tremendous improvement in several of the students that has just been so rewarding.”

While teaching students, she celebrates their accomplishments, such as one student constructing sets for the Wadena Madhatters Community Theatre “Into the Woods” production while earning class credits and changing his work approach.

“When I saw him in working on those sets I didn’t have to go in there and ask him to do things … he just went to work on it. He was doing his calculations … as if it was no big deal and I mean it was actual experience for him,” Fortney said.

In the days of distance learning, Fortney misses her seven students and works to spend time with them daily. Fortney spends up to two hours on Zoom with a first-grade student. She checks workbooks over Zoom with students in special education. She writes out math problems on a small whiteboard, redefines the language of Algebra 2 for high school students and reassigns lessons with explanations on the parts that went wrong.

Students used the online software Ignitia prior to the pandemic so when Gov. Tim Walz began a period of planning for public school distance learning, Fortney said SonRise students began using the software at home on March 16. However, getting up and following the set schedule of FACS, English, math, history and science at different hours with a break in the middle still required adjusting.

Students also normally have Bible classes and a chapel service before lunch along with discussions on how different church denominations might approach various topics. For now, at the scheduled chapel time of 11:45 a.m. Fortney messages students a Bible reading, thought for the day, reflection notes and prayer requests.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve noticed is the sense of prayer works and that we treat each other with respect because that’s what Jesus wants us to do,” Fortney said as values she sees students learning at SonRise.

Fortney said the COVID-19 pandemic is “a very historical moment” and the experience of living in and through the pandemic is “worth a lot in education.”

“We learn from our mistakes and hopefully we can learn from our previous histories and things that are going on,” Fortney said. “The more we know even about other cultures and other places the more we understand each other a lot more and live together better.”

If you’re interested in supporting SonRise Christian, email office@sonrisechristianschoolmn.com or call 218-371-2217.

What does funding look like at SonRise?

The school is funded through students’ tuition and community donors, three churches and fundraisers in the spring and fall, according to SonRise administrator and treasurer Anjanette Wiirre. The spring fundraiser, which was scheduled for April 24 this year, is the biggest one with a meal and silent auction, Wiirre said. She and Fortney hope the fundraiser can still happen, even if it’s different than planned.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, each area of the school’s funds are impacted as families and donors are under constrained budgets or having possibly lost a job, according to Wiirre. The school regularly applies for grants and Wiirre said they also applied for a Small Business Administration loan three weeks ago under the federal coronavirus relief bill.

“The longer it goes without being heard anything, I’m thinking that we didn’t get anything,” Wiirre said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff of three is having Fortney as the only teacher with Wiirre and another teacher currently on unemployment.

“This year … has been a blessing up until the COVID-19 and it’s just one more struggle that we have to hurdle through and we know that God is there with us and he’s always provided so far. … We know he’ll provide, he’ll keep us going if that’s his wish and so we just keep doing what we can do,” Wiirre said.