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A new school for northern Hubbard County? K-8 ‘Aurora Waasakone’ charter school would open in old Nary School

Nary School is being considered as the location for a new charter school. (Jordan Shearer/Bemidji Pioneer)

If you go:

What: Meet and greet the founders of Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners

When: 3-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12

Where: Nary School, 25895 County Road 9, Helga Township, Hubbard County

An old school building a few miles south of Bemidji could become the area's newest charter school.

Anna Wallin and Shanna Reiners are former Schoolcraft Learning Community teachers, and they hope to get Aurora Waasakone, a would-be K-8 charter school, up and running by the 2019-2020 school year in the old Nary School.

The pair have scheduled a mid-November meet-and-greet to talk about their school, which they say will emphasize "inquiry-based" teaching strategies. Students might anchor their studies in Minnesota history for a semester, for instance, and tie more granular lessons in science or language arts into that overarching theme.

Wallin and Reiners said they plan to enroll 72 students across all nine grades at Aurora Waasakone and house more than one grade in the same classroom. Their business model, so to speak, relies on a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to keep the school funded until per-pupil money starts to flow in year two. The Audubon Society of the Northwoods would "authorize" the charter with approval from the state department of education, and Wallin and Reiners signed a preliminary agreement with Helga Township leaders stating their shared intent to have the charter move into the school building, which would be 100-years-old when they plan to start classes. The building sports a new heating system and parking lot and a recently redone roof.

For now, the building contains township offices and hosts assorted music lessons, club meetings and the occasional wedding.

Donald Clay, who chairs the township's board of supervisors, said Helga leaders would move those offices after a year or two and, presumably, the charter school could sublease its space out to music teachers, clubs, and happy couples as needed. Renting out the building currently covers about half of its expenses, Clay said, but leasing it to the new charter would hopefully recoup them all.

The "Aurora" in the school's name evokes northern Minnesota and "Waasakone" is an Ojibwe word that means "to shine, to glow, and to give off light," Wallin and Reiners said.

Both stressed that they want a positive relationship with existing schools and school districts, most notably Bemidji Area Schools.

State law requires Bemidji Area Schools to bus charter school students, but the district's transportation department has struggled to find drivers for its existing routes and state funding doesn't cover the extra money the district has to spend to bus charter students and there are also special education costs to factor in.

Aurora Waasakone isn't the only would-be charter school option floated this year. Staff at TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School took a long look at expanding into the old Deer Lake Elementary School site before they backed away, citing financial and logistical concerns.

That opened the door for Schoolcraft leaders to take their look at the mothballed elementary school north of Bemidji, which Bemidji Area Schools built decades ago and voted to close in the early 2000s amid broader budget cuts. Schoolcraft Learning Community parents, staff and students surveyed last month indicated strong support for a move, but school leaders are still wading through some of the details.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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