NEW ULM - The River Bend Education District, headquartered in New Ulm, might be one of the best kept secrets around.
Lack of information has the potential of breeding misconceptions; which is, in part, why I recently sat down with several River Bend staff members, to discuss some of the things the public might not be aware of, as regards River Bend; and some of the things that make this school district special.
The panel included Erin Toninato, special education coordinator at the River Bend Education District; Doug Hazen, coordinator of the program for students with emotional/behavior disorders (EBD); Chris Bodick, technology coordinator; Synova Nelson, Area Learning Center coordinator; and Linda Wintz, special education director.
River Bend students work on art projects.
As each panelist discussed the programs they oversee, they painted a picture of a wide-scope system, quite different from what many expect.
(The top photo used in this story reflects only one aspect of the River Bend, the Area Learning Center. Some other sections, such as the EBD program, cannot be photographed because of state privacy regulations.)
One of the interesting things about River Bend is its sheer scope.
The River Bend Education District, which in many ways resembles any other independent school district in the state, is actually a cooperative effort among several geographically close school districts. These include seven independent school districts and three charter schools (among them, New Ulm and Sleepy Eye).
The River Bend district serves a 90-mile radius.
Overall, it serves about 1,100 actual students that receive special education, and an approximate total of approximately 2,000 students (some students served do not receive special education); in 17 school buildings.
In this respect, Toninato, one of the panelists, has a key role.
She oversees the delivery of special education services in member districts, in part making sure they comply with state regulations. (The vast amount of paperwork related to special education is done on computer systems administered by Bodick.)
Toninato supervises itinerant special education professionals such as speech, occupational and physical therapists, school psychologists, early childhood special education, and autism, hearing and vision specialists.
The River Bend building in New Ulm is a base for these professionals - and it is also home to on-site programs for students.
Program for kids with emotional, behavior disorders
The program for kids with emotional and/or behavior disorders, supervised by Hazen, offers a "combination" therapeutic-educational setting. It serves the students' mental health, as well as schooling, needs.
Typically, the kids are in therapy for about three hours a day, and in class for about four hours a day.
Students may attend individual, group and family therapy sessions.
Individual needs vary.
There are generally about 25 kids in grades K-12 in this program.
The students in the program are served by mental health therapists and practitioners, as well as licensed EBD teachers and paraprofessionals.
Unlike another on-site program at River bend, the Area Learning Center, the EBD program, points out Hazen, is not intended as a long-term solution, especially since it includes elementary students. Students remain in it for a varying duration (nine months is a fairly typical time limit), but the goal is, generally, for the students to re-integrate into their home districts.
Area Learning Center - an alternative to larger schools
In contrast, the Area Learning Center (ALC), supervised by Nelson (whose job is analogous to that of a school principal), is an educational alternative. Or, as some might rather phrase it, it is "a choice high school."
Contrary to one lingering perception, the ALC is not a school for kids who "got kicked out" of their home district.
Yes, many of its students may have a reason to attend it.
One common reason, for example, would be bullying. A typical scenario: a student would fall victim to bullying and would grow reluctant to attend school; the student's attendance would suffer as result, and a counselor, teacher, or someone else would suggest the ALC's as an alternate school.
Some teen parents attend River Bend; as could students dealing with an illness, who may be "shunned" because of it.
Nelson would like to think that "our students tend to be more accepting - they accept each other exactly for who they are."
Nelson says that the ALC is a viable choice for students who fare better in smaller educational settings.
"It's more like a family environment," providing students and teachers with a chance to "connect better," says Nelson.
The River Bend ALC offers a block schedule with a smaller number of subjects daily. Some students focus better that way - versus dividing their attention among six or eight subjects during the school day, Nelson adds.
The ALC may also be a choice for students who prefer more hands-on, project-based learning - versus a more auditory/lecture styles that may be more common in larger classrooms.
Another benefit - the school brags an almost 1 to 1 ratio of students to computers (counting laptops), and thanks to Bodick, they get a lot of use in the classroom, administrators say.
Yet, it is still "just a school"
Yet, in many ways, the ALC is just like any other school. Students are taught by state-licensed teachers; and they also have to meet the same graduation standards as any public school students.
In fact, students (usually freshmen and sophomores) may return to their home schools; and all are issued diplomas by their respective home districts, rather than by River Bend.
In other ways, too, River Bend is like many other schools. Students get involved in community service projects (Meals on Wheels, Adopt a Highway, leadership programs). They enjoy guest speakers (one, former Gophers' running back Tommy Watson, is coming up April 6, an event open to the public).
Students can leave the campus for college classes, if they wish; and can join athletic programs in their home schools (they do lack a "proper" gym at River Bend).
The ALC has 50-plus students; served by 13 staff, including seven licensed teachers (not all are full-time).
Collaboration is key
Wintz, whose job roughly mirrors that of a superintendent, emphasizes another aspect of the River Bend Education District: its collaborative nature.
It is a cooperative effort that achieves various efficiencies for the member districts. (River Bend is run by a board made up of representatives of the member districts, much like a traditional school board.)
In addition, mental health services are provided under a joint-powers accord with county authorities, which helps pay for these programs.
River Bend also makes it possible for member districts to maintain some programs that the public does not associate with it, at all.
"Targeted services" that touch many kids throughout its service area - summer school, before and after-school programming - are run (and funded) through River Bend.