In the last decade, magnet and specialty schools, which focus on themes like the arts, STEM or the environment, have gone from anomalies to accepted practice in Minnesota.
But at Apple Valley's School of Environmental Studies (SES) — one of the first such schools in the state — the 400 juniors and seniors say the school's appeal is as much about the environment inside the building as it is the theme that unites their studies.
"The biggest draw is the sense of community and culture," said Dan Bodette, principal since the school opened.
SES, also known as the "zoo school" because it partners with the Minnesota Zoo and is located on zoo grounds, is now in its 20th year. It was envisioned as an alternative to building a fifth large, comprehensive high school in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district.
Though there have been subtle changes, the school's mission — to be a small school emphasizing hands-on, interdisciplinary learning — has remained the same, Bodette said.
On a frigid but sunny Wednesday morning, a group of students lugged in sleeping bags after an overnight camping trip at Baker Park Reserve.
"This has really been the core of what we do with the kids — to take them out to the places we talk about," biology teacher Roger Everhart said. "That's how we sell it to them: we can read about rivers, watch a movie about rivers, or we can go to a river."
The school operates on a four-period day, with a three-hour block in the morning devoted to environmental studies class, which combines English, social studies and science. Students often complete collaborative projects, like a big pond study in the fall, rather than work sheets.
The school is different as a result of its size, how it is run and the relationships students build, Bodette said.
"It just feels so interconnected and so open," senior Hannah Hoff said.
Other students are helpful and kind, and teachers really care about students' opinions, junior Jake Wachsmuth said.
Connected to the real world
The school's design — lots of open spaces, few classrooms — sets the tone. Students don't have lockers but desks organized into pods of 10. They can personalize their area, and some have an aquarium with a snake or fish sitting atop their desks.
"We wanted to reflect a work setting that they might see later in life," Bodette said.
Teachers said the idea is to trust the students and treat them like young adults, living in the real world.
"The whole premise here is to help students engage with the world in authentic ways," said teacher Craig Johnson, who was recently honored by the White House for his work on climate change education.
Students learn practical life skills, from canoeing to how to survive outdoors, year round.
And because of the school's focus, students are often talking about their futures. Completing group projects, for instance, is similar to being a team member at work, senior Riley Lamers said.
Many know exactly what they want to do when they graduate, thanks to a mentorship class.
For example, senior Rebecca Peick hadn't thought about her plans previously and was "plodding along" through school before she arrived. Now, she wants to teach family and consumer science and open a coffee shop and bakery. "[Coming here] has just been the biggest change for me in my entire life," she said.
For students, a theme of senior year is figuring out who they are and how they want to live as adults, and they complete a large-scale project to help the community.
One student's project will include raising awareness of sex trafficking in Minnesota, while another will tackle climate change by holding a local conference, based on the design of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which students have attended for five years.
Reputation is everything
People have always been curious about the school. The campus drew weekly visitors from around the world when it first opened. And even now, the school is sometimes misunderstood because it is so different from traditional schools.
Some "get the idea that it's a real easy school, and it's not," junior Jake Henrichs said.
"We've heard everything, from being a college-prep school to being a tree-hugger school," Bodette said.
But much of its reputation is countered by students, who help explain the school's value to others, from skeptical parents to prospective students.
This year, a student project in leadership class was to redo the school's website and promotional materials. That successful redesign is part of what led to a waiting list of 60 students this year, Bodette said.
He's seen many students thrive at SES, from kids who didn't fit in socially at their old school to those who learn better in a hands-on environment. Others who do well are just outside-the-box thinkers, he said.
"We're going to be around for a very long time," Bodette said. "Our kids are great ambassadors to our program. Frankly, that's how we stay in business is our students just telling the story."