Reaching for the STARS at Prior Lake school

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2009 - 11:48 PM

The unusual Students Are Realizing Success program for at-risk students has proved a hit at Twin Oaks Middle School.


STARS students Wyatt Wiseman, 13, Richard Bennetts, 13, and Andrew Bozicevich, 14, worked on computers at Twin Oaks Middle School in Prior Lake.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The field trips taken by students in a new program at Twin Oaks Middle School aren't exactly tame.

The kids will learn to kayak and train for a triathlon this summer. They've learned to rock climb, and they went skiing this month. Then there was the tubing trip down the Cannon River last summer, which ended abruptly when a tornado hit nearby and the principal found himself huddled barefoot in a ditch, pelted by hail and surrounded by students in bathing suits.

That adventure was scary, but it didn't hurt participation in an unusual program for at-risk students that has drawn about 100 kids this year at the Prior Lake school. STARS, which stands for Students Are Realizing Success, reaches out to students who are struggling in class, at home or socially.

"These children are getting something that has been needed forever and ever -- and will continue to be needed -- which is the care and compassion of adults who absolutely know their situations," said Connie Dawson, whose seventh-grade son joined when her husband died a year ago.

STARS has three prongs: A summer program that meets three days a week, a school-within-a-school for about a dozen students and an after-school program that gives students extra help with homework.

Students in the after-school program work toward monthly field trips by turning in all their class assignments and showing up regularly for tutoring sessions, which are held twice a week.

"We're not terribly focused on the grades," said Jaime McNatt, the school's social worker. "For some of these kids, it's a new idea not to worry about your A or your B or your C, but just to finish what they started."

Even so, about three quarters of the students have boosted their grades since the beginning of the school year, she said.

Adventures like the Cannon River fiasco -- which Principal Dan Edwards calls "the experience of a lifetime that I don't care to repeat" -- have also taught kids life lessons. At an end-of-summer potluck for the program, Edwards told students that since they all survived that trip, they could also survive math class.

The kids were terrified on the river, he said, though no one came away with more than scrapes and bruises. The storm hit less than an hour after the group of about 50 set out for the day, and students took shelter with chaperones where they could find it. The wind tore up trees, and a tornado touched down a few miles away, McNatt said.

The school started STARS two summers ago with a pilot program for 20 students. They kept it going through the school year, and "all of a sudden, kids just started coming and coming and coming," McNatt said.

State funding for at-risk education pays for a STARS teacher at Twin Oaks, but most of the field trip money comes from community education funds, grants and fees charged to families, who pay what they can, the school says.

Students have to qualify as "at-risk" to join the program, but the state's definition is so broad -- and life as a preteen can be so tough -- that "I would argue that almost any middle school kid could qualify," McNatt said. Still, the program fills quickly, and the school turned away more than 30 students this year.

Sixth-grader Brianna Larson said one of her teachers pushed her to join STARS last summer. "I didn't really like school, and I didn't really have a lot of friends. She thought I would meet friends, and I did," she said.

Larson said she was scared when the storm hit during the tubing trip, but that didn't stop her from retelling the story with a grin. But her principal would pick the recent Minnesota Wild game that the kids attended over wild times on the Cannon River. The hockey game, he said, was "much less eventful."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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