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Summer SparkZ program has tangible impact in classrooms

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(photo by Stacy Bengs-Silverberg)2 / 2

Entering the second half of the school year calendar, Red Wing High School math teacher and SparkZ participant Tammy Mikkelson said she saw benefits from the summer program carry into the classroom.

Mikkelson gave example of one student who attended Sparkz and was new to the high school this year as a ninth-grader.

"He enjoyed the SparkZ program and said it was fun," Mikkelson said. "He also stated that it was much easier starting the school year as he knew more students and teachers."

Mikkelson said more students echoed this student's thoughts.

Tammy Mikkelson, center, was one of several teachers who participated in the SparkZ program (photo by Stacy Bengs-Silverberg)"I think this is true for most SparkZ kids as they are more confident in the school environment having that connection with peers, mentors and teachers," she said. "For some kids, I see a confidence that I have not seen before."

Speaking about future of the two-week summer program, Mikkelson said she sees SparkZ having lasting positive outcomes for all involved.

"It is a great, unique program with hands-on learning that is fun," she said. "Kids don't feel like they are in school, and they spend time outside learning without even knowing it."

What is SparkZ?

A group of Red Wing teachers and education supporters got together last summer and came up with a plan to keep students from losing their spark. The out-of-school program, SparkZ, was created to give students experiences that promote not only learning, but also fun, adventure and creativity.

The inaugural SparkZ program tackled the challenge by exploring “Crime Week” and “The Great Outdoors” over the summer.

The weeklong themed sessions provided the scaffolding for teaching math, science, art, technology, writing and other subjects.

Scott and Anne Jones of the Jones Family Foundation, prime movers in SparkZ, credit Red Wing High School science teacher Jim Leise with pulling it all together.

“I find that middle school students start losing interest in learning a little bit,” Leise said. “They start to lose their spark.”

To help rekindle that spark, he suggested, the new program had to explore various disciplines in a different way, through “more authentic, real-life experiences.”

Scott Jones agreed. “Put the kids into situations where they are learning through the experience.”

Learning can be effective when it’s authentic, Anne Jones added. “It makes sense to them.”

Leise and five other teachers who were enthusiastic about the idea got together with the Jones Family Foundation and other sponsors, including the Anderson Center and the Red Wing Area Fund.

Teachers Sheena Tisland, Tammy Mikkelson, Sara Shannon, John Jones, Josh Nelson and Leise developed the themes into new experiences that encouraged creative thinking and problem solving.

Students entering seventh and eighth grades were invited to participate based on teacher recommendations of young people who could benefit from the opportunity. Fifty-eight signed up.

Student mentors

The teachers also recruited a half-dozen students who are seniors this fall to serve as mentors to the younger students.

“To make it not feel like school, we needed a suitable location,” Leise said. “The Anderson Center provided the campus.”

“It fits perfectly into our mission,” said Art Kenyon, Anderson Center Board chairman.

“Having a campus that is as open as ours was really very beneficial. They free-roamed the campus. Being out there adjacent to the artwork — it set a tone for the kind of learning we were trying to do,” Kenyon added.

First Student Transportation became a partner and provided busing to the Anderson Center for two weeks of six-hour days. Mayo Clinic Health System provided meals through the summer lunch program.

Students were split into four groups to give everybody a chance to get to know one another. Developing relationships between students and their future high school teachers was a goal.

Activities were teacher-driven and kid-centered, Leise said. For “Crime Week,” for example, John Jones took the boys and girls back to medieval times and had them build a trebuchet and launch items.

They read a crime story for Tisland and Shannon, then wrote their own final chapter. Nelson had them do blood typing and hair sample analysis. Mikkelson put them to work measuring tire skids to determine car speed, and studying “blood” spatter.

They went to the Red Wing Police Department, and James Clinton at the Goodhue County Historical Society set up a Prohibition-era cold case for them to solve using source documents.

The week closed with a giant game of Clue on the Anderson Center grounds.

The Great Outdoors

The “Great Outdoors” week offered time to explore the outdoors, plus students built solar-powered toy cars, wrote poems from a tree’s perspective, determined tree measurements based on shadows, created huge murals, had a water party, and made a leaf identification guide that may end up getting published by the Anderson Center.

Special guest was Paul Dressen of the Prairie Island Indian Community, who talked about the role bison play in Native American culture. Anderson Center studio resident artists and visiting artists also helped with activities.

Ryan Howell led students through Frontenac State Park (photo by Stacy Bengs-Silverberg)He was pleased to see relationships nourished among school staff and students. Leise said he could see the difference right away when school started this fall.

“What I admired about this program,” Kenyon said, “was watching these kids take the creative process and apply it to math, science, literature… It really applies to so many areas besides art.”

Parents were involved, Anne Jones noted. They accompanied their children to a pizza party and orientation at Tower View before the program began, and were “very positive” in a survey after it was completed.

“They said their kids had a good experience,” she said. All but one of the 58 young people said they would do it again.

SparkZ will move out of the pilot phase going into summer of 2017, Scott Jones said. Two themed weeks will be planned for 50 to 60 young people.

“We see value in broadening the funding base,” he added. They would welcome additional sponsors who feel the SparkZ — and want to help it continue. Go online to for more information.

Ruth Nerhaugen contributed to this story