LACS named 2012 Alternatives School of the Year

by Elyse Kaner
Staff Writer

Spring Lake Park District 16’s Learning Alternatives Community School has been named 2012 Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs School of the Year.

Earlier this month Spring Lake Park’s Learning Alternatives Community School was named 2012 Alternatives School of the Year by Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs. LACS teacher Sada Ganske and LACS director Bill Sommers are pictured with the award. Photo by Elyse Kaner

The school received the honor from the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) during an awards luncheon Feb. 16 in Rochester at its annual state conference.

“What always makes it meaningful is that your peers have chosen you…,” said Bill Sommers, director of Spring Lake Park’s alternatives program, who, along with his staff, attended the conference.

“It’s not some external review board or somebody from the state who really doesn’t know you. It’s people from the association who know our staff. Our staff knows them.”

Learning Alternatives Community School (LACS) last won the award in 2004 under the leadership of former director Frank Herman.

Alternative schools serve the needs of students in nontraditional learning models.

In addition to the day school, the following come under Spring Lake Park’s LACS umbrella: independent study, Lighthouse program for the highly gifted, Post Secondary Enrollment Options program, Chance program for pregnant and parenting teens and Transitions – a life skills program.

Steve Allen, executive coordinator of MAAP, has been watching Spring Lake Park’s alternatives school evolve for some time.

“I’ve really been pleased with how they offer a variety of services,” he said. “So often people think it’s one show fits all. It’s really about providing options and choice.”

‘Awesome recognition’

LACS science teacher Sada Ganske applied for the school of the year honor starting in October.

“I was so proud of our staff,” Ganske said in an interview with the Life. “It was just an awesome recognition of all of the hard work that they’ve been doing and then recognition of all the accomplishments our students have had, too.”

Among many statistics and data requests, the application called for graduation rates, enrollment numbers and innovative and creative initiatives.

The latter came easily for Ganske as she ticked off some of the school’s activities, like last year when students built, planted and tended a community vegetable garden in front of the school at 8001 Able St. in Spring Lake Park. A bumper crop of vegetables was donated to families in need.

Other LACS initiatives are community outreach programs and the outdoor adventure program, which last year brought students, who mostly had not traveled out of the Twin Cities area, on a four-day learning excursion to Duluth and to the Boundary Waters area.

Sommers is quick to credit the staff for “how they not only hang together but they are committed to the program,” he said, noting a number of leadership changes in the past.

The school opened in 1994 with Herman as the first director.

When Sommers came to the school in 2010, the staff had persisted despite a change in directors – four in five years – before Sommers arrived, he said. For the most part, the directors had accepted education jobs higher up on the administrative ladder.

Variety of programs

LACS has a faculty of eight teachers, with 78 years of combined experience.

“It’s this staff that keeps revitalizing itself and figuring out how to work for kids,” said Hank Taxis, dean at LACS.

The school serves 225 students, according to LACS staff.

A further breakdown in student enrollment is: day school, 75; Independent Study, 31; Lighthouse Program for the highly gifted, 102; Post Secondary Enrollment Options program, 4; and Transitions program for special education students ages 18-21, 13.

As for the future, the school is working on ways to deliver increased technology to its students.

“It’s opening up more opportunities for us to be more creative,” Ganske said.

“I think as long as we keep learning and keep reading and asking questions and touring other places, we’ll continue down that creative path and find what works for kids,” she said.

Sommers said he particularly likes that if a lesson isn’t working, the staff is willing to scrap it and try an approach that works.

“The honor is about the staff and kids,” he said. “The staff shows up and works with the kids. If that doesn’t happen, nothing else makes any difference.”

Sommers in January announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year. A director has yet to be named.

Organized into nine geographical regions throughout the state, MAAP has a membership of about 300 alternative schools and is headed by a 14-member board.

The schools serve about 170,000 K-12 students in the state, according to Allen.

MAAP is a volunteer organization that encourages member input and professional contributions.

Among its many affiliations, the organization works with policy groups, the Legislature, the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Board of Teaching.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]