by ALEXANDRA RETTER
The students planned the events themselves: a kickball game to welcome incoming students and a graduation ceremony sending others on to their high school journeys.
These students are part of an Alternative Learning Center (ALC) program, DEEDs (Discover, Explore, Engage, Develop), that began during the 2020-2021 school year at Winona Middle School (WMS). “It was really fun to see them own the program, to make a difference not just for themselves, but the next group of kids coming,” DEEDs teacher Brittney Steine said.
DEEDs is housed in a classroom at WMS and can serve about 15 students. Students take their core subjects — language arts, social studies, science and math — in that classroom. Their learning occurs more by working on projects than completing units of study that end with an exam, Steine said. They go outside the classroom to attend electives, such as music and P.E., with their peers who are not in the program.
The program is currently for seventh and eighth grade students, WMS Principal Mark Winter said. Staff members’ goal is to help students who have not had success in a typical school setting to prepare for success at the high school level, whether the students choose to attend Winona Senior High School (WSHS) or the Winona Area Learning Center (WALC). Another goal is moving eighth grade students in the program back into the classroom with their peers for core subject classes, Winter said, adding that the DEEDs classroom remains as a safety net for students.
Steine and Winter believe DEEDs improves the middle school. “The basics of an ALC is to really help those students who are struggling,” Winter said. “And if we can get them back enjoying school and build relationships with these students and their families and get them back on track, certainly they will graduate on time and really move forward through their high school career.”
The smaller class size of the program helps students, Steine said. Students benefit from one teacher fostering connections with them and their families, as well, Winter said. Additionally, as students learn about their core subjects with one teacher in the same space, they are able to cover multiple fields at once, Steine said. They also do not face as many time constraints, she added. For instance, if students are completing a science lab, they do some language arts, as well, by reading background information about the lab, she explained.
The community helps support students’ learning, as well. An employee of a local bank talked with students about checking and savings accounts, in addition to interest. A staff member at a local hospital’s human resources department did mock interviews with students and gave them feedback. An employee of a local mechanic made videos with Steine about car maintenance and discussed job prospects in the field.
Overall, Steine hopes students learn how to ask good questions and manage their time, as well as find, read and annotate quality pieces of research. She also hopes they gain skills that go beyond academics. “I think the biggest skill we work toward is building their confidence and resilience, to know it’s okay for them to make mistakes, but to keep going and to push forward to reach their full potential,” she said.
Winter would like students to learn academic, organizational and social skills and gain a feeling of connection to school. “Really, a lot of it comes back to just the love of learning, the idea that school is a good place to be,” he said. “Then, on top of that, really work on … those types of skills that once they don’t have this program to fall back on, that they can still take those skills and be successful in the classroom.”
In the future, Steine hopes to get out into the community with her students to complete some service projects. “That’s such a big part of it, is finding ways to give back to our community and build that sense of community and belonging to something bigger than yourself,” she said.
Students must meet one of 11 criteria to participate in the program. The criteria include having been expelled, experiencing abuse, and experiencing mental health struggles. Students’ guardians choose to have their students in the program, Winter said.
DEEDs began as a result of work the WALC has been completing over the last few years to develop a school improvement plan with a Regional Center of Excellence.
With the implementation of the middle school program, the district is now able to apply for additional funding. WAPS may use that funding for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and is currently putting it toward some summer programming. It could also be used on other programming, such as after school programming, in the future.