New project-based learning high school opens at 22nd and Girard

MNIC's new SOAR high school building is owned by Family Baptist Church. Though the church has no formal relationship to the school, SOAR's leaders say the church community hopes to be supportive of their presence there.  Photo by David Pierini

MNIC's new SOAR high school building is owned by Family Baptist Church. Though the church has no formal relationship to the school, SOAR's leaders say the church community hopes to be supportive of their presence there. Photo by David Pierini

By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor

As recruiters for the Northside’s newest high school “SOAR” have searched for students to enroll, they’ve gone downtown looking for the disaffected. When they encounter fighting or a weapon in a waistband, they see an opportunity to offer an alternative to someone who may believe they have no other options.

“We intentionally want homeless students, kids struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, kids that are gang related, kids that have been dejected from any other program or organization who are giving up on themselves because they feel like no one wants them anymore,” said Reggie Womack, executive director of the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), the charter conglomerate that is opening SOAR and operates three other high schools in the Twin Cities. SOAR, a high school diploma program, is the only one that serves students over 18.

SOAR’s first school year began Sept. 3. School leaders opened their doors at 2201 Girard Ave. N to close to 75 students. MNIC has leased the space—which includes an indoor basketball court, stage, cafeteria, and four classrooms—from Family Baptist Church. It was previously home to Prairie Seed Academy but has been vacant for a couple of years.

___


According to Dean of Students Byron Gulyard and Site Director Morgan McLaughlin, SOAR will offer 17-21 year olds who experience significant barriers to completing high school an opportunity to earn credits on a monthly basis through a project-based learning curriculum. 

Corinne Altrichter (front), director of special education, and teacher Pam Madison set up a shelf unit in SOAR's PAES Lab. PAES stands for Practical Assessment Exploration System. Madison will be running the project-based classroom.  Photo by David Pierini

Corinne Altrichter (front), director of special education, and teacher Pam Madison set up a shelf unit in SOAR's PAES Lab. PAES stands for Practical Assessment Exploration System. Madison will be running the project-based classroom. Photo by David Pierini

In contrast to traditional teacher-led learning in classrooms, project based learning puts students in the driver’s seat. They develop their own projects which tend to have real world applicability. “If you pick your own path, you’re going to stick to your path,” said Gulyard.

SOAR stands for success, opportunity, achievement, and respect—“the four pillars our school was built on,” according to Tracy Eberlein director of education for MNIC.

SOAR, and MNIC’s other schools, take an all-encompassing approach to supporting their students. Through regular attendance, students can earn a Chromebook and a bus card. For homeless and highly mobile teens, the personal hot spot the computer’s offer can be a lifeline. MNIC doesn’t close because of weather—when other schools have snow days, its schools remain open for their students who may have nowhere else to go. 

SOAR’s staff recognizes that their students’ victories often look different than straight As. “Our staff realizes how difficult it is for some of our kids to get here,” said McLaughlin. Consistent attendance, credits completed, and walking across the stage at graduation are goals the school prioritizes. 

Empathy and understanding will be crucial to instruction at SOAR. As will be respecting students’ agency and decision making. “We are standing there with open arms. We don’t judge, [but] once you walk through these doors, you want to change. We’re not grabbing your hand and saying ‘come back in this building’; you are walking in here willingly,” said Gulyard.


___


MNIC was founded by Kevin Byrne 16 years ago. Byrne passed away in 2017, and after a contentious search for a new director, Womack, who had worked for MNIC nearly since its inception, was selected.

“Reggie is not a traditional-type leader; he exudes a lot of authority but is totally open,” said Antonio Cardona, who oversees the Office of Public Charter Schools at Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), MNIC’s authorizer. PUC also owns and independently operates North News. 

Cardona says MNIC’s “biggest asset is their cohesive leadership team and ability to drive toward a shared vision.”

He says a lot of schools end up establishing a status quo and following it. Not MNIC. “Their growth mindset is really insane right now.”

He says they are uniquely gifted at supporting their student bodies. “They’re serving a student population that needs a right fit,” he said. “Many of them used to be that kid.”

MNIC operates three other charter schools in the Twin Cities: the Unity Campus on Fremont Ave. N and one in Rondo and Downtown.

Kenzie O'Keefe