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Relationship-building is top priority at Pillager Area Charter School

“These are some of the most amazing young people you could ever meet."

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Greg Zimmerman, lead teacher at Pillager Area Charter School, shows off the greenhouse Aug. 20, while explaining the different vegetables students grow each year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

PILLAGER — For Abagail Ktytor, Pillager Area Charter School was a last resort for a high school education.

Traditional school wasn’t for her. And if it wasn’t for the charter school, she probably would have dropped out.

But then she found her home.

“All of the kids here have a relationship with each of the teachers,” the 11th grader said. “It’s a really special thing, actually, because before I came here I didn’t have a single relationship with my teachers.”

Relationships are the first thing Ktytor mentioned when asked about the school, which struck pride in Lead Teacher Greg Zimmerman.

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“That would be my first response as well,” he said during an interview Aug. 20.

Pillager Area Charter School — or PACS — is an alternative learning option for those who opt out of traditional schooling. Students follow a schedule of six six-week sessions, each with a different theme for the classes to revolve around. With an expected enrollment this year of 45 students in grades 7-12, the charter school values one-on-one connections between students and teachers.

“It’s really important to both the students and the teachers to build a relationship with one another because then you have more of an understanding point of view of what they’re going through, or if they need help they know they can talk to any of the teachers,” Ktytor said.

After having a tough time in traditional school, the smaller environment of PACS is exactly what appealed to 10th grader Dylan Crimmins when he started as a freshman, too.

“I don’t like having a bunch of people around,” he said. “With less people that’s kind of better for me. It’s easier to talk to people.”

While many students at PACS have similar stories of why they chose this option over traditional school, Zimmerman said it doesn’t mean one school is better than the other. What works for some students may not work for all.

“I think we find kids that were just maybe falling through the cracks a little bit and just needed a little more personal attention, whether it’s in math or just having somebody to talk through issues that are going on at home,” Zimmerman said.

School social worker Shana Crouse is a fan favorite for students to talk through things.

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“I know all of my students on a first-name basis,” Crouse said. “I know they’re families, I know their siblings, I know their living situations. We’re comfortable reaching out to each other, even if it happens to be outside of school hours — things like that where in the traditional school setting that I was at prior, that wasn’t really the case.”

A hands-on approach

Each Friday, students take trips to different business or community organizations to help tie some of the real world into the curriculum. Or they’ll visit colleges and trade schools to expose kids to some of their options after graduation.

A bigger trip happens at the end of the year, to somewhere like Washington, D.C. or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Closer to home, students get hands-on horticulture experience working in the greenhouse that’s on campus, growing tomatoes, peppers and a plethora of other vegetables usually sold at a spring plant sale. Some students even decided to exercise their artistic skills by painting designs on the entrance to the greenhouse.

As a former carpenter, Zimmerman puts his building skills to use, too, with hands-on building projects for the students. When the fairgrounds in Walker needed a new announcer booth, they approached PACS with all the materials needed, and the kids built the booth.

“Anything that we can do to connect with the community and turn it into a learning experience, we’re all for it,” he said.

In the on-campus workshop students get to try their hands at welding, starting small and working their way up to projects like small tables.

“And they reflect and write and always look at improvement in ways they can do better next time,” Zimmerman said.

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We don’t kick kids out

Along with the alternative learning format at PACS comes an alternative approach to discipline. Suspending students is virtually unheard of.

“Kids learn how to get kicked out of school, and they just use that,” Zimmerman said. “... But if we have a conflict here, we’re going to work through it, kind of like a family. You’re not going home unless you’re creating a real safety issue or threat, which that doesn’t happen very often.”

If a student has an issue in one of their classes, usually they would leave the room for a time and then sit down with that particular teacher and walk through what’s going on.

“We actually sit down, solve the problem, come up with a solution,” Ktytor said, “because it’s us against the conflict, not against each other.”

Staff members truly try to help every student who walks through the doors of Pillager Area Charter School, a point Zimmerman emphasized.

“We’ll halt our academic lesson for that day if we see an opportunity to build relationships and solve problems and keep kids in school and cool down,” he said.

Those one-on-one interactions are perhaps part of the reason distance learning hit hard for many at PACS at the end of last year. Ktytor said motivation was difficult without seeing her teachers and classmates every day, not to mention the added internet connectivity challenges that come from living in a rural setting.

But they persevered.

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“It’s not what we signed up for here, but they were resilient,” Zimmerman said. “And we were super, super proud of them for that.”

School will start in a brief hybrid format for the first week this year to get students acclimated to new social distancing protocols. Half the kids will attend Tuesday and Wednesday, while half will go Thursday and Friday.

The goal is to have the whole student body back for in-person learning Sept. 14 through the rest of the year.

A wavering enrollment

Enrollment has fluctuated somewhat in the school’s 19-year history, and that’s OK, Zimmerman said. When staff shifted focus on increasing enrollment for a time, Zimmerman said he felt they lost sight of their mission, which comes back to building relationships among students, families and their communities. A decision to close the lunch period in favor of zoning in on those goals meant a dip in enrollment for a time.

“But now it’s starting to come back, and people are taking notice of what we do and seeking us out and wanting to start as a seventh grader or a ninth grader,” Zimmerman said.

Originally structured for students in grades 9-12, PACS is now licensed for middle school students and will begin accepting seventh and eighth graders this year. By opening up to younger students, Zimmerman hopes to streamline the education process for those who know they want to attend PACS.

“We’ve noticed that because we do things differently, if kids try a different place and then come here maybe as a 10th or 11th grader, that’s a really big adjustment,” he said. “Sometimes they struggle for a while, and we noticed that when kids come and start fresh as a ninth-grader, a lot of times they’re more successful earlier.”

Seven seniors earned their diplomas last year, which Zimmerman said he wanted to emphasize are the same degrees obtained at traditional schools. Pillager Area Charter School is a public school that’s free of charge and teaches the same standards as its more traditional counterparts.

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But at PACS, it’s all about the relationships.

“Every school in the country you walk into is going to say relationships are important and character building is important, and they mean it,” Zimmerman said. “But we really take the time to walk the walk, and we teach classes and really teach and model the skills. And it’s not just a poster on the wall. We really live and breathe it.”

And the effect on, not only the students, but their communities as well, is apparent.

“These are some of the most amazing young people you could ever meet,” Zimmerman said. “Maybe they won’t score a 30, 31 on their ACT, but when it comes to caring about people in their community, their classmates in their school and taking pride in themselves and being themselves, they’re awesome. They’re as talented as anybody you’d ever want to meet in those areas, and they get a chance to show that and be valued for that at our school, which I think is really cool.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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