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Area schools prepare to open doors to students for the fast approaching 2022-2023 school year

Take a look at what's going on in Pequot Lakes, Pine River-Backus, Crosslake and Nisswa

Back to School Pequot Locker.JPG
Tawnia Allyn helps her fifth grade son, Levi, put school supplies in his locker Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, at Pequot Lakes Middle School.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
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Area school buildings are quickly coming alive again with the start of a new - and normal - school year approaching.

We are getting back to pre-pandemic conditions in our school. Back to using lockers, back to using the bells and back to a school environment that most of us are more accustomed to.
Mike O'Neil, Pequot Lakes Middle School Principal

Most area students start school Tuesday, Sept. 6, though Crosslake Community School students return to class Thursday, Sept. 1.

Area administrators are excited for the school year - with hopes students are too - and teachers are busy getting classrooms ready.

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Following is a back to school look at area schools.

Pequot Lakes School District

The Pequot Lakes School District heads into the new year with an increase in enrollment over the previous year, though just how large of an increase is unclear.

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The district finished the 2021-22 school year with 1,734 students in grades K-12, and expected a jump to 1,757 this year. Now it looks as though there may be even more students.

“Our enrollment numbers are extremely preliminary,” Superintendent Kurt Stumpf said in an email. “... It appears that we will be over the anticipated number of 1,757, but it is a little early to determine how much over we will be.”

The district saw a large increase in enrollment in the fall of 2021, due in part to Brainerd students moving northward as that school district continued to mandate masks in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

We had a big influx last year – specifically in grade 5 – and some of those students have returned to Brainerd, but we have retained a lot of them. It makes you feel really good that families maybe came for reasons associated with COVID, but like what we are doing and stuck with us.
Mike O'Neil, Pequot Lakes Middle School Principal

At the middle school, it appears that increased enrollment is not temporary.

“So far, our ratio is about eight new students coming in for every one student departing,” middle school Principal Mike O’Neil said. “We had a big influx last year – specifically in grade 5 – and some of those students have returned to Brainerd, but we have retained a lot of them. It makes you feel really good that families maybe came for reasons associated with COVID, but like what we are doing and stuck with us.”

At the high school level, Pequot Lakes has to accommodate an additional 48 students. In fact, the freshman class has grown by 21 students since May, and the sophomore class has reached 170 students.

"That is a considerable number when compared to previous years," high school principal Aaron Nelson said in an email. "We are looking forward to the large numbers in our school and believe that has to do with the strong reputation PLHS has for quality learning and a healthy student culture. The success of our extra curricular programs has also help to bring attention to the Patriots and draw students to our school through a strong reputation."

While high enrollment is typically a good problem to have, Nelson did admit the number of students has created some challenges this fall.

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"We are stretched to the limit with classroom space," he said. "Our parking lot is not large enough to handle the number of student drivers or fans for sporting events, and classes in some cases are ranging in the upper 20s, making it difficult for some students to get all of their choice electives."

Back to School Pequot Gym Floor.JPG
Heather Douglas, with FLR Sanders, sands the Pequot Lakes School gym floor Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. The floor was refinished, including new paint, for the 2022-2023 school year.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
Back to School Pequot Teacher.JPG
Emily Monson, a Pequot Lakes middle and high school special education teacher, puts a cart together in her classroom Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, for a place to store curriculum.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

One thing exciting O’Neil about the coming school year is not a new change or addition, but rather a reversion back to learning prior to 2020.

“We are getting back to pre-pandemic conditions in our school,” O’Neil said. “Back to using lockers, back to using the bells and back to a school environment that most of us are more accustomed to.”

In a turn back to pre-pandemic learning, technology will be more limited for use by middle-schoolers, as it was prior to distance learning. Student cell phones will stay in lockers this year to hopefully cut back on students’ screen time, and use of Chromebooks will be different for younger grades.

“Fifth- and sixth-graders are only going to have access to Chromebooks on carts,” O’Neil said. “Seventh- and eighth-graders will have Chromebook access like we did last year where they bring it home, since they are a bit more mature learners.”

The district sees 14 new staff members join the district’s ranks.

Pequot Lakes at a glance

  • First day of school: Tuesday, Sept. 6.
  • Estimated enrollment: K-12 is around 1,800.
  • New teachers/staff: Bryan Boreen, high school earth science; Abelein Dunn, elementary special education; Clayton Foster, high school physical education; Melissa Hannah, fourth grade; Ashley Ingman, elementary social worker; Heidi Knudsen, fifth grade; Cory Kralovetz, elementary special education; Erin Linehan, high school English/language arts; Emily Monson, middle/high school special education; Tiffany Montgomery, high school secretary; Travis Raske, director of teaching and learning; Amanda Sigler, speech language pathologist; Amanda Trinka, middle school special education; Jeremy Weiland, high school social studies. 
  • Anything new/exciting/different happening in the district this year: The Pequot Lakes School District is currently performing a comprehensive facilities study. There will be six community meetings this fall to gather input from students, staff and community members.

Pine River-Backus School District

With the first day of school right around the corner, the Pine River-Backus School District has marked a slight decrease in enrollment compared to the beginning of 2021; however, as the first semester approaches, enrollment is very close to the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

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"I think we're going to start the year where we ended last year," said Rick Aulie, elementary principal. "We were down a little bit, but we've had more kids enter the district than have left so far, so it's been up and down."

We did lose a larger senior class and our kindergarten class isn't quite as large as the senior class was, but it's still 62, and that's been pretty close to our average the past few years.
Jonathan Clark, Pine River-Backus Superintendent
PR-B elementary teacher
Pine River-Backus Elementary School teacher Travis Hoffarth sets out chairs Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, ahead of the new school year.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
Pine River-Backus teacher
Pine River-Backus Elementary School teacher Shianna Hicks prepares decorations outside of her classroom Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

At a recent school board meeting, Aulie said the district was graduating a larger class into high school compared to the incoming kindergarten class. The district also had a larger graduating senior class, but even so, administrators say the difference is not very significant.

"I think we've maintained," said Chris Halverson, high school principal. "We're probably up a few but we have at least maintained. We didn't lose kids. I heard just last week about six or seven new kids coming from districts south of us."

"Enrollment is staying fairly steady," said Jonathan Clark, PR-B superintendent. "We did lose a larger senior class and our kindergarten class isn't quite as large as the senior class was, but it's still 62, and that's been pretty close to our average the past few years."

The total enrollment sits at 910 students.

I feel like we've come out of COVID. I feel like now the focus is on relationships with kids, academic achievement and connecting as a community. All that other stuff is gone.
Rick Aulie, Pine River-Backus Elementary School Principal

Students and parents will notice some differences in the district this year, chief among them the new paint job and Tigers logo in the commons where people often gather for games and events.

"There will be a brand new look in our commons, or in the cafeteria," Clark said. "It's gotten a new kind of face-lift with more of a PR-B Tiger format that the kids should get excited about."

IMG_9983.JPG
Pine River-Backus Elementary School Principal Rick Aulie talks to staff at a meeting Monday, Aug. 29, 2022 ahead of the new semester.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

"We've done a rebranding project," Aulie said. "There will be an interactive board showing the history of the school, the Backus history, the Pine River history. They're going to notice that right away."

"There's going to be a new kiosk down there with historical things to make it look more branded for PR-B Tigers," Halverson said.

This fall, fans of PR-B Tiger athletics teams will likely be spending a lot of time at the newly renovated athletic fields where restroom facilities compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and a more convenient concessions stand are waiting for eager crowds.

"The football field looks amazing compared to what it looked like last year with the dry conditions and construction," Clark said. "It was really exciting to have some football games here. The baseball fields all got a new look. Their sidelines and infields all got redone this summer."

The district has 10 new teachers. Most of these instructors take the place of outgoing staff in classes the district has had in the past.

"We have some new course offerings at the high school and middle school level with more career development and exploration pieces," Clark said. "We're kind of really excited to be able to have those."

"The schedule isn't going to change that much," Halverson said. 'We're going to be adding a Tiger Time or advisory time on Mondays. So for about a 20-minute period after second hour we'll go over handbook expectations, personal learning plans, maybe career exploration and positive journaling pieces. We're just going to talk about any kind of aspects that might come up in school and address them in a timely manner."

That new program will allow small group meetings and one-on-one time with teachers who will, optimally, assist the same group of 15-17 students through several years.

I'm excited to get the new school year going and let this place come alive again.
Chris Halverson, Pine River-Backus High School Principal

The high school will be short one Family and Consumer Sciences class. With the retirement of the former FACS teacher at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the district struggled to find a candidate to fill the position. A lack of applicants left the district short for now.

"Our industrial technology will look a little different," Clark said. "This year we have a new staff member as well as new career exploration pieces. Those will be the two biggest core series that will look different. We did lose our FACS teacher last year and we haven't been able to replace them. So that will look different."

"Seventh and eighth graders won't have a traditional FACS class because we didn't get a FACS teacher," Halverson said. "They will be exploring careers and career pathways at a much earlier age, which is a piece I think we were missing here at the high school. So in seventh and eighth grade they'll be taking a meteor course, as it's called, from Sourcewell, our Region Five partner. They'll be looking at different fields out there as far as job possibilities. They'll talk about them and practice them a little bit."

As a whole, administrators are ready and raring for the new year.

"I feel like we've come out of COVID," Aulie said. "I feel like now the focus is on relationships with kids, academic achievement and connecting as a community. All that other stuff is gone. I can't wait to get the kids back in the building and start reconnecting with them and building positive relationships."

"I'm excited to get the new school year going and let this place come alive again," Halverson said.

Pine River-Backus at a glance

  • First day of school: Tuesday, Sept. 6.
  • Estimated enrollment: PreK-12th grade, approximately 910. PreK 62, elementary 436, high school 412.
  • New teachers/staff: Andrew Moore, high school special education teacher; Neil Travis, high school industrial tech teacher; Brianna Blanchard, high school English teacher; Nicholas Ackerman, grades 5/6 math teacher; Janice Weaver, van driver; Diondra Gottsch, high school special education teacher; Karl Ludeman, high school teacher (agriculture, science, home economics); Olivia Becker, high school youth and family services worker; Gregory Gentry, high school English teacher; Darla John, school nurse; Courtney Benson, elementary STEAM teacher; Ariana Schendel, high school interventionist; Roger Hoplin, paraprofessional; Cassadra Meis, paraprofessional; Crystal Sams, van driver; Erik Vetsch, high school social studies teacher.
  • Anything new/exciting/different happening in the district this year: Pine River-Backus is excited to announce the addition of many new staff to our team. Each new teacher is provided a mentor to offer additional support and serve as a resource during this first year at PR-B.
  • Last spring, High Reliability Schools monitoring and quick surveys with staff indicated a need to strengthen our new teacher programming. As a result of this survey information, a new committee was established to take a look at what we currently have in place and make adjustments to areas that needed to be strengthened.
  • Mentors recently met for this training and then later connected with their new mentee. Not only do our PR-B mentors feel empowered to assist our new teachers, but also a sense of pride at being part of this new process at providing focused support for our new teachers.
  • When you step into Pine River-Backus schools this year you will know you're in Tiger Territory. We launched a new marketing and branding campaign to show how proud we are to be PR-B. Our updated orange and black colors throughout the school bring a fresh new look to our facilities.
  • This PR-B revitalization is still a work in progress and many changes are still to come.

Crosslake Community School

Enrollment is booming!
Annette Klang, Crosslake Community School Director of Seat-Based Learning

Crosslake Community School students go back to class this week, starting Thursday, Sept. 1.

“Enrollment is booming!” Annette Klang, director of seat-based learning, said in an email. “One of our highest years - 177 to date, including pre-K.”

Klang said the school board was asked to raise the student cap per grade from 19 to 21.

“The online school is very busy and full as well. We have a great 'problem,’” she said.

New staff this school year include:

  • Lisa Laasch, middle school science.
  • Kevin O'Brien, middle school math.
  • Joe Cutkay, grades 1-2 teacher.
  • Laurie Jost, special education.  
  • Beth Duffy and Kelly Bittner, office staff.
  • Stephanie Pederson, paraprofessional.
  • Jake Moser, custodial.

New this year is a lending library for students, keeping with the school’s environmental education focus. Students bring in books, check them out, return them and donate others.
Also new this year is the clothes closet. Students are able to borrow or keep clothing as needed.

The LAKE (Lakes Area Kids Enrichment) Foundation made some property updates, including updated and expanded parking.

“Things have really been busy at Crosslake Community School,” Klang said. “We received the best school in the area during the ‘Best of’ voting series. We have also received Level One Certification honors as a High Reliability School. We work hard to keep integrity at the top of our values.”

Back to School Nisswa Elementary.JPG
Jackie Reinke, Nisswa Elementary School teacher, prepares bins for her kindergarten students Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in her classroom. She already met her students during Kindercamp.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Nisswa Elementary School

As we all know, teaching, learning and living in Nisswa is magical and what we have planned for this year will be nothing short of that. We are so ready. Let's get this year started!
Molly Raske, Nisswa Elementary School Principal

Nisswa Elementary School’s annual open house will be from 4:30-6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31.

“Our amazing PTO will be providing a meal and is even bringing in an ice cream truck to kick off this ‘sweet’ year,” Principal Molly Raske said via email.

Nisswa Elementary School staff, families and students could not be more excited to get this year started, Raske said.

“This past week, we had Kindercamp and it has been so fun to have our little Warriors in the building, thrilled to begin their elementary career,” she wrote.

New staff members for the 2022-2023 school year include:

  • Kelli Forsythe, head school secretary (replaced Brooke Weinhandl).
  • Sadie Moore, speech-language pathologist (Lisa Segler retired).
  • Amber Kopp, music teacher (Julie Schreifels retired).
  • Anna Carbajal, kindergarten teacher.
  • Emma Peterson, kindergarten teacher.
  • Megan Johnson, fourth grade teacher (replacing Adam Langan, who moved to Forestview Elementary School in Baxter as a fifth grade language arts teacher).

Former kindergarten teacher Andrea Parrington will teach third grade after a third section was added this year. Former kindergarten teacher Shaylee Schei left the Brainerd lakes area.
Raske said the new staff members join Nisswa School’s “already gifted roster.”

“We are ecstatic as they bring a wealth of knowledge, energy and enthusiasm,” she said.

In other staff changes, Holly Olson returns to teaching fourth grade, and Joe Koman takes on the integrationist/interventionist position.

This week before the official first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 6, staff are back on campus for inservice days.

“As we all know, teaching, learning and living in Nisswa is magical and what we have planned for this year will be nothing short of that,” Raske said. “We are so ready. Let's get this year started!”

Our newsroom occasionally reports stories under a byline of "Pineandlakes Echo Journal." Often, the "Pineandlakes Echo Journal" byline is used when rewriting basic news briefs that originate from official sources, such as a city press release about a road closure, and which require little or no reporting. At times, this byline is used when a news story includes numerous authors or when the story is formed by aggregating previously reported news from various sources. If outside sources are used, it is noted within the story.

Send us your news or story ideas by emailing nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or calling 218-855-5877. Be sure to leave a message!
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