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Perham public schools earn state awards for innovation

Perham High School and Prairie Wind Middle School have received state recognition for two separate, innovative educational programs.

The schools have been named 2016-2017 Star of Innovation Award recipients by the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP). The high school was named a Silver Star winner for its English Language Learners Immersion-Interpreting Program, while the middle school was named a Bronze Star winner for its "Got Clean Water?" initiative.

The high school is one of 14 total Silver Star winners from around the state, and will receive a $100 grant award to be used at the school's discretion, while the middle school is one of 13 total Bronze Star winners, and will receive a $50 grant.

Winners were announced by MASSP on April 24.

At the high school

"We were very excited about this, very excited," said Ehren Zimmerman, high school principal.

The English Language Learners Immersion-Interpreting Program, or ELL program, for short, pairs Spanish-speaking high school student interpreters with Spanish-speaking elementary school students who are in the process of learning English.

The program was designed to meet the needs of the district's growing ELL population, while also providing leadership opportunities for high school students.

The interpreters meet daily with small groups within the ELL program, provide support at program meetings and participate in Parent Teacher Conferences. They get academic credit for their efforts through the high school's Apprenticeship Program.

Zimmerman said the ELL program has helped strengthen the learning culture for Perham's young ELL students, making them feel more comfortable at school and building positive connections in the classrooms.

The program just started this school year, but it's expected to help increase the academic success of ELL students, increasing their reading and math scores on standardized tests and eventually helping them test out of the ELL program altogether because they have proven their mastery of the English language.

"This program provides our students of all age levels real-life skills that they can take with them and use in their adult lives, as well," wrote Zimmerman in a letter to the MASSP. "We can comfortably say that we have created a rich learning environment for both our ELL students and interpreting students."

At the middle school

The "Got Clean Water?" program was launched a few years back by eighth grade Earth Science teacher Rondi Ulmer. The program is essentially a free nitrate water testing clinic led by the students in partnership with local and state agencies.

According to the Star of Innovation nomination form, here's how the "Got Clean Water?" program works: Students collect water samples from the wells of their family members, relatives and friends, compile information about those wells, and then locate them using a GPS or Google Earth app on their smartphone or iPad. Testing is performed by the students, with help from the local Soil and Water Conservation District and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The data they collect is ultimately used by the state to make decisions about water quality in the Perham area.

Because of Perham's history with high arsenic and nitrate levels in the water, the "Got Clean Water?" program was initially met with some apprehension, but as students were educated, they in turn educated the adults, and in time people's fears diminished. Today, the kids and their families look forward to water testing day and the class sees 100 percent participation.

"I'm proud of what she's been doing in the classroom," said PWMS Principal Scott Bjerke of Ulmer, who still leads the program. "I think it's very impactful and meaningful, not only for the kids, but also for our own peace of mind about things that are in our drinking water."

More about the awards

The annual Star of Innovation Awards are designed to recognize MASSP member schools statewide for the development and support of exemplary and innovative educational programs. Winning programs must demonstrate a positive impact on the education and advocacy of children, have clear principal leadership in the development or implementation of the program, show creativity and imagination while bringing about positive school change, and be easily replicated at other schools.

This year's award nominations were submitted by March 1. School principals nominate their own school or a neighboring school, and a panel of acting principals pick the winners from those nominations.

MASSP is a professional educational association of more than 1,300 active and retired middle and high school administrators. The association supports, advocates for and provides professional development to its members, and is committed to improving instruction and achievement for all students.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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