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A good thing growing: new building addition, teachers and programs at St. Paul's School

St. Paul's Lutheran School has had a growth spurt. The Perham parochial elementary school has added new teachers, a new full-time preschool option, new technology, a new robotics program, and an addition onto the building, all since the end of la...

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The new fourplex at St. Paul's Lutheran School has a large entryway, four classrooms and full bathrooms for boys, girls and staff. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)

St. Paul's Lutheran School has had a growth spurt.

The Perham parochial elementary school has added new teachers, a new full-time preschool option, new technology, a new robotics program, and an addition onto the building, all since the end of last school year.

Principal Jolene Wagner said the changes were necessary to accommodate rising enrollment while keeping with the school's mission to offer small class sizes, new technologies and a family-like environment.

"In the last number of years, we've had a sustained growth," Wagner said, explaining that in the past there was often variability in class size, with just a handful of kids in some classes while others were larger. Now, "all the rooms have about 13 or 14 kids."

Enrollment is expected to stay at this current level, or rise, due at least in part to the addition of a full-time preschool program this year. That option has been a draw for local parents and has brought new families into the school.

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St. Paul's is a nationally accredited school that provides a Christian-based education to students of all denominations, in preschool through sixth grade. The school building is attached to St. Paul's Lutheran Church, on 6th Avenue SW, and was built in 2006, but the school itself has been around for well over 100 years, founded in 1910.

Last year, classroom space at St. Paul's maxed out, and one of the classes got pushed to the church side of the building. School and church leaders agreed the situation was not ideal and wanted to remedy it before the start of the new school year.

"We're big on safety, so we wanted all the classrooms together, with locking doors and more security that way," Wagner said.

The building addition that opened this fall, which they've been calling "the upper wing," includes four large classrooms, full bathrooms for girls, boys and staff members, and a spacious entryway and hallway. It's a portable-style fourplex, but it's fully attached to the existing school and is handicap-accessible.

"It's not our 'forever plan,'" Wagner said, but it's built to last for years and will meet or even exceed the school's needs for the foreseeable future.

The addition houses third through sixth grades; the fifth and sixth grades are combined, so there is one room open to accommodate future growth. Construction happened in phases, starting around the fall of 2017 and finishing up about a month into this school year.

"It's been an exciting year," said Wagner. "There've been a lot of changes already, and it's only November."

The new full-time preschool option is an example of another big change that's happened. Prior to this year, St. Paul's offered a four-day-a-week, partial-day program, with kids attending either in the mornings or the afternoons. Now, parents can opt to send their kids to all day, every day preschool, Monday through Friday.

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Wagner said the feedback from parents has been "very positive - I think it's made a real big difference."

There are currently 30 kids enrolled in preschool at St. Paul's, though not all attend every day. There are never more than 20 kids in the classroom on any given day.

Smartboards have also been a fun new addition to the school. Installed in the kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms, these digital interactive displays take the place of a traditional chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of the room.

The new Smartboards complement the school's one-on-one Chromebook initiative for grades three through six; a computer lab with Chromebooks is available for the younger grades.

Students are also benefiting from the new robotics program at the school. The STEM-integrated program (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) started quietly late last school year, and is building up as it goes along this year.

Wagner said church elders held a hog roast fundraiser for the robotics program this past summer, helping to really get it off the ground. The plan is to continue to grow the program, eventually expanding its reach beyond the older St. Paul's students and into the younger grades.

More about the new teachers

With the new building addition, programs and technologies at St.Paul's comes the addition of some new teachers, too.

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Leading the preschool room now is Kerri Steinert, a Detroit Lakes resident who worked in business before going back to school to become a preschool teacher. This is her first teaching gig, though she's worked with kids before as the Children's Ministry Director at her church in Detroit Lakes.

She said she's "always wanted to be a teacher."

"I like the kids, they're fun," she said. "The excitement that they have to be at school - everything is new to them. They still have that innocence about them."

Children learn best through play, Steinert said, so she provides plenty of creative playtime in her classroom. She also works with the kids on their social and emotional skills as well as letters, numbers, shapes and colors.

She has help from a new teacher's aide in the preschool room, Rachel McLemore, whom Steinert describes as "wonderful - the kids just love her."

Teaching second grade this year is Brett Ludwig, a recent college graduate who attended a Lutheran school in his hometown of Alexandria, Minn., before going on to Minnesota State University in Moorhead to obtain a degree in elementary inclusive education.

"I've always known I wanted to be a teacher, since playing school with my brother as a kid," he said.

When he got old enough to work, Ludwig looked for jobs that allowed him to interact with kids. He worked at a vacation Bible school, a religious camp, and as a basketball coach, for example. Now that he's got his own classroom, he said, he's loving it.

"The kids are awesome," he said. "They're very energetic. I have 11 boys and three girls... It's going good."

Ludwig's approach to teaching is a "whole-student, wholistic" one, with a lot of one-on-one attention, hands-on and project-based learning, and small group work. He tries to make his classroom fun for kids, and has instituted a "Friday Fun Day," with different activities on Friday afternoons, like playtime at the park or ice cream socials.

Outside his own classroom, Ludwig has become an active planner behind the scenes of school-wide events like the recent Fall Festival and an upcoming Christmas celebration. He's also working with other school staff to help plan activities for the next National Lutheran Schools Week, coming up at the end of January. A sports fan, he wants to get back into coaching sometime soon.

"I just love being at a Lutheran school," he said of St. Paul's. "I think it's special. I like teaching about religion and Jesus every day. And I love having the smaller class sizes. It's like a little community."

Another new face at the school this year is Mary Spencer, who works as a half-time third grade teacher (Principal Wagner also teaches third grade half-time).

Not new this year, but new as a full-timer, Sarah Nies is teaching the only combined class at St. Paul's, the fifth and sixth grade class. She's been working for the school on a part-time basis for the past two years, but was bumped up to full-time this year.

A Michigan native, Nies moved to the area with her husband and their two young boys three years ago, after her husband was called to pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church of Corliss. She has years of teaching experience under her belt, having started at a Lutheran school in 2005 and working at three other schools since before coming to St. Paul's.

Like Steinert and Ludwig, Nies always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She started as a music teacher and is currently working on a master's degree in general education through Concordia University in St. Paul.

Getting to know the kids is the best thing about the job, she said: "They each approach our classroom topics, our problems, our things that we're working through, in a different way, so it's fun to pull all these viewpoints out and see them each make progress in their own way."

Nies said she's got a good group this year, and she loves that small class sizes allow her to get to know her students really well and work with them individually. She encourages them to be creative "and share their faith in everything that they do."

The new robotics program at the school has been spearheaded by Nies, and she shares her passion for technology with her students. She also incorporates a lot of hands-on activities into her teaching, and uses flexible seating in her classroom.

"My classroom philosophy is to do your best, whatever that is, and to keep growing," she said.

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Sarah Nies was bumped up to a full-time teaching position at St. Paul's after working part-time for the past two years, and Brett Ludwig is the school's new second grade teacher. Not pictured are new teachers Kerri Steinert, who teaches preschool, and Mary Spencer, who teaches third grade half-time. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)

Related Topics: EDUCATION
A writer, editor and mom of four (two kids, two dogs), Marie's been in the newspaper business for over 20 years. She started at the Detroit Lakes Tribune in 2017 after working just down the road at the Perham Focus for several years. Before that, she was at the Herald-Review in Grand Rapids, Minn.
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