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What You See and What You Don’t See

What You See and What You Don’t See: A Tour of Mankato’s Dakota Meadows Middle School
Minnesota Media, Winter 1993

On this tour of our newest school here in I.S.D 77, there will be plenty of things to see: bright colors, lots of computers, and excited kids. But on this tour, I’m also going to show you some things which aren’t as readily visible: planning, leadership, and vision. So hold on. Keep you arms and legs inside the tram at all times, and be ready for those Kodak moments.  Now on your scenic left….

I.  Entering the Building
The low, long building built of light brown brick, gold Kasota stone and blue metal sits on the bluffs of the Minnesota River on the northwest edge of North Mankato. Here prairie grasses once grew higher than heads of the Dakota Native Americans who lived in this area. The name was chosen by the school’s (future) students after they studied the area in a multidisciplinary unit the year before the school opened. The spiritual leaders of the Dakota tribe were consulted to make sure it was understood that Dakota in the name was a tribute.

There are three main entrances to the building: one for students getting off buses which leads directly to lockers and classrooms, one for participants and visitors to sporting events and other community activities near the gym and commons areas, and one for parents and other guests which opens to a spacious lobby in front of the office.  Closed circuit televisions in the office and throughout the public areas of the building remind everyone of the day’s events and offer a thoughtful saying. The building design was heavily influenced by a number of factors including multiple facility visits by the building steering committee to schools throughout the state (and Sioux Falls). People came back with ideas about what made them feel more welcome at some schools than at others.

The building steering committee consisted of teachers, students, parents, businesspersons, and Mankato State University faculty members, all led by principal Jane Schuck. This committee met over 50 hours and made major decisions about building design and the educational philosophy served by the design.

Only 22 months went by from the time the bond issue passed, and the first student opened a notebook in the new school.

The main office is only one area in the central “service core.” The guidance center, community education office, a staff lounge and workroom, and a large conference room are located here as well. The building committee recognized that schools are more and more serving whole communities, not just children. The building at 121,000 square feet was built for about $65 per square foot (80% of what many suburban schools are being built for today). The building is air conditioned, and is expected to be used throughout the year - not just from September to May.

II. The Media Center
The academic wing of the building is built around the media center so that every student has easy access to the resources it holds. This large “open” area with high ceilings and dramatic lights has no doors separating it from the rest of the school. The center holds many traditional materials: books (most of them paperbacks), magazines, newspapers, and even a vertical file. However grouped around the circulation desk are 10 research computers. Here students access the electronic card catalog, networked CD-Roms, and electronic atlases. Virjean Griensewic, the media specialist, was a member of the building steering committee, and was hand-picked to serve as the building’s new media specialist. She is an acknowledged expert in the district on using technology to access and communicate information. She supervises a library secretary, a computer technician, and a computer lab aide.

The furniture in shades of teal, burgundy, and royal blue was chosen for warmth and to match the rest of the school’s color scheme. Much of the furniture is a comfortable lounge style - not unlike furniture in a facility created for adults! A professional decorator was hired to work with the colors in all the new buildings in the district. It shows. There’s not a lot of seating in the media center except at a computer. This media center is designed to be a learning laboratory, an intellectual gymnasium, not a studyhall or holding area.

The media center holds three computer labs - a new Macintosh LCII lab, an old DOS machine lab, and an Apple // lab. All are used for writing, keyboarding and instruction. A Discourse lab will be installed in a classroom yet this fall. Locating the computer labs in the media center reflects the idea that the media program’s role is to help students work with information regardless of format. Increasingly the things people need to know come in a digital format. Twenty percent of the world’s information is now stored and accessed electonically, but that will grow to ninety-five percent by the year 2000.

A small workroom behind the media specialist’s office contains the communication hub of the school. In this small room are located: one of the two main file servers for the building, the distributed video system, and phone system. Every classroom in the building has a computer terminal, a 27” color television monitor/receiver, and a telephone. Over five miles of unseen wire feed into this room. (And Virjean knows where every wire goes!) This design permits the entire school to become a “virtual” library of networked information, and will allow students to not just access information, but use it in classes to construct their own learning experiences. The banked videodecks, videodisc players, and cable converters are controlled from the classrooms with the teacher’s telephone hand sets.

All the computers in the media center’s research area, in the classrooms, and in the teacher and administrative offices are on a Novell Ethernet network. As Ms Schuck insisted, “I want all my computers to be able to talk to each other.”

Jane’s vision has also been for a paperless school. The networked computers allow teachers to communicate with e-mail, and submit attendance and grades to the office. Soon the Internet will be accessible from each of these networked computers as well, opening the entire world to the students and staff of Dakota Meadows.

III. The Classrooms
The 24 classrooms are arranged into a seventh grade wing and an eight grade wing. Each wing holds two trails of 6 classrooms each. This is a school designed as much by teachers as by architects. The entire faculty has completed 157 hours of middle school coursework, and as a group took many of the classes together. They found that studies have consistently shown that middle school students do best in smaller groups, and helped design the school to work with the “house” concept.  At Dakota Meadows these houses are called “trails.” Every middle school student here stays with the same 160 classmates and seven teachers throughout the day. Fewer kids get “lost” with this arrangement

As well as the networked computers, phones, and televisions, nearly all classrooms have racks of paperback books in them. Last summer all the teachers took a 70 hour reading course, and as a result, everyone at Dakota Meadows starts the day with 10 minutes of quiet reading. The rest of the beginning homeroom period is used for an advisor/advisee program.

Each trail has a teacher work area with individual modular deskspaces, networked computers and a laser printer for its seven teachers.  All regular classroom teachers in a trail have common planning periods.  The common office space contributes to collaboration and cross-curricular planning. As one teacher puts it, “We talk together every day. We can say ‘This kid is failing in all our classes.’ We know it within a week instead of six months.”

IV. The “Special Areas”
The technical education area consists of 6 large units of 4 workstations each.  At these workstations students might make a computerized animated movie, program a robot, or test a car design for its aerodynamics. The science rooms are using probes connected to Apple // computers to run and record experiments. The music department’s suite of band, choir, offices, and classrooms contains MIDI lab keyboards with a computer interface for music instuction and composition. These areas all demonstrate the school’s philosophy that technology is a tool which can be used to enhance one’s natural abilities - whether those abilities are analytical, artistic, or kinetic.

V. Getting Beyond the Walls
Well, folks, please wait until this vehicle comes to a complete stop before getting off. Make sure you’ve collected all your belongings, and exit to the right.

Someday when you come back for the longer tour, I can show you Dakota Meadow’s sister “technology” schools: expanded Eagle Lake Elementary and remodeled West High School. Or we can look at how all Mankato’s schools are working to expand their walls by creating a wide-area network for communication between buildings, by working on cooperative efforts with the university and business communities, and by bringing community members into the schools as advisors, co-workers, and allies.

Jane Schuck and her dedicated staff have demonstrated how planning, philosophy, leadership, and vision build a school. These things may not be as visible as a computer, window, or desk, but they can be seen the faces of our involved, successful children.

Come again soon.

School:        Dakota Meadows Middle School, 1900 Howard Drive, North Mankato MN 56003
Superintendant:        Dr. Paul Beilfuss
Principal:        Ms. Jane Schuck
Media Specialist:        Ms. Virjean Griensewic
Architects:        KSPA Architectural Firm
General Contractor:    Joseph Construction Company

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2007 at 10:33AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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