Spirit Lake School District Takes Education Outside of the Box


School’s Partnership with Lutheran Lakeside Camp Positively Changes the Lives of Children

The joyful sounds of children running around Lutheran Lakeside Camp generally is the norm during the summer months, but often unfamiliar sounds throughout the rest of the year—until 2020-2021. Since August 24, 2020, Spirit Lake seventh graders have had the privilege of spending their school days at the camp, using the facilities and grounds to their full capacity.

“Lakeside has been thrilled to partner with Spirit Lake Schools, and I think this partnership is a testament to what is possible when we think outside of the box, get creative, and all work together in times of need,” Lakeside’s Executive Director Brittney Swanson said.

With COVID-19 closing schools last spring, the Spirit Lake School District desired to find the best way to hold in-person school for the new year, while also protecting the health of students and staff. Despite major building projects at both the elementary and middle schools, all classrooms throughout the three buildings were enlarged and desks were each positioned six feet apart. Because of the distancing, more space was needed.

At the beginning of August, administration began searching for additional locations off campus.

“As a district, we put a priority on getting students back to school in the safest way possible. Lutheran Lakeside Camp was a great option for us with its close location to our school campus and the classroom space it provided,” Middle School Principal Terry Bruinsma said.

Because of their age, the school decided to keep fifth and sixth grades at the school campus.

“It seemed like the perfect fit to move the seventh grade students to camp,” Bruinsma explained. “Fourth graders were also moved into the middle school, and eighth grade students were moved to reconfigured space at the high school, which will, in the end, ease both of their transitions to their future buildings as true middle and high school students.”

Transformational Education
Bringing 100 students to camp every day opened educational possibilities not normally thought possible before the move, at least not on a regular basis.

“We have been encouraged to use the resources at the camp (ropes course, walking/biking trails, East Lake), and the kids are able to get a unique experience that no one else in the state is probably able to receive,” Social Studies teacher Ross Ackerman said. “It is also nice to go to work and see the lake every day!”

In the fall, several boys would bring their fishing poles and enjoy lake time before the school day started. Other kids were dropped off for the day by boat.

On Fridays, Physical Education teacher Andrew Lundgren declares it “camp day,” and students can be a camper for the period, whether it is biking, making forts, playing carpetball, doing cartwheels, throwing a football or playing basketball. Once snow falls, students can cross country ski, snowshoe, or make snow forts.

“I think having a dedicated space for just seventh graders has enabled this group of students to really grow in their relationships with each other and the staff,” Bruinsma said. “The extensive outdoor space also allows for students to be outside for much more of their learning time. It's created a relaxed atmosphere conducive to quality learning opportunities. It might be hard for students and staff to return to their ‘traditional’ spaces back on campus in the future.”

During a science unit with Art Hellert in November, the students launched their personally customized rockets high into the air to collect and track data. The wide-open areas provided more room than normally available, and if rockets went farther than expected, students would track them down during nature hikes. During other projects, Hellert would take the students outside and show the students firsthand science topics, rather than just reading about the information from a book.

When weather was nice, other teachers also moved their classrooms outside into the fresh air. Craig Tillotson would have students read under the light breeze of the trees and sounds of the waves coming off East Lake Okoboji.

“We wanted to allow students to appreciate the world of nature around them, taking time to look at the lake, trees/plants, and the animals,” Math teacher David Frostestad explained. “The setting or environment of the camp gives students the chance to experience these things maybe more than they would otherwise, and I believe all of the teachers have done a great job of incorporating lessons that use the camp’s many resources to enrich the students' learning.”

Frostestad also had his students complete several math projects that involved nature and math. For instance, the students had to measure the circumference of a tree and then divide by Pi (3.14) to find the diameter. Next, students had to identify what type of tree they measured. Based on the diameter and species, students then generated a table to discover the tree's estimated age.

Another project the students finished for math was to explore the camp looking for "natural" geometric shapes found in nature. They took pictures and put together a slideshow to share with their classmates.

Ackerman and Frostestad also teach an exploratory class together called “Life Skills,” which was created this year partly since seventh grade was spending the year at camp rather than in the traditional school setting. Students have enacted a "search and rescue" using the campgrounds, participated/used the camp’s 9-square, human foosball court, ropes course, bike/walking trails and utilized the camp’s soccer field to learn and play several lifetime sports. Ackerman also led students through a unit on boating safety.

“We are also using the space and trails for cross country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter,” Ackerman added. “Overall, the space is the biggest luxury that we have. The opportunity to do things outdoors while spacing out gives us a lot of freedom. I would just say that I am extremely lucky to work with staff and administration, who are flexible and adaptable and care about the students of our community.”

Frostestad believes having the seventh graders out at the camp has been a positive experience for both the students and staff.  “Really, a breath of fresh air amidst a global pandemic!  Our own peaceful respite/island!” he said.

Adapting to Change
Moving an entire grade off campus has created several logistical issues. For one, how does the school move students back and forth? However, with Lutheran Lakeside Camp only a short two miles southeast of the school campus, it has made it easier for parents to drop off or buses to be able to go back and forth. The short distance was also a reason why the two entities decided this was a good partnership.

“I was very impressed with the school’s ability to see our camp and picture their classes here. This is not a traditional relationship, but we are just so happy to have the space and offer it to the school, and that everyone is so willing to adapt

and move forward positively and with that attitude." change to "school. We're also thankful everyone is so willing to adapt and move forward positively, and with this attitude and work ethic, anything is possible," Swanson shared.

The difficulties for the school district with the location have been minimal and nothing related to students. Bruinsma said it has been mainly working through logistics and management of time and resources.

“We have shared staff members, like many of our specials teachers, who have to travel back and forth between our regular school campus and the camp,” he said. “We have to make sure our schedules align properly for the benefit of students, which took some time to get used to. However, our staff has done a wonderful job of meeting our students' needs through these changes.”

Teachers and students have also had to adjust to different shuttle bus situations throughout the day, as well as not having the other grade level colleagues, support staff, and administration/office personnel nearby.

“There are days we have to be our own self-sufficient ‘island,’” Frostestad said.

The school is using the Main Lodge as their central location, rotating classes between the three rooms in the large building and allowing each of the classes to be able to utilize the different classroom settings. The science building is a short distance down the trail, which means students carry their backpacks filled with school supplies, since there no lockers.

It means Art teacher Cheri O’Hagan doesn’t have a sink or extra space for drying art projects, which can make art a bit more difficult. She said she has adapted and makes use of unused bunk beds and the piano bench at times.

In many ways, this year’s seventh grade students are getting a taste of a future college campus experience.

“I think students are enjoying the change of scenery and the uniqueness of the situation,” Frostestad said. “I also think seventh grade students are seeing the benefits of being the only grade level at the camp, and this is bolstering their ability to be themselves!”

Future Partnerships
Spirit Lake use of the camp extensively for school this year has opened their eyes to the possibilities of using the space more often with more groups of students.

“The camp offers a different type of atmosphere and learning experience that cannot be replicated in the traditional classrooms,” Bruinsma shared. “Throughout the district, we continue to plan specific and targeted instruction related to life skills.”

The school is continuously looking for numerous opportunities for learning experiences related to leadership, service, critical thinking, problem solving, physical and mental wellness.

“The camp and its staff have been so welcoming of our students and school, and they present many opportunities and advantages that we can foresee the district capitalizing on which we know will benefit all students,” Bruinsma said. “The camp has provided for an unusual experience for our students with great outdoor spaces for learning and growing. Having access to 100+ acres along beautiful East Lake Okoboji has also been a truly unique educational opportunity for our students. Our seventh graders are having a wonderful experience of attending school at Lutheran Lakeside Camp.”

2020 has been difficult all around for everyone, but Spirit Lake’s willingness to think outside the box during the chaos has created an unforeseen positive situation for the school district and camp, fulfilling different portions of both their mission statements in new ways – most of all, positively changing the lives of children within our community.