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Innovation Zone is on the right track

Innovation Zone is on the right track
Posted: Saturday, August 22, 2015 6:00 am in the Prior Lake American


By John Diers
Fads come and go in public education. They promise a lot, cost a lot of money and often fail to deliver improved academic performance – and sometimes make it worse. Prior Lake has a top-notch school system. Thanks to a strong teaching staff, administration and a forward-thinking school board, its innovations have taken hold and been highly successful.

Last Saturday’s Prior Lake American carried a story on a new program the board is considering that I think is going to be a winner for the district and the kids.

Young people have different skills and abilities, and levels of emotional maturity, and learn and grow up at different rates. What they finally do in life may not resemble what they wanted to be at age 15 or 16. In the ’50s, when I was attending Bloomington High School, there were three doors and a one-size-fits-all approach to public education. One door opened to an academic curriculum and college, another to vocational training and trade school. The so-called bright kids looked down on them as “dim-witties.” Girls were generally shuttled off to a third door—typing and secretarial classes or home economics. Those not so inclined were encouraged to look at teaching or nursing.

One exceptionally bright girl I remember was encouraged by a school counselor and wanted to go to medical school but was told by her mother that people had no faith in women doctors and that medical school, for her, was a waste of time and money.

I was interested in journalism and public transportation, specifically railroads, but was told that I’d have to wait for college for journalism, or work on the school paper, which wasn’t about ideas at all, but instead about proms and the football team. I was shy around girls and had no interest in sports and no athletic ability whatsoever. As for railroads, a counselor advised me there was no future in the railroad or transit industry. Freeways were the future—which left me with memorizing passages from “Beowulf,” diagramming sentences and attending an uninspiring succession of math and science classes.

The two fun classes, German and American History, were made so by the enthusiasm of the teachers. In American History, I was given an opportunity to do a research paper about the building of the transcontinental railroad and got an A. Otherwise, I was bored, frustrated and never happier in my whole life than when I graduated in 1962 and walked away —never to look back.

But that was then and this is now, and Prior Lake students, if plans come together, will have an opportunity that wasn’t there for me, specifically to explore how their interests and aptitudes might lead to careers in the real world. It’s called an Innovation Zone, and it’s being put together in partnership with the Lakeville School District and local businesses, governments and nonprofits. It’s a practicum that lets high school juniors and seniors apply their learning to problem solving in a professional environment while, at the same time, completing their requirements for graduation. Students will spend half the day working on projects with professionals in a work-based setting, gaining actual experience in an area that interests them.

If this comes to pass, the school districts will spend the coming year working out the details in a joint powers agreement, engaging businesses, government entities and nonprofits and preparing a curriculum. The school board will have its say on Aug. 24. I hope they give it a thumbs up.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)