All lights will be out and the doors locked at Clarkfield Area Charter School for Labor Day next Monday. But it will be an important occasion for the school nonetheless. The day will mark the tenth anniversary since the school first opened its doors to students on September 4, 2007.
Kathy Koetter was present to welcome students that day as a special education teacher. Today she is still working at the school and greets students every morning. She has served the past eight years as Director, which is similar to a principal. CACS offers classes for preschool through sixth grade.
Koetter recalled the early days of the school. “The current preschool room was a lunchroom, gym—whatever it needed to be. Students went outside for recess no matter the weather,” she said.
That changed in 2008 when Ron and Bob Schlenner, the owners of the building, stepped up to build a half-million dollar gymnasium, which included an additional classroom. The Schlenners have served as landlords with the school’s best interests in mind since the beginning. Nearly all the rent they have received has been poured back into the building. A new roof coating was applied over the north end of the school and new carpet has been installed in classrooms and the main hallway this summer.
For most of the ten years, the kitchen has been off-site and meals were catered to the students. After years of deliberation, the school board decided to build a new $100,000 kitchen, which opened in April 2016. Another change was the addition of the preschool program in 2012.
Koetter is proud of the school and the quality of education students receive. “If education is your priority, this is the school to come to,” she remarked. Koetter firmly believes CACS is the best school in the area.
That’s not an empty boast. In the most recent state proficiency test results this month, 25% more CACS students achieved academic proficiency that the state average in public schools. CACS students’ proficiency in reading was 85%, compared to a state average of 60%. CACS students also achieved an 85% proficiency in math, compared to a state average under 60%. All nine fifth grade students met the proficiency standard in science. (Only fifth graders are tested in science.) The statewide average is under 60%.
The students at CACS have consistently scored above the state average. Koetter attributes the high test scores to a high quality staff and small classes, which allows for individual attention to students’ learning needs. The school has its fair share of special-needs students, but extra effort from staff and students alike has created a positive academic environment for everyone.
Two new teachers will preside over the upper grades this fall. Zachery Hendrickson will be the fifth and sixth grade homeroom teacher. He will teach reading to grades 3-6. This will be the second year of teaching for Hendrickson. Last year he taught fifth and sixth grade at Westside Summit Charter School in St. Paul. Zachery and his wife Sarah moved to Clarkfield this summer with their two children. Ironically, they purchased the house of the CACS teacher he is replacing, Nicole Lindsheid. Hendrickson also served four years in the army, posting three years at Fort Wainwright in North Pole, Alaska.
“I’m really excited to be here at the school and part of the community,” Hendrickson said.
The other new teacher this fall is Jason VanEngen. He will be the third and fourth grade homeroom teacher and will instruct students in math for grades 3-6. He also will be the physical education teacher. VanEngen lives in Canby with his wife Casie and their three children. He has previously taught at Echo Charter School, serving three years as Director.
“I’m really excited to be here in Clarkfield,” VanEngen said. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about the school. I’ve seen the test scores. They are unbelievable,” he added.
Hendrickson was impressed with the CACS test scores as well. “They are 30% above the state average,” he echoed.
The two new teachers have something in common. Both of their wives had babies in June. The VanEngens had a daughter and the Hendricksons had a son.
The school year will begin for students on Tuesday, September 5. CACS follows nearly the same calendar as Yellow Medicine East.
One common misconception about charter schools is that they charge tuition like private schools. But charter schools are, in fact, a form of public schools with free tuition. Director Koetter often encounters this misunderstanding with parents in the community.
“Sometimes we miss getting new students because parents think we charge tuition. But we don’t. We’re a free school,” she emphasized.
Koetter doesn’t know exactly how many students will walk in the door next week. She is projecting a total of 70-75 students, including the preschool. However many faces there are, she will be there to greet them and welcome everyone to a new school year, the eleventh, at CACS.