Parents seek creative options for kids’ education

Kenneth Palmer

Rapid City’s population growth is contributing to an emerging trend in education. New and longtime residents increasingly want personalized, interactive learning that fits their children’s unique needs and abilities.

Innovative private schools and programs in Rapid City offer options for families who want choices beyond local public or faith-based schools.

Dakota STEAM

Dakota STEAM debuted earlier this year with summer camps. Its founders and co-owners, Jamie Bennett and Deanna Vallone, are teachers who saw a need for more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) education than kids might be getting during a typical school day, so the women created Dakota STEAM.

They take STEAM lessons to local schools and homeschoolers, and they’ll take their program to nearby communities. Bennett said Dakota STEAM is currently serving more than 100 students every week just in Rapid City schools and they want to continue reaching more kids and families.

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Bennett and Vallone partner with businesses, as well, and recently presented a Sip and STEAM event at Cohort Craft Brewery in Rapid City.

“We were really excited at the turnout. We were able to have families build STEAM projects we created,” Bennett said. “It’s a different way to bring education to the community. It’s finding those non-traditional ways of meeting families where they’re at. We’re going where the community needs us and wants us.”

STEAM activities build emotional and life skills as kids learn, Vallone said. She believes getting more kids and adults involved in STEAM education will strengthen the community as a whole.

“I just became really obsessed not only as an educator but as a parent with all the benefits of STEAM,” said Vallone, who was previously an elementary school teacher. “STEAM became my biggest passion in life. … Our community needs something for families that’s educationally based.

“The best thing about STEAM at a young age is it’s about what it builds inside of kids. As an educator and a mom, STEAM is the best way to build self-esteem. It’s the best way to develop a strong growth mindset and to know failure is a part of life and growth is the most important aspect,” Vallone said. “It helps kids believe in themselves and in this digital age, it helps them get more hands-on. It really hits the four Cs – critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. If a kid can get those four things, they’re unstoppable.”

Every STEAM lesson melds some elements of science, technology, engineering, art and/or math. For example, Vallone recently taught second-graders how to make crayon drawings and transfer them to another piece of paper. The art lesson brought in science as students studied why and how the solid crayons melted into liquid.

Such hands-on projects let students use their creativity and kids tend to remember the lessons, Vallone said.

“It really comes to life and they’re never going to forget learning it. That’s what I love about it. Kids are honoring the inquiry process and becoming curious,” she said.

STEAM lessons give kids opportunities to collaborate and share ideas, said Bennett, who taught seventh grade math for 10 years.

“Every kid solves their own unique project … but we really do believe in collaboration. Talking with somebody could spark an idea you needed to get started … and see it in another perspective,” Bennett said.

Though they share ideas, kids are encouraged to find their own distinctive ways to complete a project.

“We give them a few (guidelines) and materials. Over the course of time, we’ve seen students come to class with more confidence and understanding that they can be different than the person next to them,” Bennett said.

“We love teaching kids and we do think they’re our future,” Bennett said. “Employers will be looking for those types of (STEAM) skills. We really believe kids can do challenging tasks in learning.”

Go to dakotasteamlearning.com or follow Dakota STEAM on Facebook and Instagram for more information.

EmpowerEd

EmpowerEd will join the Festival of Lights parade with a float its students built in school. For the small school launched in fall 2021, hands-on learning and community involvement are vital parts of its curriculum.

“Things that make EmpowerEd particularly different are we believe in collaborative learning and exploring and respecting a quite diverse perspective of cultures and beliefs, as well as abilities and levels of experience and expertise,” said Angela Griffin, the founder, director and a teacher at EmpowerEd.

“We take the kids from wherever they are and whatever they know and we help them to grow from where they are,” she said. “We have kids that are struggling and behind a grade level like the entire nation is. We have other kids well above their grade level so they would be bored in normal circumstances. We’ve got some kids reading at a college level so we’re meeting them there.

“You might have a third-grade kid and their math ability might be first grade, or they might have a tenth-grade reading level but they’re supposed to be doing all the third-grade stuff. How does that help the kid?” Griffin said.

Griffin taught English and Spanish at Stevens High School while dreaming of running a school like EmpowerEd. The school focuses on student-centered learning rather than teaching kids to prepare them for standardized tests. The school’s approach to education is based on research.

“I have been dreaming of this program for 20 years. … It’s something I’ve been researching and working on,” Griffin said. “One of the things about EmpowerEd is the title itself. We believe in empowering children in their education.”

EmpowerEd is for ages kindergarten through grade 12 students, and Griffin said more families have expressed interest in enrolling their children. EmpowerEd will accept new students any time during the school year. The school uses classroom space at Calvary Lutheran Church in Rapid City, although Griffin emphasizes EmpowerEd is not a religious school.

The school currently has 11 students who learn together in a single classroom.

“We don’t separate kids out into classrooms. The research shows that kids learn better and more deeply if they are exposed to different ages and different levels (of skill and knowledge) and also if they are engaged and enjoying what they are learning,” Griffin said.

EmpowerEd incorporates social and emotional learning and physical well-being into the school day.

“We provide time and space for children to be able to go and move around and take breaks. … Everything, even down to our schedule, is based on when kids’ minds and bodies are at their best. Being research-based really helps, and kids have said (they like) the sense of community and friendship and feeling safe, and that it is fun and happy,” she said.

Every Friday, the school schedule includes a field trip and a chance for kids to get involved in community service. The students have volunteered with Meals on Wheels and Feeding South Dakota, among other projects. Field trips help kids understand the process of being engaged and giving in the community, Griffin said.

“The families and the kids really appreciate the focus on community and cultural respect,” she said.

Marty Two Bulls Jr.’s 8-year-old daughter is now in second grade at EmpowerEd, and Two Bulls serves on the board of directors. Two Bulls said his daughter began attending EmpowerEd after the COVID-19 pandemic began but public schools were not requiring masks.

“We felt like (EmpowerEd) was a safer option for her, and she enjoys the smaller learning environment,” Two Bulls said. “There aren’t the same restrictions around learning about Indigenous history as there are in public schools.”

Two Bulls is an artist. He created the graphic arts program at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle and is a full-time faculty member there. He volunteers at EmpowerEd by teaching art lessons for the students.

Two Bulls said his daughter likes going to school.

“She’s a lot more confident, especially (when she’s) engaging with her community and adults,” he said. “There’s a different culture of inclusion and students have a voice in their education.”

Justin and Emily Huntley’s home has become tri-lingual since their 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son began attending EmpowerEd. The family’s heritage is German and Swedish, so their daughter, who has dyslexia, is learning German and and their son is studying Swedish.

“Suddenly she’s talking with my father-in-law, who speaks German,” Emily said. “We say good night in German every night.”

Like the Two Bulls family, the Huntleys were uncomfortable with the lack of COVID-19 precautions in public schools and that was one aspect that drew them to EmpowerEd.

The Huntleys said their children are thriving in the personalized environment. Each student has a learning plan tailored to the way they learn and their interests.

Justin said he was skeptical of the school’s approach to education but now has volunteered to be president of EmpowerEd’s school board after seeing the school’s positive effect on his son and daughter. Emily likes being able to go in and volunteer anytime her work schedule permits.

“The students are not just expected to hit a certain measure. They truly are able to develop a knowledge base,” Emily said.

Go to empoweredbh.org or follow EmpowerEd on Facebook for more information.

Black Hills Montessori

As Rapid City’s population grows, so does the interest in Montessori education.

“I think a lot of people moving here … are familiar with Montessori schools. Their children have already been in the programs and they want their children to be in Montessori schools. It’s a lot more normalized in other areas,” said Monica Sorensen, director of Black Hills Montessori.

“We’ve had a ton of families move here from out of state and immediately they already know what Montessori is. We practice traditional Montessori here and the families that seek traditional Montessori call us,” she said.

Montessori education is focused on learning and how to support learning. Traditional Montessori follows a child’s natural development and what’s appropriate for them, Sorensen said. Children are given lessons based on their developmental path.

“I just think parents are understanding that children aren’t the blank slate model where we give them information and that’s how knowledge occurs,” Sorensen said. “They really need to have a hands-on experience in order to learn. I think (the importance of) how we learn is becoming more apparent in people’s school choices.”

Black Hills Montessori serves preschool through sixth-grade students, and Sorensen said the school will be adding an adolescent program as the need arises. Rapid City currently doesn’t have a Montessori option for kids beyond elementary school.

“We also have an outdoor program component we implement because we (are situated on) four acres. Kids can develop fine and gross motor skills in an outdoor environment. We’re the only school that provides that option,” she said. 

Finding alternatives to traditional public education is a trend Sorensen said this generation of parents is exploring more frequently. Though she’s getting calls from families who are new to Rapid City, Sorensen said she’s seeing an equal amount of interest from locals.

“There’s a lot of kids on IEPs (individualized education programs) and Montessori typically does its own individual education plan, so they’re looking for something that is a better fit for their children,” Sorensen said.

The school’s enrollment is 38 students now. Sorensen anticipates the school could build and expand as needed within the next year or two.

Because of the rising demand for Montessori education, she’s starting South Dakota’s first Montessori teacher training program in 2023.

“I think it’s important to have (Montessori) teacher training. … I’m starting the Montessori project because I want to help people start schools so they have options. We need to have alternatives and we need to have alternatives in the preschool area,” Sorensen said.

Follow Black Hills Montessori on Facebook or email [email protected] for more information.

Children’s House Montessori

Children’s House Montessori in Rapid City recently expanded and anticipates more growth ahead.

“I definitely am seeing more people who are moving here from out of state. I’m seeing a lot of new inquiries … and especially for those families that know Montessori already. Either their child has gone or currently goes, and they definitely want to be at a Montessori school,” said Michelle Kagarmanov, director of Children’s House Montessori. “I get a lot of calls from people moving to the area wanting to know what enrollment is like and is there a waitlist.”

The school is also being contacted by local families who are looking for options.

“Wherever they are now, it’s not working for their child and they’re looking for alternatives, and they’re questioning that paradigm (of public school),” Kagarmanov said.

Children’s House Montessori has grown over the past two or three years as the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of new residents in the Black Hills has resulted in more parents seeking education options.

“I do foresee, maybe five years from now, we’ll probably be in a similar position of needing more space. It seems like more and more families are seeking alternatives to public education – something other than one size fits all,” Kagarmanov said. “People aren’t just assuming they’re going to send their child to public school anymore. The pandemic really shook things up in that regard. A lot of families changed their viewpoint.”

Children’s House Montessori has had an enrollment of about 80 students ages 3 to 12 in preschool through sixth grade, Kagarmanov said. The addition this year of a separate preschool and kindergarten location will allow it to nearly double its capacity and serve up to 120 students. Kagarmanov anticipates the school could reach full enrollment by next year.

Children’s House Montessori uses hands-on learning and Montessori curriculum to teach to state standards.

“Our goal is student-centered education,” Kagarmanov said. “When we’re doing our teaching and our learning, the expectation is we’re developing a relationship with the child. Before any learning can take place, that relationship has to be established.”

The school emphasizes collaboration rather than competition between students, and it incorporates social and emotional skills such as inclusion and conflict resolution.

“Students have to feel nurtured and secure and safe in the classroom, and it sets the stage for some really good learning,” she said.

The Montessori method of learning uses handheld materials to teach academic standards. Students might work individually or in groups to use the materials to solve a problem or work on a project.

“It allows students to learn in different ways, so rather than ‘we’re all going to learn the same way today,’ we’re all going to learn the same thing today,” Kagarmanov said.

She believes Montessori education gives students skills that will serve them well into adulthood.

“You’re building up this capacity of ‘I am figuring this out myself’ and isn’t that amazing? You can teach people to learn that, so eventually when they graduate, they are capable to do jobs that require creativity and capability,” she said. “The kind of jobs I believe are going to be available (when students enter the workforce) are not the ones where you go in and make (an object). That’s not what our workforce needs.”

Go to chkids.net or follow Children’s House Montessori on Facebook for more information. 

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