Prairie Learning Academy kicks off inaugural semester

Screenshot from Prairie Learning Academy website

Updated at 7:10 p.m. Sept. 16

BROOKINGS – A new school in Brookings, the Prairie Learning Academy (PLĀ), had its first day of school Sept. 7. 

Housed in the Children’s Museum of South Dakota near downtown Brookings, the academy is a “cooperative formed by concerned area parents, educators and academics.”

Laura Woodard, a parent and the communications director for the academy, said this summer a number of parents became concerned with the growing possibility that the Brookings School District would start the year “maskless.” 

While this may have been OK for those who could get vaccinated, parents were concerned that, because children under 12 could not vaccinated and the new delta variant of COVID-19 was spreading rapidly throughout the country, children would not be safe in schools. 

As the summer wore on and the Brookings School District decided a mask mandate would not be in place for the start of classes, a group of parents and academics bonded together and began to brainstorm ideas.

Fedora Sutton, a South Dakota State University professor emerita and chief research officer at Science Visions Inc., came up with a plan to start a new school in Brookings – one that would adhere to COVID mitigation recommendations given to them by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the United States Department of Education, and “our local health experts for safe in-person learning.”

“(Dr. Fedora Sutton) is a woman of action,” Woodard said. 

Throughout the summer, parents and others involved worked together via Slack, a team communication platform, to discuss ideas and figure out the logistics of starting a new school in such a short timeframe.

“Not everyone involved has children in the school,” Woodard said. “Everyone has their own area of expertise, and everyone is very detail oriented, which helped bring this school to fruition.”

The group met throughout most of the summer on a weekly basis and founded the academy in August. 

“While the catalyst for the Prairie Learning Academy was to prioritize our children’s safety during the pandemic, our vision continues to grow,” Woodard said in a press release. “The Prairie Learning Academy’s board of directors is determined to create an innovative school which also fosters progressive, experienced-based learning for our children. Retired and active SDSU professors have expressed interest in making enrichment presentations in PLĀ classes, and several public school educators and community leaders are also enthusiastic about contributing their expertise.”

 

Mitigation strategies

According to Woodard, the school adheres to COVID-19 protocols, including masks worn at all times for teachers, volunteers and students. All teachers, volunteers and anyone else involved in the academy must also be fully vaccinated if eligible. Parents must also be masked when picking students up every day.

The academy makes use of the museums’ state-of-the-art HEPA/ionization ventilation system, ensuring the environment is safer for all students and staff, according to Sutton. The classrooms for the academy, located on the second floor of the museum, ensure enough room for physical distancing for the students. Temperature checks are also done when entering the classroom, board president Tim Clark said. Sutton said the museum allowed the academy to have a separate entrance for students and teachers. According to a press release, all surfaces will be disinfected, and personal spaces will be provided for each child’s possessions. 

As of the first day of the academy’s school year, there were 13 students enrolled, ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. According to a press release from the PLĀ, the school is for children in grades pre-K through fifth grade.

Volunteers and curriculum 

Sutton, co-founder of PLĀ, will serve as a substitute teacher and pre-K teacher for the academy. Diane Culver, of Brookings, will serve as the head teacher. Lisa Solum, a Brookings native, will serve as the assistant head teacher. 

“I will serve to instill critical thinking skills, a global perspective, and the school’s core values of integrity, perseverance and empathy,” Sutton said in a press release.

Culver, a retired elementary school teacher, said that she felt moved to volunteer when she heard about the PLĀ.

“I was left with my quilting and garden work, and I was missing the opportunity to serve. My grandchildren are all in school now, and the garden is winding down. Even though I love my quilting, I wanted something else,” Culver said. “I was missing the kids, so when this dropped in my lap, my prayer was answered.”

Culver attended Central Elementary School as a grade-schooler in Brookings, the current site of the museum where the academy is located. Culver holds a B.A. in English and a minor in history from SDSU and received her teacher certificate from Dakota State University and a middle school endorsement from SDSU. 

“I have had young children in my life for many years and now have grandchildren from pre-school to sixth grade,” Culver said. “My philosophy is that all children can learn, each with their own learning style.”

Solum will bring 32 years of teaching experience to the academy, according to a press release. She earned a B.A. in fine arts from SDSU and has illustrated three children’s books.

“I am excited about this school because I envision it as a renaissance school, which means enrichment is just as important. Subject matter must be tied together,” Solum said. “I have always told my students: ‘I want you to be a renaissance person; I want you to be a well-versed person in many subjects, not just in one area.’ I also emphasize that they each have their strengths. We can provide different learning methods to compensate for those areas that are not their strengths.

“As an adult population, we have a responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Our children can’t afford a COVID-19 exposure, which could result in something terrible happening. We need to act responsibly,” Solum added.

The PLĀ’s curriculum will meet the South Dakota state standards and will practice an “interactive learning style, incorporating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM).” The school will also teach “full American history,” according to Sutton.

“American Indian history is American history. With the help of local experts, we will introduce our children to the rich cultures and histories of American Indians,” Woodard said.  “To progress as people within our state, our children need an accurate understanding of history and a deep appreciation for cultures different than their own.”

The academy will operate Monday through Thursday, with Friday being a possible “supervised activity time for students who may need childcare/socialization time on Fridays.” Classes are held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will run until Dec. 17.  

A parent-led organization, called the PLĀ Remix, “will provide activities and childcare” in the mornings, from 7-9 a.m. and in the afternoons, from 3-5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and on Friday’s from 7 a.m. to 5:30 pm. 

The PLĀ does not require parents to pay fees. The PLĀ is a 501c-3 nonprofit and welcomes donations, which will be used for rent and supplies. 

To donate or to apply for a paid or volunteer opportunity, visit www.brookingspla.org or email PLĀ at [email protected]. While the school is currently not accepting additional students, parents are encouraged to check the website for updates.

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]

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