Science-focused middle school opens in Como Park

Olin Jensen and George Cave plant seeds during a project at the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture Middle School. (Photo by Jessica Hilimanowski)

Olin Jensen and George Cave plant seeds during a project at the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture Middle School. (Photo by Jessica Hilimanowski)

The Academy for Sciences and Agriculture (AFSA) High School in Vadnais Heights has opened a middle school campus in the Como Park neighborhood.

The Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council opened AFSA High School in 2001 with 39 students and six teachers in a rented space in Roseville. The school moved into its current facility in Vadnais Heights in 2005. Additional grades were slowly added, and soon the school was educating more than 300 students in grades 7 through 12 from more than 20 districts in Minnesota.

But families wanted more.

AFSA’s mission to “engage students in academically rigorous, student-centered learning experiences and leadership opportunities within a science and agricultural context,” along with its nontraditional approach to education, was appealing to families who desired the same experience for their younger children, said Becky Meyer, AFSA’s director of education.

“We knew we had many families interested in a middle school, and it is also important to try and start a relationship with students sooner in their schooling and have longer contact with them to ensure their success,” she explained. “But it’s a very lengthy process to add grades.”

In March, the school’s board approved the addition of grades 5 and 6, and this fall, AFSA opened a middle school that will eventually serve grades 5 through 8.

The new school is temporarily housed in the former school building at the Church of the Holy Childhood at 1435 Midway Parkway. The board is searching for a permanent location, which it hopes will be in the Como area, Meyer said.

“We love Como,” she said. “There are so many potential partnerships in the area for our students, especially the University of Minnesota-St. Paul Campus.”

AFSA is a tuition-free, public charter school operating under the authorization of the Audubon Center of the North Woods. It offers core curriculum that meets or exceeds state standards and adheres to state graduation requirements. As a science- and agriculture-focused school, AFSA also offers courses in plant, food, animal and environmental sciences and engineering. Students in the lower grades explore a range of science-focused classes as their chosen electives, while the high school students choose between plant science, food science or animal science to specialize in.

“We are not teaching farming,” emphasized John Gawarecki, AFSA’s middle school director, who has been the high school chemistry and physics teacher for the past 10 years. “Minnesota has many large, successful companies [that] are interested in employees with a deep understanding of a variety of science disciplines and possess a strong sense of agriculture literacy.”

Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of jobs in the United States, and AFSA offers its students a wide breadth of science and agriculture understanding that will serve them well in today’s economy, said Gawarecki. Possible science-based careers range from veterinarians, ecologists, engineers and nutritionists to architects, marketing specialists, specialized journalists, sales representatives and attorneys.

AFSA incorporates team, project-based and hands-on learning into the curriculum.

“Our students graduate with an understanding of how important it is to cooperate with their colleagues and learn from each other, as well as from real-life experiences,” said Meyer.

Those real-life experiences often come in the form of off-site excursions and international trips. Students from the high school have visited Costa Rica and Ireland. Twice a year, AFSA closes the school for a week and offers students a variety of special projects and trips, including fishing outings and visits to the International Wolf Center in Ely and area museums. Students often visit the U or some of AFSA’s corporate partners, such as General Mills or Cargill, for an immersive experience in science and agriculture.

“We want our students to get their hands dirty, sometimes literally,” Gawarecki said. “Hands-on, real-life experience is just as valuable as classroom learning, sometimes more so.”

All AFSA students are automatic members of the AFSA FFA chapter and have a range of activities, workshops and clubs available to them, including Youth in Government, National Honor Society, FIRST Robotics, athletics and drama. Students are also encouraged to participate in competitions, such as food science, communications, small animal and agriculture sales events.

While AFSA offers all the liberal arts classes required by state standards, potential students should have a strong interest in science and agriculture.

“Students here are dedicated to science and agriculture,” Gawarecki said. “We are very proud of what we offer our students, but this may not be the place for the next Michael Jordan. We hope that parents consider AFSA as well as what is the best fit for their children.”

Alex Lodner is a freelance writer who lives in the Como Park neighborhood.

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