Progress: A second chancePublished 1:30pm Friday, March 18, 2011
Others have long since given up on many of the children who now call the Albert Lea Area Learning Center their school.
They’re students deemed “at-risk” or “troubled” by many, but not to the educators at the ALC like language arts teacher Paula Olson. It took a little time, but Olson found her true calling. She’s now helping those kids become successful members of society.
Olson didn’t always plan on a career in education. Now in her 10th year at the school, she originally received a degree in criminal justice from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. But realizing the field wasn’t for her, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom while her husband, Mark Olson, worked as a barber in Albert Lea.
At the time, Olson had the opportunity to work as the drama coach for Glenville-Emmons High School. There she found she really enjoyed working with high school kids, and after eight years at the school, decided to pursue teaching as a career. She went back to school and graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, with a degree in education. After a year of teaching at Stewartville High School, Olson landed the language arts job at the Albert Lea Area Learning Center.
She hasn’t looked back. She said it’s what she loves, and it’s what she wants to do.
“I just absolutely enjoy being around teenagers,” Olson said. “I take the good with the bad.”
The Albert Lea ALC — which is located in Brookside Education Center — is set up to help high school students succeed who are considered to be at-risk of not getting a diploma, and work toward the ultimate goal of graduation. The school, and the faculty who work there, give students a second chance.
Nicole Bliss, 17, is in her third year at the ALC and has been a student of Olson’s the entire time. She said her goal is to receive her high school diploma, and Olson is an integral part of that plan.
“She’s convincing me to stay on top of everything,” Bliss said. “She’s one of the teachers who will go out of her way to help kids.
Blake Talamantes, 18, also has been at the ALC for three years and wants to graduate this year. He said Olson is a big part of that goal, and her approach and her ability to relate to each student is the reason she is successful as a teacher.
“She’s easy-going, not too strict, but won’t let us get away with anything,” Talamantes said. “She sets out a decent outline and they’re pretty easy to follow along with.”
Olson said when a student is originally enrolled at the ALC, the school reviews the student’s credits, identifies subjects that need work, and starts the process of getting those credits recovered.
“If at all possible, the goal is to get them to graduate on time, or as close as possible,” Olson said.
And, Olson added, most do by the time they are 18 or 19.
Olson said some think working at a place like the ALC can be hazardous — and a background in criminal justice would come in handy — but she doesn’t feel that stereotype is accurate for most of her students.
“Some have had issues with getting along in society, but I really enjoy these kids,” she said. “They’re a challenge sometimes, but they’re also a real pleasure, too. I appreciate the challenges they give me. They remind me I need to be a good teacher every day, and when they are successful, it is a really inspiring thing.”
Olson said the school sometimes gets a bad reputation for being too easy, but that’s simply not accurate. She said the school follows all state standards by which other public schools have to abide, and all teachers are licensed just as they are elsewhere.
“A lot of folks think it’s easier here, but that’s a misinterpretation,” Olson said. “It’s not easier, it’s different. And because it’s different it works for these kids.”
Wendy Bidne, who has taught special education at the ALC for five years, has worked closely with Olson the entire time. She feels Olson really bonds with her students.
“If they’re struggling, they feel more comfortable talking with her,” Bidne said. “She’s pretty good at picking up when students are struggling, and she’s able to reach out. At the same time, when she has higher flyers, she tries to give them more opportunities.”
Bidne said schools like the ALC are much-needed for students who require something beyond the high school setting.
“Teachers have to be flexible with their assignments, present things differently, and still meet state standards, and go at a pace where you aren’t leaving kids behind,” Bidne said. “Being a staff member up here, you have to be patient, considerate and caring, and yet be firm, and give a little tough love.
“Paula exemplifies all of those things.”
Bidne will get no argument from Eric Van Brocklin, administrative dean at the ALC. Van Brocklin said it takes a special kind of teacher to reach out to students there.
“It comes down to a true understanding that every kid is truly unique,” he said. “They all bring something positive to the table, and they are all there because they know every kid has some good stuff. We know the traditional learning style doesn’t work for everybody, so we try new things and we’re patient. Paula certainly has all of those attributes.”
For Olson, it’s all about helping the students who were set aside by the regular system.
“I have 20 of those stories in my classroom every day,” Olson said. “That’s pretty much who our kids are; other places haven’t given them a chance, and because we are small we are able to really get to know them and give them an opportunity to find success.”
When she sees students graduate, the hard work is all worth it.
“Going to graduation and seeing these kids who are the first in their family to get their diploma, and you know there’s opportunity there because they got their high school diploma.
“When you see them graduate, then you know you’ve done a good thing,” Olson said.
Hero: Paula Olson
Secret identity: Language arts teacher, grades 10-12
Base of operations: Albert Lea Area Learning Center
Superpowers: She’s able to connect with students. “She tries to meet the different learning needs and styles of all of her students,” colleague Wendy Bidne said. “She tries to build relationships with each student.”
n says she’s her own biggest critic. She says she is always striving to improve her lesson plans and find new and interesting ways for students to learn, and she relies on colleagues for help.
Affiliations: husband, Mark Olson, barber in Albert Lea; children Bjorn, Christopher and Stephanie
Origin: Olson originally received a degree in criminal justice. After realizing it wasn’t for her, she was a stay-at-home mom for a while, working part-time as a drama coach at Glenville-Emmons High School for eight years. That time as a drama coach helped Olson recognize her real calling; teaching. She got a degree in education from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is now in her 10th year at the ALC.