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Students pitch in for new Alternative Learning Center building

Students and staff from the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium along with students and staff from Grand Meadow High School were busy at work Friday, clearing brush and tidying up a plot of land alongside Interstate 90 and Highway 56.

That plot of land, surrounded on two sides by trees, will be the future home of SMEC’s new Alternative Learning Center and the prime hunk of real estate will offer some unique opportunities for the students there.

“We needed a more central location,” said Dan Armagost, director of special education for SMEC. “We also didn’t have Level 4 program space.”

SMEC consists of students from seven different school districts along the Interstate 90 corridor and includes Alden-Conger, Glenville-Emmons, Grand Meadow, Kingsland, LeRoy-Ostrander, Lyle and Southland.

Currently, the school houses students taking part in three different levels of schooling ranging from Level 1 students, who receive a majority of their education in a regular classroom, to Level 2 students, who receive special education and services in a resource room, all the way through Level 3, which includes students who receive special education in a separate class.

What’s missing is Level 4, set aside for students who receive special education in a school that is separate from a public school setting.

Jayson Johnson uses a leaf blower to fan flames in a burn pile Friday afternoon. – Eric Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

That’s where this new facility will come into play, allowing for that education to happen.

But the school, the construction for which begins later this spring, will provide much more than that, and will include use of the land surrounding the school.

There will be outdoor activities available throughout the campus and that works into what staff wants to do at the school.

“We want to have a more project-based learning system,” Armagost said. “Give them the opportunity to educate toward their strengths, rather than their weaknesses.”

The new facility is an indication of growth for the school, which came together first in November 2016, according to Alternative Learning Center Coordinator Kathy Piller. At the time there were four students, which ballooned to 12 at the end of the same school year.

Currently there about 60 students who make use of the alternative learning center. The idea that the students themselves get to work on-site adds a level of ownership to their school.

“It’s exciting that the kids will get to see the finished project,” Piller said. “We’re moving from a one-room school house with one bathroom to a building with lots of rooms and lots of bathrooms.”

Currently, SMEC’s education takes place in an old pharmacy in Adams. One of the goals with the new facility would be to open it from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., up three hours from the current schedule of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Students clear away brush at the property purchased by Southern Minnesota Education Consortium for its new Alternative Learning Center. – Eric Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune