Going above and beyond for all at Lake Mills

Published 9:00 am Sunday, March 15, 2020

School district does whatever it takes to help students at all levels succeed both in and out of the classroom


LAKE MILLS — At the start of just about every class, Weston Menuey greets art teacher Brook Christianson with a big hug. Jacob Olson then comes in, and greets Christianson with a smile or nod of his head. As other students filter into the classroom, each greets Christianson in their own way before setting about working on their art projects.

The best education possible for every single student is what Lake Mills school district staff hope to provide, no matter how above and beyond the teachers, paraprofessionals and even the students have to go.

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“We want every kid to feel successful and feel belonging,” Christianson said. 

Olson, a senior, has been a student of Christianson’s for about four years. Olson uses a wheelchair, but Christianson wasn’t going to let that stop him from being able to participate in ceramics class.

Christianson, an art teacher in Lake Mills for about six years, found an old electric potter’s wheel and took it to the shop class teacher to see what could be done to modify it for Olson. Thanks to students Trae Butler and Drake Harnish, the wheel was adapted with a switch on top to turn it on and off and was raised so Olson’s wheelchair could fit underneath.

While there was some hesitancy for Olson at first when using the potter’s wheel, according to Christianson, he eventually became more interested. She said it now seems like working with the clay is soothing to him.

“Even though Jacob can’t talk to us, you can definitely tell that he feels part of it,” Christianson said. 

Menuey, a freshman, is in his first year of school in the Lake Mills district. Menuey was born with Down syndrome. Christianson said it seems like being task-oriented and using a timer helps Menuey thrive in school. For example, he’ll come into the class and chop up dry clay for Christianson — one of his favorite tasks — for the first few minutes of class, before his timer tells him when to clean up and then get to work on his project.

The ability for Christianson and other teachers to better understand the ways they can help their students succeed and participate wouldn’t be possible without paraprofessionals like Tammy Hesse and Becky Hengesteg, Christianson said.

“They are exceptional helpers, and they are amazing,” Christianson said of the paras. “I throw out some ideas, but they do a lot of the work. They deserve a lot of credit.”

For Hesse, a para with Lake Mills for about 23 years, the school district’s efforts to include all students are always apparent in the ways they adapt equipment, lessons, projects and anything else they need to so that every student has the chance to succeed. 

“I’ve worked with many students throughout the years, and every student is different. They have different needs and you have to adapt to what their needs are to make them successful,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from working with these students.”

Christianson, the art teacher for Lake Mills middle school and high school students, said elementary school art teacher Gretchen Kingland has provided adaptive art classes for students as well. 

The inclusion efforts also extend outside of art classes, including into the music department. 

While Lake Mills band teacher Nate Sletten said Olson isn’t able to attend regular practices or band class due to his school schedule, he has regularly performed with both the marching band and the concert band. A drum pad was created to fit on Olson’s wheelchair, and Sletten said drumsticks were modified so they could attach to Olson’s wrists. 

“We love having him along, because he obviously loves music,” he said. “When we’re playing in concerts or when he’s sitting in the front line playing his drum pad, he’s just got a big smile on his face.”

Sletten, a teacher for about 12 years — three of them in Lake Mills, said when Olson is passing the band room with one of his paras, he sometimes stops in to play some music as well.

“He loves music, so he should be able to participate,” he said. “That’s what we do here at Lake Mills, is we allow students that want to participate to participate.”

The Lake Mills marching band welcomes every student to participate, even the athletes competing in the same game the marching band is attending. It is not uncommon to see marching band members in football pads or cheerleading uniforms during the band’s halftime performances, Sletten said.

In addition to music and art classes, both Olson and Menuey are involved with Special Olympics. Olson has participated in track, while Menuey will try basketball and track this year after taking part in bowling at his previous school. Menuey is also in Student Council at Lake Mills.

Christianson said the overall goal is to give each of their students the tools to continue to succeed and learn, and to teach them to be better, even and especially after they graduate.

“The staff as a whole, especially in the arts, are able and willing and wanting to provide extra,” she said. “It is for those students, so that they can learn new things and learn new skills, but it’s also good for the other students to see that inclusion and be open to students who are different than them.”

The school district’s efforts are also ever-expanding, as in December Christianson was planning to meet with the town’s parks and recreation department about developing a community art program to pair up people living with disabilities with others to work on regular projects. 

“I think these kids have inspired me to do more,” she said. “There’s other people in the community, and when these kids graduate, I don’t want it to be the end of it. I want them to still be able to do things with others and do things like others, meet new people, because they are part of our community.

“I think Lake Mills is a really cool town in that way, that we accept everybody in the community and we want them to be successful.”


By the numbers

6: Years Brook Christianson has been an art teacher in Lake Mills

4: Years Jacob Olson has been in one of Christianson’s art classes

23: Years Tammy Hesse has been a paraprofessional with Lake Mills


See more 2020 Progress stories here.


About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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