Owatonna Public Schools offers students diverse experiences and a curriculum that prepares them for future careers.
If you’re looking for a school system that’s incredibly supported by — and connected to — its local business community, look no further than Owatonna, Minnesota. Owatonna Public Schools takes the idea of local workforce development to a whole new level with its future-focused curriculum and programs that ensure a pipeline of skilled and highly educated talent flow freely to the region’s in-demand industries.
Engaging To Excel
Beginning in kindergarten, the district works to equip students with the skills needed to compete in a global economy. For example, the district embraces technology as a tool that allows students and teachers to actively collaborate in the education process. Students in kindergarten and first grade are issued iPads to use in class, and students in grades 2-12 are issued Chromebooks to use in class and at home. Hands-on, experiential learning experiences drive the curriculum, and students of all ages are encouraged to explore their passions.
“One of the unique things that we’re able to offer here because of our community size is a very diverse set of experiences for students. We’ve got students who are heavily involved in the performing arts, but who are also in athletics. We also engage our students in community-based projects. Our kids have multiple opportunities because we really ground ourselves here in students that are well-rounded,” says Jeff Elstad, superintendent of Owatonna Public Schools. “We want them to achieve at high levels, but we also want them to have diverse experiences to help them identify their passions and interests and to also learn what it means to be a good community member and what it means to give back.”
At the heart of the school’s career readiness programming is a new high school, scheduled to open in fall 2023. The school, which will replace the century-old Owatonna High School, is being funded in large part from a $104 million bond referendum and will feature state-of-the art learning centers.
This follows a $78 million bond in 2015 that funded new elementary and middle schools, for a total of $190 million dedicated to improving schools in Owatonna over the past six years.
“The new high school gives us a very unique opportunity to really design a building for the 21st and 22nd century. We have really grounded our high school design around our career pathways program and the content we want to deliver to our students so that they’re better prepared for careers beyond high school and/or post-secondary opportunities,” says Elstad. “We offer career pathways in health sciences and human services, business communication and information technology, engineering, manufacturing, and agriculture. We also offer what we call global electives, which are other opportunities to help students become well-rounded.”
The new school will boast a media center, a nursing lab, a performing arts center, a music suite and a community space, funded in part by a $250,000 donation from the Owatonna Independent School District No. 761 Foundation, a nonprofit community organization that allows individuals, businesses and other groups to donate money to the school district. The space will be used for community events as well as school events, such as awards nights and multiple class presentations.
“The 761 Foundation is happy to be part of the excitement and improved learning experience that the new high school will provide to generations of Owatonna students and their families,” says Bruce Paulson, chair of the 761 Foundation. “This is an investment in our community and, perhaps most important, the young minds our educational system serves.”
“Our largest partner was Federated Mutual Insurance, which has their home office in Owatonna. They gifted us $22 million toward this effort, which is unprecedented in the state of Minnesota for a public school to have a private gift of that size. Wenger, a corporation that manufactures both music and theater equipment, as well as locker room storage solutions, donated funds to help construct a state-of-the-art performing arts center,” Elstad says. “Mayo Health System donated funds to outfit our new nursing lab, and Life Fitness, a manufacturer of commercial exercise equipment, is donating equipment for us to use in the high school.”
Elstad says the relationship with the business community is symbiotic. The district works with the chamber and businesses to determine the workforce and skills needs of local industry. He says the course offerings and programs at the new high school will reflect those needs.
“We designed our pathways around what those needs might be, and as those needs evolve, our career pathway opportunities may need to evolve as well. When we look at business communications and information technology — that ties right in with our partnership with Federated Mutual Insurance and many other businesses that are looking for graduates with experience in marketing and analysis and statistics,” he says. “We also have a very large manufacturing base in our communities, so our career pathways around engineering, manufacturing and agriculture tie into those needs. We know that in the area of health sciences and human services, we are in need of nursing and medical staff in our community because of the healthcare worker shortage. So we are incorporating the skills needed in that field into our health sciences program, with the help of companies like Mayo.”
Brian Bunkers, president/CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System-Owatonna, agrees that giving students hands-on learning experience will help close the skills gap and shore up the workforce in the healthcare field.
“A new high school is a key element needed for the clinic to recruit and retain the staff that provides for the health care needs of this community,” he says.
This article was sponsored by the Owatonna Partners for Economic Development.