The pendulum of education often swings to extremes, as the focus is placed on one concept or another often leaving something behind. In recent years, education at the highest levels has focused on scoring well on standardized testing, with a push coming from the federal level.

“I blame that on No Child Left Behind,” said Kevin Kopischke, adding the problem with the education law is it left an awful lot of kids behind. 

Kopischke was one of a few individuals speaking at an event in the Redwood Valley schools board room March 16 about an effort the Redwood Area School District is moving toward that would help to swing the pendulum back.

More than 30 community leaders gathered that afternoon to hear about the school’s plan to develop a career development and training center at the school that would provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in agriculture and manufacturing using modernized equipment and cutting edge technology to help prepare students for careers in those fields.

The center is being proposed as a result of a significant donation from Orrin Estebo who has committed to invest $1 million in such a facility over the next five or six years to ensure students who have an interest in these areas are exposed to them and consider careers that can help them fill jobs in the area that will be opening soon.

Many of the people who hold down those jobs with very specific skill sets are going to be retiring in the not-too-distant future, and the Redwood area is not going to be untouched by that outmigration. So, finding ways to connect students with those jobs could help fill those positions that will be opening up soon.

Rick Ellingworth, Redwood Area School District superintendent, said the vision for a center like this has been in the discussion phase for several years, but funding for such an effort has not been available. He added over the years he and Estebo have had myriad conversations about the concept. Now that concept is moving toward becoming reality.

Estebo said he knows in every school there are students who don’t fit the traditional education mold. These students, he said, drive teachers crazy, because they don’t want to just sit in desks and read from books.

Students like that who find their niche and discover ways to use their skills, despite the fact that their academic scores may not rise to the top, can see success in the working world.

The challenge is channeling their energy in the right areas. The community leaders representing everything from manufacturing and agriculture to small business and banking were brought in to learn about the idea but also to be encouraged to invest in the idea.

Ellingworth said that does not just mean financial investments. It is about having those who need workers get involved to ensure what is being taught addresses what the needs are in the community.

“We want your input as we move forward,” said Ellingworth.

As the project unfolds, the district is going to be leaning on experts for guidance and consultation, and to help with that process the Redwood Area Board of Education agreed to bring on Kevin Kopischke, who is originally from the Morgan area and who brings years of experience in helping others develop these types of programs and facilities.

“What you are doing here is timely and it is critical,” said Kopischke. “This is important to rural education and rural communities.”

Kopischke said in rural areas finding ways to offer these types of programs is in the best interest of communities, as they are indeed seeing a need for employees, and, he added, it is in the best interest of the students who are looking for something other than a four-year college degree.

“There are students who don’t want to go to school for another four years,” said Kopischke.

The world of today is so much different than the one Kopischke grew up in, he said, adding schools need to reflect that, and the problem is in some areas, such as in agriculture and technology education, schools are still teaching using methods from the 1970s.

Ellingworth added having the right program means having the right people, and he believes the school has a very good start with its teachers, including Marshall Hegg and Lisa Busack. However, he said, they don’t have the tools that can help prepare students for a world that is so different than it was even a decade ago.

Yes, said Ellingworth, there is a significant cost to move forward with the plan. The hope is to have at least $2.7 million for the project, and with $1 million committed by Estebo and another commitment of $500,000 from the school district, the cost to move forward with an idea plan is lowered albeit still significant.

The hope, said Ellingworth, is to find local companies, groups and individuals who will see the tremendous benefits a program like this can provide and are willing to make an investment to bring it to reality.

While the initial focus will be on agriculture and manufacturing, Ellingworth said the eye of those working with the center would continue to be looking forward, with other programs, such as health care, cosmetology and business, also in the mix.

The center is not intended to be all things for all people, but it will be utilized to meet the needs and wants of students and their interests. Those who are interested will be taking a tour of facilities in Willmar, Alexandria and Hutchinson this week to see examples of existing programs as a way to get ideas for the new center that will be part of the local school district.

“We have a blank slate in front of us,” said Ellingworth. “We want to do this right, and we need your expertise and advice to do that. What we want is a ‘wow’ kind of building that will meet the needs of students in the future.”

Ellingworth said the plan would also be to use the center at more times of the day offering it to the community at large as a training site. The school district will be working with Wold Architects to come up with design ideas, but Ellingworth added that industry input is going to be critical as the plan is developed.

“This is not boys and girls playing in the sandbox,” said Kopischke. “This is real-world learning that will help prepare these students for their future careers.”