Sen. Franken, students & educators agree, act on important needs / Joe Nathan’s Column

Forest Lake High School student  Mac Schwartz explains to Sen. Al Franken the value of a class that is teaching him to help build a real house.
Mac Schwartz, 17, takes a break from class to chat with Sen. Al Franken, who visited Forest Lake High School Oct. 22 to highlight its skills-focused classes. Schwartz is helping build a house as part of a Forest Lake High School class. (Photo by Joe Nathan)



Students Mac Schwartz and Mariah Van Heel and U.S. Sen. Al Franken agreed on several important things when the senator visited Forest Lake High School on Oct. 22. Fortunately, both the school district and the senator are not just talking – they are working hard to advance ideas displayed during the visit. That’s good for students and for the state.

Mac Schwartz, 17, is helping build a house as part of a Forest Lake High School class. He’s learned “how much work it takes, and that the systems don’t automatically work together. You have to be real careful. If you’re not, work has to be done over.”

According to Mac’s father, Bill: “Working on the house has helped give him direction. It has been terrific for him.”

Building a house is a classic example of hands-on, active learning.

Mariah Van Heel, 18, a high school senior, also supports this idea. She’s serving as a teacher’s assistant in a metal shop class. While her ultimate goal is to be a police officer, “I love working with my hands – creating things,” she said.

Leighton Bierman, 18, joined the conversation. He hopes to oversee construction. Taking metal shop, electricity and other applied classes “will help me understand the work people I may supervise are doing.”

Steve Massey, Forest Lake principal, and Linda Madsen, the district’s superintendent, strongly support active career learning as an option for students. Massey told me, “About 1,000 of the school’s 1,600 students are taking one or more of the applied, hands-on classes that the school offers.” (An overview of the school’s career clusters is at

Mac, Mariah, Leighton and other students are gaining from a mission that Massey explained to about 60 community members during Franken’s visit: a belief that the school should help “all students graduate with skills necessary to attend college, university, technical college or training program – and succeed.”

Franken responded, “You could not be doing something any more important. … Manufacturing is back. We have to get rid of the view that manufacturing jobs are ‘dark, dangerous and dirty.’ … In fact, it’s the opposite. And we have a massive ‘skills gap’ – between one-third and 60 percent of Minnesota manufacturers report that they have jobs they can’t fill because they can’t find people who have needed skills.”

Greg Evgen, Forest Lake High School graduate, owner and president of Regal Machine in nearby Wyoming, Minn., strongly agreed. He’s helped the school by donating equipment and helping raise scholarship dollars. Amanda Kehoe, director of Human Resources at nearby Wilson Tool, said the company has 450 jobs and “plans to hire more skilled people.”

Robert Musgrave, president of Pine Tech College, explained that the economy is changing and that there are more attractive, well-paying jobs in manufacturing. He told me that even in these challenging times, “100 percent of our recent graduates in manufacturing have found jobs.”

Franken wisely is using his “bully pulpit” to highlight the skills gap. He has introduced legislation to promote what he heard from Pine Tech and Forest Lake High School: more active, hands-on learning and more collaboration between high schools, colleges and businesses. He sees two-year college diplomas “not as a ceiling, but as a platform that gives students many opportunities.” His legislation targets “global competitiveness, college affordability and jobs for people.”

Forest Lake High School programs are impressive. Franken’s focus is smart and sensible. They’re working on some of Minnesota’s most important needs: more successful students, more Minnesotans employed in solid, satisfying jobs, and more Minnesota businesses doing well.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, please comment below.