A Great District/College Collaboration

This column original appeared in several APG of East Central Mn newspapers during early February, 2019

A Great District/College Collaboration


Tuah Dinh, Clare Koll & Thomas Starks                                                                          (photo by Joe Nathan

“This is it!” That’s how Tuan Dinh, a 15-year-old 10th-grader in Bloomington, describes his reaction when he heard about the opportunity to take courses as a ninth-grader on the Normandale Community College campus. Conversations with students, parents and educators over two weeks in January convinced me that Tuan is right.

The Bloomington Public Schools and Normandale College collaboration, called Dimensions Academy, isn’t the only way to serve gifted students well. But it is a great model.

Now in its fifth year, the program serves about 25 ninth- and 25 10th-graders, offering an advanced math and science class in the morning. Students return to their high school in the afternoon. According to Andrew Kubas, Bloomington Public Schools executive director of Learning and Teaching, the average Dimensions Academy student has earned 67 college credits before high school graduation, worth more than $33,000.

Students and parents described many program pluses.

Thomas Starks, a Kennedy High School 10th-grader, told me: “I wanted to challenge myself. This program lets me do that.”

Clare Koll, a Jefferson High School ninth-grader, recalled that earlier in life, she’d been bullied for doing well in school. Nevertheless: “I have always tried to challenge myself. This program lets me do that.”

There’s more. Jillayne Clarke, a Jefferson  junior, recalled: “The classes went more rapidly than even an honors class at high school. I learn quickly and the fast pace helped keep me interested.”

Henry Weismann, 16, another Jefferson junior, reported that the program “helped prepare me for what a college environment and rigor would be like. It also taught a lot about self-sufficiency and time management.” His brother Charles, also 16, and a junior at Jefferson, liked learning “from professors who were truly experts in their field,” and finding “a community of people with similar interests.”

Parents agree. Nicole Clarke wrote, “For highly gifted kids, this collaborative is a wonderful option!” Jennifer Weismann reported, “It’s an amazing and entirely unique opportunity for kids who are ready for a challenge in math and science — we saw our kids gain immeasurable confidence and independence.”

Heather Starks, president of the Minnesota PTA and who has a son in the program, told me that three features make it work well:

—Transportation is provided to and from the college.

—Participating Normandale faculty want to spend part of their time working with ninth- and 10th-graders.

—District staff keep a strong connection with Normandale.

Cary Komoto, Normandale’s dean of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Education, helps supervise the program. When the district approached the college about collaboration, Komoto recalls: “It seemed like a great fit for our mission. We serve the community in as many ways as possible. It’s appropriate that the classes are held in our Partnership Building.”

Participating college faculty like Carolyn Wanamaker are very enthusiastic. She said she has “had a wonderful experience teaching chemistry to the 10th-graders. … It’s challenging, rewarding, (and) inspiring.” Lauren Weum, math instructor, wrote: “I have absolutely loved working with the ninth-grade Dimensions Academy students for the past three years! The students are very motivated to learn, and they love to learn the ‘why’ behind what we are learning, which is great, for fostering curiosity is one of my biggest goals as a math teacher!”

Erin D. Boltik, Bloomington’s director of Gifted and Talented Programs and Services, explained the district’s motivation for approaching Normandale: “We have had lots of gifted programs through the years but did not have a high school program. We also were losing some students to other districts and private schools. We wanted to retain them.”Kubas reports, “We’re creating a similar program in the humanities that will be fully operational in the 2019-20 school year.”

That’s good, because several of the students described a high school culture that often honors athletic achievement, but isn’t always supportive of academic achievement. As Thomas Starks explained, “No one really fronts that they are smart.”

Not every high school has a nearby college. But, as Bloomington Superintendent Les Fujitake wrote, programs like this “help make college more affordable, enhance opportunities for students to network with peers, and enable students to personalize plans that optimize career and college success.”

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschoolchange.org.