- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Ellen Engebretson’s class began with kids break dancing, waving their arms and scooting across the floor on their knees.

“Now we’ve gotten the wiggles out,” Engebretson said.

Then there was a quick lesson in geography and foreign language.

Followed by more dancing.

Dance is a part of every student’s education at Eugene Field A+ Elementary School, and Engebretson is the school’s dance and physical education teacher, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/139RGCZ ) reported.

It’s part of Eugene Field’s unique approach to learning - an approach heavy in the arts and based on each individual student’s strengths. It’s an approach parents and young children of Sioux Falls can’t find anywhere else in the district (or the state), Principal Ann Marie Davis says.

District officials have invested considerable effort - and funding - into providing families with what they call “multiple pathways” to learning.

In fall 2016, officials hope to open a new $12 million elementary school at the current Jefferson site to accommodate the hundreds of children who take Spanish immersion classes. The program began six years ago with 25 students.

Today, the district offers a variety of different learning options for kids, but in some cases the academic results appear mixed. Some schools show test scores higher than district averages, while other specialty schools don’t seem to be hitting the mark academically. That disparity at Lowell, for example, has prompted the district to re-evaluate the school’s focus.

Regardless, the idea of multiple pathways has resonated with families in Sioux Falls.

About 65 people gathered at the district’s headquarters last month for the first specialized school fair, a community outreach effort organized by officials to connect curious parents with educators.

The next week, hundreds showed up at the Instructional Planning Center the first day of open enrollment for the 2015-16 school year.

Curriculum director Josh Hall compared the yearly crowd to a bustling holiday sale. The district has to cater to more than 23,000 students and their families, he said.

“We also know that children learn differently, every one of them,” Hall said. “We believe that it’s our job to offer multiple pathways to students in their education, and that’s the purpose of specialized schools”

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Parents were able to test the different options or learn more about the school that already had piqued their interest. Open enrollment is one way in, but much like their classroom style, specialized schools seem to have their own unique way of admitting students.

Boundary schools can take open enrollment students from inside or outside the district. These include Rosa Parks Global Studies-World Language; Lowell Math, Science and Technology; and Eugene Field A+ Elementary schools. Deadline for open enrolling is the last Friday in September.

Parents seeking entry into the district’s Spanish immersion program have a tighter deadline. The program has an admission lottery scheduled for Jan. 20 - application deadline is 5 p.m. Jan. 13. However, parents can apply after the lottery to join the waiting list.

The Challenge Center, reserved only for gifted students, oddly does not have a waiting list. The school is housed at Garfield Elementary School and admits only 27 students per section. Students need the right test scores and proven ability to get in, along with teacher recommendations.

All City Elementary School Principal Jane Hanneman was at the specialized school fair last month, even though her school doesn’t participate in open enrollment and doesn’t have a boundary. All-City was founded in 1974 and is the district’s oldest specialized option, Hanneman said.

The school requires parents to put in four hours of volunteer time in the classroom each week. The current waiting list is81 names long. Some parents book a spot shortly after giving birth.

“We get a lot of people,” Hanneman said.

New Tech High, the project-based learning high school, sends its own students out as ambassadors to other schools to do outreach.

It was one of these ambassadors that persuaded 15-year-old Luke Kennelly to give New Tech a spin. Now, Kennelly is paying it forward. He’s given the same kind of talk to Patrick Henry Middle School students.

“It was something brand new, something I had never heard of,” Kennelly said. “I wanted to try it out.”

Students and families apply in the fall and then participate in a December lottery. New Tech’s lottery was this week, but families can continue to apply for spots.

School board Vice President Todd Thoelke is a former All City parent and an early waitlist-joiner. His two daughters have since moved on to high school and college, but he was filling out paperwork for his first daughter before his wife left the hospital, Thoelke said.

“It was called an alternative school, and I didn’t know what that actually meant,” Thoelke said. “I thought we’d all be sitting cross-legged, singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

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Specialized schools are part of the district’s commitment to its mission to educate all students, Superintendent Pam Homan said in an email.

Under Homan’s leadership, the district continued to expand the specialized offerings for parents, including New Tech, Spanish immersion, Lowell’s math, science and technology-focus.

“I am proud of each initiative, program, and school we have put in place over the last 11 years,” Homan said. “My dream is that the programs and schools continue to provide students opportunities and challenges to succeed in a changing world.”

This direction - toward mores specialized programs - is an intentional step toward finding a way for all students to succeed in the classroom, officials say. Eugene Field itself is founded in this philosophy - the notion that all students learn differently.

Mixing the arts with core subjects is part of the curriculum, but underlying every lesson is the idea that each student learns differently. Some are better at math, others are social learners or excel when it comes to learning about nature and the environment.

“Each teacher looks at their students and determines where their strengths may lie,” Principal Ann Marie Davis said.

Helen Koliner, 43, lives in the John Harris Elementary School boundary, and that’s where her two children went to school until last year.

John Harris is a great school with great teachers, but Eugene Field wound up being a better fit for her son and daughter, Koliner said.

She weighed her options before the switch. She talked with staff at the Challenge Center, and friends who had children in Spanish immersion. Touring Eugene Field allowed her to see the school’s warm and supportive atmosphere, but she also was happy the Sioux Falls district has different choices available to her and other parents, Koliner said.

“Children are very different, and the settings that they succeed in can be very different,” Koliner said.

Parent Ryan Howlett, 39, has a daughter attending kindergarten next year. He lives in the Harrisburg School District but has been planning to open enroll his daughter to the Sioux Falls district’s Spanish immersion for two or three years, Howlett said.

He researched Spanish immersion learning for just as long and likes the cognitive benefits it can offer his daughter. Howlett also wants to broaden her horizons.

“We like the opportunity for our daughter to have a second language,” Howlett said.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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