Eye on ECCS

Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well.

So follow along as we keep our Eye on ECCS!

NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!

The end of the day is near, the week is almost complete. There’s freshly made vanilla ice cream in the commons area. Emily Black suggests to the remaining students in her classroom to head down to grab a bowl.


One student declines. He has had trouble logging into a program on his Chromebook. Emily – staff at STAR Transition program go by their first names with the young adults – would rather wait until Monday to reset the password, but she senses the importance to the young man. The ice cream can wait.


Fifteen minutes later, at the end-of-the-day classroom meeting, with all in the room sharing their weekend plans and favorite part of the day, the student has many things to be thankful for, including regaining access to the program he so desperately wanted.
 

STAR, or Steps Toward Adult Responsibility, is an 18-to-21-year-old post high school special education transition program available to students of Eastern Carver County Schools as determined by their Individual Education Plan (IEP) team.
 

The program focuses on the transition areas of employment, post-secondary education or training, and where appropriate independent living. The STAR program is designed to assist students in preparing for success in adult life by focusing on student and team identified transition outcomes. 
 

For Ms. Black, the school’s longest tenured special education teacher in the building, she calls this part of her personal career journey the “most rewarding.”


“I’d say one-third of the students here I had as elementary students and now I have them as adults. The dramatic differences I see in each of them as 18-year-olds to six- or seven-year-olds is inspiring. I feel honored to be here to close out their educational journey,” she said.
 

Black was a special education teacher at Chaska Elementary for a decade before joining the STAR program in 2015. Heather Czechowicz worked at Chaska Middle School East and Pioneer Ridge Middle School before moving to STAR in 2017. Rhonda Reuter worked in five district buildings, four in secondary, while Nanci Kallop is the newest teacher, coming on board last January.
 

“People really love working here. I always say that we waited patiently for an opening here,” program supervisor Patricia Lange said. Lange was a special education coordinator at Chaska Middle School West and Pioneer Ridge Middle School as well as Clover Ridge Elementary. Her background as an occupational therapist made the transition one she has no regrets about.
 

“This is such my jam. We’re so unique, how we can partner with so many businesses and programs to provide the best opportunity possible for these students,” Lange said.
 

Black said there has been “massive” changes to the program in recent years. At one time, STAR rented an apartment and had six students. Previous locations also included a rental property above the Chanhassen DMV. The current location on Lake Hazeltine Drive in Chaska, in an industrial park west of Chanhassen High School, provides tremendous space for the program.

In addition to classrooms, the space includes a workforce room, a kitchen and culinary space, a recreation and activities room, a sensory calming space, and an added area with a washer and dryer. Many of the spaces have been updated in recent years.

 

Instructional seminars include home living where students learn about clothing care, home cleaning and maintenance, and transportation options. Consumer planning has students come up with a plan or list of what to purchase, navigating through stores, comparing prices, considering value, and making purchases.
 

Meal prep, personal finance, personal health, and social living are among the many seminars students receive through STAR.

“Each student, each teacher, beyond the morning meeting, has a different daily schedule that tailors to their post-education transition goals,” Lange said.

Many of the 36 current students – that number will likely increase closer to 40 in the coming weeks – work two or three days a week with partnering businesses. Seven students have jobs at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools in food service, others are at Goodwill, Subway, local libraries, Ladybug Child Care Center and Quantum Controls, in which students help to manufacture circuit boards, to name a few.

The list of partnerships continues to grow each year, Lange said.


It is in the workforce room where students learn the skills they will need to perform in their jobs. Work experience coordinator Carol Vilendrer has set-up stations for many activities such as sorting and shelving, hardware and mechanical, towel and clothes folding, and job exploration.
 

STAR students have their own business selling STAR treats (dog biscuits) that they make from scratch and STAR bags (heat pads) that they learn to cut, measure, sew, and sell to consumers. NOTE: it is confirmed, my yellow lab, Cooper, very much enjoyed the peanut butter dog treats, and my lower back very much enjoyed the heat pad after a day at the apple orchard.
 

A visit to Ms. Czechowicz’s afternoon meeting shows the overall importance of a program like STAR. Young adults all so unique, some who may graduate after one year, some who may after three years – the 2022 graduation class was the largest in program history with 18 – yet in this space all are welcome, all are loved.
 

“The pandemic was really hard on these kids. There was nothing for them. For us to be here together, to have the social interaction among the students and the teachers – we have such a wide spectrum of students – it’s just amazing to see each day. I love it,” Lange said.


To learn more about the STAR program, check out their Facebook page for many highlights.

  • EyeOnECCS

NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!

A parent recently reached out asking for missed assignments from a student absence. What was sent home was just a few handouts; a stark contrast to when Jonathan Elementary fifth grade teacher Elizabeth Hanson first started her career in Eastern Carver County Schools at East Union Elementary some 30 years ago.

“So much of what we do now can’t be sent home. The group work, the collaboration between students, all of the hands-on activities we’re doing each day. So much learning happens in the classroom and it’s not all in instruction materials,” Hanson said.

A few doors down in Rebecca McKeever’s fifth-grade classroom, with some students stumped on a decimals math lesson, she asked the students what they could do if they were stuck.

The first answer was “ask others at our table.” The second answer was a different method of problem solving. McKeever patiently waited for a third student to answer “ask the teacher.”

“I can’t imagine teaching any other age. These kids are so independent. They work together to find the solution. And when they need a teacher, that dialogue, that conversation, is so thought out,” said fellow fifth grade teacher Jack Hurst.

Lisa Berends’ fifth-grade class had a hands-on STEM engineering project in the makers’ space adjacent to the media center that required groups of two or three students to design and build a marble run track. The pairings were random. Berends made sure no tablemates were on a team together.

Collaboration was at the forefront, deciding on what materials to use. While most groups built parts of their track on the corkboard, piecing them together, one pair did much of the engineering on the floor, waiting until it was complete to attach to the wall.

Berends said the STEM project is part of an overall lesson on pulleys and levers and other mechanical engineering, preparing fifth graders for the MCA Science test later this school year.

CHANGING TIMES

Between the four fifth grader teachers at Jonathan Elementary, all have been in the district for more than 20 years. Their total service time in ECCS tops the century mark.

McKeever has classroom photos of her first 15 years at Jonathan Elementary after starting at Chaska Middle School West. Hurst, who moved from East Union Elementary after its 2022 closure, has a folder in his room with every class photo dating back to 1997.

Hurst started in a second and third grade classroom, but has spent much of his career with upper primary students in fourth and fifth grades.

“Twice I’ve had second generations in a family in my class. I had a bunch more that were in kindergarten and would have had me,” Hurst said.

Berends did her student-teaching at Jonathan. She’s been on staff between second, fourth and fifth grades for 23 years.

After many years at Chaska Elementary, Hanson joined the Jonathan staff in 2017. Hurst is the newcomer of the bunch.

“It’s been a great fit,” Hurst said, though he admitted it was a lot of work transitioning from one building to another. “I love the school and I love the group of teachers we have in fifth grade.”

Hanson followed in the teaching footsteps of her sister.

“I always enjoyed learning. Teachers always made it so fun. I got to go with my sister to her classroom a few times and I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Hanson said.

Asked what has changed throughout the years, Hanson said students and families are being pulled in so many different ways outside of school.

“We used to give them homework most nights and we don’t do that as much, which is fine if they are engaged and active in learning when they’re here in the classroom,” she said. “We have so many more resources, more opportunities now, it certainly looks much different.”

All the teachers agree, fifth grade is an important time in school. While students are preparing for middle school next year, they also are the leaders among their peers. Their actions go a long way in shaping the student experience at Jonathan.

TIDBITS

Favorite snack: Goldfish and pretzels were among the most popular items for students. The days of asking to get water from the drinking fountain are long gone. All students carry their water bottle wherever they go.

Most unique classroom: Mr. Hurst. One table has a bench made out of two old snowboards. Additionally, he has small lights that wrap around the room near the ceiling. On this day, they were set to the color red. Each color represents what specialist the students visit that day.

Ways of learning: During a math lesson, Mrs. McKeever’s class utilized three different learning tools – a smart board, dry erase marker boards and workbooks. Enrichment activities on a similar lesson in Mr. Hurst’s class were available on a Chromebook.

Specialist: Following Mrs. Hanson’s class to the gymnasium, Mr. John Saindon was making sure students were ready to head outside on a beautiful day. He started out the class with some stretching exercises. Let’s just say the form on some of the push-ups and sit-ups could use a little refresher since last school year!

Excitement: Multiple students shared joy in receiving the instrument of their choice for the Jonathan Elementary fifth-grade band. Let’s hear it for the baritones! Ms. Leah Toppen, band director for elementary bands at Jonathan, Victoria and La Academia, was testing students to see which instrument would best suit them.

  • EyeOnECCS