Eye on ECCS: Integrated Arts Academy

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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 white board had terms you would associate with a math class. Geometric net, vertices and Euler’s Theorem (Google confirmed this is indeed math), but it was apparent from the start this wasn’t going to be a traditional math lecture.

There were no textbooks. At this point, there was no arithmetic. However, there was a task of finding creativity. Teacher Jennifer Williams introduced the project of first sketching, then second implementing a wearable geometric sculpture. 

Williams told the class the math would come later. But first, art.

That is the overall theme of Eastern Carver County Schools’ Integrated Arts Academy, a high school founded on linking academic success to the arts and hands-on learning experiences. 

Integrated Arts Academy, or IAA, opened its doors in 2012, located at the District Education Center on Peavey Road in Chaska. The curriculum embeds culinary, horticulture and visual arts into core subjects such as English, math, science, and social studies.

Students can enroll at the school if referred by school counselors, self-refer due to an interest in the course work, or meet one of the state’s criteria of being at risk of not graduating on time. The school has a number of open enrollment students as well.

Amy Spinello, visual arts teacher – she’s been a bit of everything, she said – has been at IAA since it first opened its doors 11 years ago. Spinello was part of the task force headed by former ECCS community education director Jackie Johnston to develop an alternative learning environment for students.

“I’ve been in education for 28 years. I started in Owatonna in their ALC program and I realized from the start those were my kids,” Spinello said.


Williams shared with the students that she went shopping, picking up a number of items that could go a long way in helping them create their geometric sculpture. Some students drew inspiration from web searches, others were visualizing their creations in their own minds.

The beginning stages of the sculptures ranged from simple to complex. Some were creating headwear, as well as arm, wrist, and hand bands. Two students were collaborating on designing wings.

The students were scheduled to present their creations in a fashion show on Jan. 19.

Williams is also in charge of Deja Brew, a student-run coffee shop that is open on Tuesdays and Fridays. The shop was recently reopened to the entire district office building, drawing a line with staff and students the first day.

Baristas Peter and Justice make a mean mocha, latte, and hot chocolate if you’re ever in the area.

Next door in the culinary room, teacher Remy Roper, a District 112 alumni, tasked teams from the Prostart class to cook an appetizer; a project each group had been working to develop as part of an overall meal plan.

A trio of juniors, who have plans to present next month in a competition at the RiverCentre in St. Paul, worked on scallops with a pea puree drizzle and lemon zest marinade. The tasks were split among each group member, each handling part of the process from cutting, sauteing, mashing, preparing, and serving. Communication among the team is key in competition as there is a 60-minute time limit to create an appetizer, entree, and dessert.

Another group was working on a risotto side dish with onions, while the other group was frying pickles. 

Roper bounced between the three groups to check on their progress and answer any questions and share suggestions.

Spinello’s classroom, like many of the spaces at IAA, is one for every kind of learner. Some students choose tables, others choose a couch and chairs with a table in the middle. The class’s task on this day is brainstorming ideas for a cartoon character.

To warm the students up, she asks them to research the history behind cartoons. In exploring the topic, the class learns about the different types of cartoons, how the subjects of them vary from human to animal, and how their facial features, their body, their posture, can explain their emotions and their personality without explicitly telling the reader.

Some students jump right into the project. Sketches take shape. Some of the students have been exploring their characters before the class has even begun.

One of the students, Echo Pendlebury, had a hand-drawn portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. on a digital platform spotlighted at the Chaska Human Rights Commission MLK Breakfast at the Chaska Event Center on Jan. 16.

Many of these presentations will be on display at the school’s annual gala in May. An opportunity to invite back past students, families and friends, and the school’s supportive community, to celebrate the work and talent of many.

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