Since this issue of the Cook County News-Herald is our Valentine’s Day edition, I should write a column about the joy of receiving truffles or roses or handcrafted valentines from the grandkids. But instead I’m going to write about something else near and dear to my heart—our local schools. We have some amazing schools, thank you teachers and staff at all of our schools! Happy Valentine’s Day!
I’m thinking of Birch Grove Community School in particular today because as I write this Unorganized Territory, the West End elementary school is preparing for a public meeting.
The meeting is one of hundreds that have been held to discuss the future of the little school in Tofte. Maybe thousands, since the land was donated to the community in the ’60s; since it was closed and then reopened in 1985; since it was reopened as a charter school in 2004.
A wonderful tradition at Birch Grove Community School — on the first day of school every student gets to ring a bell to announce that school is in session!
I’ve been at more meetings than I can count since I started reporting West End news as a freelancer for the News-Herald back in 1995. I wasn’t around for those early days when the building was built. But having heard the history; having seen it reported on in our Down Memory Lane feature week after week; I know West End citizens worked incredibly hard to make sure the kids in the community had a school within a reasonable riding distance. I know parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends worked hard to keep what many felt was “the heart of the community” in the community.
I was around during the struggle to keep the elementary school open during the final years as a School District 166 facility. There were many, many, many meetings to try to find a way to fund the little school in Tofte. There were a lot of hard feelings between the Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder town boards and the ISD 166 administration. ISD 166 had good reasons to cut staff and services, declining enrollment the biggest issue. West End citizens had good reasons to keep the school open—the long bus ride for little ones, the ability for parents to be close to participate in school activities and of course the need to have a school in the community for families considering a move to the West End.
There were major fundraising campaigns in those final days, from 2000 – 2003. I bought a brick myself for the Cook County News-Herald as part of the effort to keep teachers on staff and class sizes small. For full disclosure, I should mention that my daughter-in-law Sara now works at Birch Grove and my granddaughter Eloise goes to preschool there. Although the fact that they are both happy and thriving at Birch Grove, I was a supporter long before they became involved with the school. “My” brick long predates that familial bias.
I have always been impressed with the way the West End community came together to keep its school going. It wasn’t easy to gain charter school status. There were many more meetings and a huge learning curve, but after years of effort, the Birch Grove Community School was officially opened as a charter school, under the auspices of the Volunteers of America. Birch Grove Community School was for once and for all, a school owned by the citizens of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder.
The school has done remarkably well. It has received the Minnesota Department of Education financial award at least five times. It has grown its offerings to include the Saplings preschool that my granddaughter loves. Just this week, Birch Grove Community School was recognized by the Minnesota Department of Education (along with Great Expectations School in Grand Marais) as a “High- Quality Charter School,” one of only 22 schools in the state so honored.
However, sadly, there is a downturn in enrollment. I don’t think it’s a reflection on Birch Grove Community School. This is a problem for all of our Cook County schools. When enrollment goes down, so do the dollars from the state for operation of the school. All of our schools are struggling, because whether there are 10 students or 30, the lights and heat need to be on, teachers need to be paid, the sidewalks shoveled, and special education needs must be met.
The major reason for our declining school enrollment is that the demographics of our county are changing. Just last night at the Cook County/ Grand Marais Economic Development Authority meeting, I listened to a summary of an affordable housing study being completed by that group. According to the most recent census, it appears that only one in eight households in Grand Marais is a “family” unit—parents and children. I think that demographic is pretty true for the entire county. Overall we are becoming a community of seasonal residents or retired, empty nesters. That’s not a bad thing. These folks contribute greatly to our communities through their property taxes, their buying power, and for many, their volunteer efforts.
But it is bad news when it comes to our schools.
There is work under way to try to change things. The EDA is working to develop affordable housing. The UMD Small Business Development Center, working with the EDA, and the Cook County Chamber are working to make businesses successful so young families can find jobs.
All of our schools are thinking outside of the box to find funding to support various school programs. Birch Grove has done a good job of finding funding in the past. They have sought grant after grant. They participate in little things that add up like the Target for Schools, Box Tops for Education, and Soup Labels for Schools programs and more. They host fun fundraisers—food at the Tofte 4th of July celebration, a wonderful, family-friendly dinner and silent auction at Papa Charlie’s and the elegant and very successful Gala for the Grove at Surfside on Lake Superior.
Unfortunately until enrollment goes back up—as I’m confident it will—Birch Grove will be struggling. I hope that the West End community will impress me once again. I hope township residents will come together once again to support the little school, even if it means an increase to the township levies.
I’ll do what I can by participating in the Birch Grove Community School fundraisers. But the school needs more. It needs continued community support. After all, even for an amazing cause like a community school, you can only sell so many T-shirts and glasses of wine—and bricks.
A good school teaches you resilience – that ability to bounce back.