I was frustrated with how my creativity, and that of my students, was often stifled and I was asked to conform to a certain structure that forced students to learn in a very prescribed manner. It didn’t fit my learning style, and it didn’t fit the learning styles of my students.
Co-Founder and Advisor
Q: What path led you to opening the DREAM Technical Academy?
Tammie: I have been a school social worker for 21 years. I started out working in traditional public schools for the first 16 years of my career. I noticed, in my profession, school social workers were on an island. There was usually only one per school or district, and I felt like sometimes I was the lone voice trying to do the prevention work in schools—implementing crisis response strategies and addressing the barriers that prevent students from being successful in school and life. These tasks were solely my responsibility as the other school staff were busy teaching; I’m not sure they actually understood what my roles and responsibilities were in the school.
As a result of the system’s set-up, I saw a lot of kids falling through the cracks. Traditional school was and still is a one-size-fits-all model, and a lot of students didn’t fit into that mold. Those students would typically end up in my office for various reasons. Some would come to my office because they were disengaged and simply didn’t want to go to class. Others would get kicked out of class because they were being disruptive, weren’t following the rules, weren’t completing their school work, or lacked the social skills or self control necessary to sit among their peers. Whatever the reasons were, helping these students seemed like a very compartmentalized process, leaving me feeling alone in my efforts.
When Doug and I began dreaming about opening a charter school, we created a list of “must haves”—things we wanted to do to make the school we dreamed about different from traditional schools. One of those “must haves” was to focus on social and emotional learning and recognizing the importance of social competencies in the life of a student. We’ve offered many trainings on the importance of social emotional learning to our staff, including trauma-informed training. We wanted every staff member to understand adverse childhood experiences and how they impacted our students. We purposely designed a school that was going to meet the needs of the whole child.
DREAM wasn’t just going to be about academics. Having a supportive partner in this process was key—Doug having the educator background, me with the social work background—we combined our passions and opened up a school that was innovative, emotionally supportive, a safe haven, and very different from traditional schools.
Doug: I’ve been in public education for 25 years. The first 10 were in a traditional setting where I taught secondary level social studies. I was frustrated with how my creativity, and that of my students, was often stifled and I was asked to conform to a certain structure that forced students to learn in a very prescribed manner. It didn’t fit my learning style, and it didn’t fit the learning styles of my students. From there, I spent 10 years at Luther College in Iowa. While teaching there, I had students say, “You have all of these wonderful, radical ideas, but do they really work?”
Partly based on that challenge and to have the evidence to prove we can do something outside traditional pedagogy, along with the timing being ripe—Tammie and I began exploring the options that were available to create our own school. We looked at the charter format and saw more freedom and flexibility to design something that matched our vision. So, for the last five years, we’ve been at DREAM doing this, and it’s been successful.
Q: What other voices and perspectives did you bring in to design DREAM Technical Academy? What did it take to engage them in the idea??
Tammie: A year before the school was opened, Doug and I didn’t live in the community. We were frequently commuting to and from Willmar, MN—hosting meetings that were held in churches, at McDonald’s, in coffee shops, and in an auditorium on the campus where our school is now located. During these meetings, we invited everybody to come to more formal community presentations to hear about our dream for this new school. Willmar is my hometown, so I already had a lot of connections here and many supporters. We told everyone, “We have this idea to open this new school. Who wants to come alongside us and help support this idea?”
As a result of the community presentations, we ended up having 15 people join our school startup committee—some of whom were educators working in other districts, parents, business people, and students. It was a wonderful group of people who also helped pick the name of our school, DREAM, which stands for Democratic society, Responsible citizens, Engaged learners, Agents of change, and Multicultural setting. These phrases became the values we held onto throughout our planning process and still keep front and center today.
Q: Why did you choose a community-driven design approach, instead of solely relying on your personal experiences?
Doug: To be consistent with what we identify education to be, we had to have community involvement from day one. It’s not about us. It’s not a hierarchical structure. If it was going to be democratic, we had to model that. Tammie and I brought expertise to the table, but we weren’t the only experts in the community. It just made sense.
Tammie: Having voices that represented different sectors of the community, different ages, and different cultures, also fit that multicultural perspective. Making sure we had lots of different stakeholders in the community who were going to support the school was hugely important to us. That’s why we went where the people were and held the meetings on their turf and their time.
Q: Why is community important to you?
Doug: Community was always a part of my upbringing. Education was not my first career. I spent over 10 years in the ministry where community was of the utmost importance.
I think it all came together for me in my doctoral program, which had an emphasis in critical pedagogy—recognizing the importance of community and how everyone has to have voice and be an active participant. I wanted to model that idea and have students take ownership of their education. It’s an idea that I carry with me in every interaction I have, regardless of the setting. It’s where I’m rooted.
Tammie: Community entered the forefront for me when I was working in my previous school district. It was a very small district—we lived in the same community where I worked and went to church with the same educators and students with whom I worked.
I ran an afterschool program that included a “family night out” once a month. I would bring in different speakers (sometimes parents themselves) and provide free food so everyone could eat together. The parents would have sessions specifically for them, while the kids would go to the gymnasium and play. Afterwards, everyone would come back together, and we would host family activities. Being out, having a presence, and making connections was really important to me in order to develop relationships and build trust. Seeing and being with people in their environment outside the traditional school context is always incredibly valuable.
Doug: I want to add that our students, due to social media, often have a broader definition of community. When the school becomes their community, we actually have kids crying at the end of the school year because they don’t want their time together to end. This is their community. Students will say, “I’m not looking forward to break because I want to be here. This is my community.”
As much as the country is experiencing community from this larger social media perspective, we still need that physical contact with each other. That’s what we’ve been able to create at DREAM.
Q: With so much intention behind the design of DREAM, what were you still unprepared for when you opened the doors?
Doug: We opened the doors with 125 students. We were giddy with that number, as a new charter school in a rural community where the nearest charter school was 75 miles or more from us. This was a completely new concept for our community. What we didn’t realize was that many of the area districts—who did not want us to be here—began to direct a number of students who they didn’t want in their schools to DREAM.
With our first cohort of students, we thought everyone who was attending wanted to be at DREAM. But, the reality for a large number of our students was that they were told they needed to be here. That first year, we were on a huge learning curve in how to create an environment where students didn’t understand the program and they didn’t really want to be at the school.
Tammie: Hearing from some of the community members who were talking about us that first year, they related to us as being the new alternative learning environment in town. Alternative learning environments are typically a last resort education for many kids. DREAM became known as that last hope, and it became difficult, as Doug said, to develop an understanding with these students in terms of what they would be experiencing in our educational program compared to their previous traditional school setting.
A lot of kids came here expecting to log their seat-time and graduate. That’s not the way our school works. As a result, a lot of those kids ended up leaving and not earning much credit. Some went back to traditional school settings, and some dropped out altogether. The community saw that happening and viewed us as failing those kids. Of course, we felt that wasn’t a fair conclusion. What the community didn’t realize was many of these kids had already been so disengaged from school and had such a negative view of themselves and school, that we just weren’t able to bring them into our culture fast enough to make a difference.
What we ultimately concluded was it’s all about relationships. If the kids coming into our school could get to know us really well and we could get to know them really well, we could understand their challenges and needs.
Co-Founder and School Social Worker
We’ve been working extremely hard since then to make a comeback. I think we’re coming back strong now. We recently held a campaign on Facebook dispelling the myths that we often hear in our community—”DREAM doesn’t give their kids a traditional diploma” or “kids aren’t meeting state standards” or “DREAM is the school where all the bad kids go.” We brought our staff together and asked, “What’s our rebuttal to these misperceptions?” We knew these statements weren’t true and needed to help the community understand these myths weren’t the reality. In the past 10 days, we’ve had eight new students enroll. Is that a product of our Facebook campaign? I’d like to think so.
Q: What have become positive strategies for you to enroll families into the culture and model at DREAM?
Doug: As a direct result of our experience that first year, we started an intake process. The family takes a 45-90 minute tour, which includes a sit-down Q&A. If they are interested and want to take the next step, we do an intake meeting—Tammie is a part of that process. During that meeting, we ask questions that allow us to learn not only about the student, academically, but also about where they are socially and emotionally. This process has enabled us to determine the best advisory to place that student in and because this information is passed to the advisor, the student can hit the ground running.
This process has assisted students in the transition they go through when coming to this new environment. The type of conversations that bubble up during these intake meetings are priceless. Everyone, including the student and parents, gain a better understanding of each other. Because these intake sessions are conversational, we’ve found they result in parents feeling more comfortable involving themselves in their child’s education.
We have an open door policy here. If a parent wants to come inside the building and sit next to their kid and experience their learning or have breakfast or lunch with them, they can do that. This result of the intake process wasn’t intentional, but I believe it’s why parents feel more comfortable calling us. And, when we call them, their first reaction isn’t “Oh no, what did my kid do?”
Tammie: In addition to the intake process, we invite kids to spend a half day here before they enroll—“Come try it out and see what you think. Walk around the school and ask our students what they think of DREAM.” All of these elements came out of a retention plan we developed. We saw that we were really good at getting kids through the doors here, but there was a gap in our ability to retain students.
What we ultimately concluded was it’s all about relationships. If the kids coming into our school could get to know us really well and we could get to know them really well, we could understand their challenges and needs. We warn parents up front during the intake process that we are going to ask some really personal questions. We tell them, “When we get to know you and your child better, it’s going to help us understand where your family is at, so we can work alongside you and support you as needed.”
This process has been fabulous—developing those close relationships on day one is key.
Q: What do you wish your community would ask you more about?
Tammie: I would like more people to ask us how students learn in our school setting. I think there are still some misunderstandings about project-based learning because there are different ways to implement this type of learning. There is a staff-led model where the teacher is standing in front of the classroom saying, “This is the project we’re going to do.” That is sometimes the perception of what we do.
I want our community to understand our project-based learning is a student-driven model. When the student comes up with an idea, the advisor comes alongside them and that’s why we call them “advisors.” They aren’t in the traditional teacher mode. They are helping our students find resources, guiding them along the journey.
With that learning comes the assessment component. We don’t assess learning with tests. The learning is assessed during the final stages of their project outcome when the student and advisor have a face-to-face in-depth conversation about what the student has learned. We also measure the deliverable created by the student, which could be anything from the creation of a product to a public presentation.
Doug: That’s easy for me. I wish people would ask what is the purpose of education? We all assume we know why we’re in school. By not asking that question, we don’t become critical of the education that is being delivered to us. My frustration is that all we do is jump from one reform to another without asking that critical question.
It is something that is asked here on a weekly basis. It is asked so much that our students will ask that question about their own learning experience. Until we have that debate as a country, we are not going to find ourselves being able to move out of this quagmire of dysfunction in education. When we can incite students and adults to ask that question, then we can begin to create learning environments that benefit all students and the community.