Accelerated students thrive in LearningWorks

Extracurricular program builds leadership skills

Even though she's not a &#8220morning person,” Claire Dzierzak, an 8th-grader at Anthony Middle School, didn't mind waking up early for classes she attended outside of school as part of LearningWorks: A Breakthrough Program.

LearningWorks is an extracurricular academic enrichment program for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) students. Claire graduated from the two-year program at the private Blake School Upper Campus, 511 Kenwood Pkwy. on April 29.

Now she's preparing for Leadership Academy classes this summer, another component of LearningWorks that helps its 8th-grade graduates choose a high school &#8220small learning community.” The students are grouped by interest area. They get an opportunity to polish leadership and academic skills and even start thinking about college.

Claire's mother, Sandy Pursley, said her daughter Claire, a tall basketball player, found friends with common interests at LearningWorks. The program cultivates a &#8220sense of acceptance. It's more about her as a whole person and less about the cliques,” she said.

Parents, teachers and students say the tuition-free LearningWorks fosters creativity and excitement for learning. Especially considering the district's significant budget cuts, they say the program fills in some of the gaps, providing individual attention to advanced students.

Qualifying middle schoolers spend two years of their free time in extracurricular classes. They juggle five core and elective classes on Saturdays during the school year and weekdays in the summer.

Students described as &#8220highly motivated” yet &#8220underserved” are chosen by application that includes three teachers' recommendations, an essay and academic transcripts, to reveal both achievement and potential. LearningWorks also strives to maintain diversity in ethnicity and income levels.

MPS supplies teachers, transportation and meals. Blake provides classroom space and administrative support. LearningWorks, which has a budget of $300,000, is funded entirely through contributions.

Modeled after a California-based nonprofit initiative called the Breakthrough Collaborative that delivers extra lessons to high-potential, low-income middle school students, it builds skills that prepare students for high school and college. LearningWorks is one of only 25 programs of its kind in the nation.

In its seventh year, its inaugural group of 6th graders is now about to graduate high school. All 29 students are college-bound. The program has since grown. There were 45 students in the program during the school year, and 95 students will participate this summer.

Class sizes are small, with a 10 student-to-one-teacher ratio. Students take fun classes such as sports and literature, Spy Math that teaches kids math with scenarios that center on spies and the history of

hip hop.

Pursley, whose son Taylor also attended LearningWorks, said the experience was invaluable for both of her children. She serves on the program's advisory board.

Classes didn't particularly thrill Taylor, now a 10th-grader at South High School, 3131 19th Ave. S., during middle school. But at LearningWorks, he was enthusiastic about classes like Spy Math, which was conducted in the dark to recreate life during the Bolshevik Revolution. There was a secret knock to get into the classroom, too. Now, Taylor is helping the selection committee choose teachers.

Like students, teachers are chosen through an application process. Teachers are high school juniors and seniors and college students. LearningWorks Executive Director Amy Sandeen said that's part of the program's dual mission, to encourage mutual learning between students and teachers. For the summer term, 160 students applied for the 22 spots that were available. Two teachers are LearningWorks alumnus.

On the job, student-teachers get real-life experience teaching and designing curriculum, with the help of MPS mentoring teachers. About 70 percent of the student-teachers pursue teaching after the program ends.

Noelle Bessette, a 12th-grader at Blake, taught a geometry course called Egg-citing Shapes in which they performed an experiment called the &#8220egg drop.” For the experiment, an egg is placed in a milk carton and cushioned with various shaped padding before it's dropped down 10 feet. The object is to see what shapes best protect the egg and keep it intact in the fall.

While math was the subject she struggled with most as a freshman and sophomore, it's now one of her favorites. Bessette also spent hours devising teaching plans, staying up until 2 a.m. some nights. Currently, she's gearing up for her summer English class. The biggest challenge is catering to everyone's different abilities and levels, she said. &#8220I came into the teaching program thinking I was going to be able to teach really intelligent middle school students but by the end they taught me just as much, if not more,” she said.

For more information about LearningWorks, check out or call 952-988-3755.