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Megan Schnitker is the keynote speaker for the One Book, One Community program 2 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at the McLeod County History Museum.. Her presentation is titled “Bringing Nature Back to People.

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New Century Academy explores the use of mushrooms

In case you missed it, mushrooms are the next big thing. While most of us think of mushrooms as a way to enhance the eating pleasure of a ribeye steak, their many uses are being explored by scientists and private industry.

For example, the crushed remains of millet and sorghum mushrooms can be turned into fuel. Mycorrhizae are little fungi that are used to form a symbiotic relationship with crops, helping the plants’ root system take up the water and nutrients they need for stronger growth. Mushrooms can be used to clean soil and water. Some, because of their antioxidant and Vitamin D properties, are used for developing skin care products, while other varieties are being explored for new drugs to fight cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Some companies are using mushrooms to create leather goods, mold shapes for packaging and for building materials.

The multi-purpose use of the mushroom is what students at New Century Academy, or NCA, are learning during the “Shrooms N Blooms” e-term class. The hands-on learning experience started a few weeks ago and will continue through the full growth cycle of the mushroom project for the next several weeks.

Christopher Smith, social studies teacher at NCA and also owner of Let It Grow nursery in downtown Hutchinson, is leading the project.

“I love to empower kids,” he said. “I love getting them to grow stuff. It’s fun to see the kids’ focus seeing the mycelium (white product) grow in their bags.”

According to Smith, students wore sterilized protective gear to grow mushrooms. They filled a plastic bag with dirt, then put a grain spawn into the bag to feed the mushrooms. Students determined the product for the type of mushroom they wanted to grow. After that, the bag was sealed and put into a black tent-like structure that was zipped shut, so it is dark — without light — all day. Then the students wait, watching the mycelium for the mushroom (fruit) to materialize. Once that has happened, the small mushrooms will be transferred to black containers and into another clear tent where they will continue to grow until they’re ready to harvest.

“Mushrooms are going to revolutionize the world,” Smith says. “They are accessible to everyone — no matter the wealth. In an impoverished country like Haiti, they are making a difference. ... In 20-30 years, we will see their uses everywhere.”

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Jamming the gym to help area children: Tim Orth Memorial Foundation celebrates 25 years
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“OK, let’s give it a whirl.”

That’s how Don Tangen, the former Glencoe-Silver Lake boys basketball coach, remembers responding when asked if he would help organize the first Tim Orth Memorial Foundation Jam the Gym event in Glencoe.

That was back in 1998. Today, Tangen and Ralph Johnson, a retired Hutchinson elementary school teacher, are the last two members of the original group of organizers who are still part of the event’s committee. As they prepare to celebrate the 25th annual event in Glencoe, both men admit they never imagined it would be going strong a quarter-century later.

“No, no we didn’t,” Johnson said.

“We didn’t really have any idea that it was going to succeed,” Tangen said. “We just knew they had done some OK things in Bird Island for a couple years.”

The 2023 Tim Orth Memorial Foundation’s Glencoe event is Saturday, April 1, at the Glencoe-Silver Lake High School. Doors open at 4 p.m., and the opening ceremony begins at 5:30 p.m. To celebrate the 25th anniversary, there is no admission this year, although freewill donations will be accepted. Past recipients of foundation assistance are also invited to attend for a special 25th anniversary program, where they’ll be able to register and receive a gift.

The Tim Orth Memorial Foundation is a group with the mission of assisting children and their families who are facing substantial medical expenses due to a serious accident or illness. It’s named for a former BOLD High School student who died from an inoperable brain tumor in 1997.

The first event was at Bird Island in 1996. Today, there are also events in Glencoe and Winthrop. Their purpose is to raise money for a new group of recipients each year by filling up gyms with people who come out for a fun-filled night of raffles, silent auctions, entertainment and all-star boys and girls basketball games.

The event has become so well known in surrounding communities that recipients’ families hear about the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation from all sorts of people. From friends and families, to doctors and teachers, the foundation has earned recognition for the assistance it provides, financially and emotionally.

“I asked one of the recipients last year how they found out about Tim Orth, and they said a guy was over cleaning their furnace and saw their son in a wheelchair and asked them if they heard about the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of cool.”

The numbers speak for themselves. After 25 years, Johnson said the Glencoe Jam the Gym event has raised money for 185 recipients living in 32 area communities. The Tim Orth Memorial Foundation as a whole has raised more than $4 million since 1996.

Success like that does not come easily. It starts with the committee of 22 organizers, many of whom are past recipients or family members of past recipients inspired to give back.

Volunteer groups are also important, such as the Glencoe Lions Club, which has run the event’s ticket booth and concession stand for all 25 years.

Entertainment is a big part of the event’s success. Dancers, gymnastics clubs and many more groups have become regulars and look forward to performing each year.

“We never have to look too far, because a lot of the entertainers over the years ask to come back next year,” Johnson said.

And of course it wouldn’t be the same without the teams made up of local seniors. Johnson said more than 700 high school basketball players have gotten in on the action over the years, and for many area teams it has become a rite of passage.

“When they leave that night, they are really happy they did it,” Tangen said. “And then tell underclassmen, ‘If you get a chance to do this, do it, because it’s a cool deal.’”

Julie Dengerud of Litchfield has been part of the organizing committee since 2012, when the younger brother of Gage Driver, a past recipient, was in her preschool class. She loved the group’s mission so much, she decided to join. She’s now in charge of recruiting players, and she said she often sees a change in the players from before and after the event.

“Before, I think they’re just excited about playing,” she said. “It’s a basketball game. They loved playing basketball in high school, and now that their senior year is done, they get one more opportunity.

“Then afterwards, it’s a whole different feel,” she added. “They really see that, yes, it’s a basketball game, but all of this stuff is for those families. Some have come back the next years to support it, watching the games and parking in the silent auction.”

More than anything, though, Johnson said, it’s the generosity of people and organizations willing to donate that has made the event so successful.

With so many dedicated people willing to give time and money, the Glencoe Jam the Gym event might continue for another 25 years. Let’s give it a whirl.

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Local charter schools pivoted to meet student needs during pandemic

In the fall of 2020, public schools in the area either opened to a hybrid option or remained closed. The hybrid option at some Hutchinson Public Schools was determined by administration and staff, while another group of public schools in Hutchinson — New Discoveries Montessori Academy and New Century Academy, left it up to the parents and students to decide who was going to be in school or who was going to have classes online.

Charter schools in Minnesota are independent public schools for parents and students. They are open to all students and offer nontraditional educational opportunities. They charge no tuition and they employ licensed teachers. They offer special education services and are required to take state assessments. They have an authorizor — something like a governing authority — who they report to regularly. The authorizor can be school boards, charitable organizations, institutions of higher learning or nonprofit corporations subject to 317A, which means a nonprofit corporation’s purpose and activities must serve the organization’s mission to benefit the public, and may not be operated to profit other persons or entities.

New Discoveries Montessori Academy, or NDMA, is a public Montessori Charter school in Hutchinson, serving preschool through eighth-grade students. It opened in 2006. It’s classrooms are multi-age. Children’s House serves preschool and kindergarten. Elementary I serves ages first, second and third graders. Elementary II serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Erd Kinder/Middle School serves seventh and eighth grades. It has co-teachers in every classroom: one regular education teacher and one special education teacher.

Every classroom has one or more teaching assistants. They are structured within a Montessori framework, with multiple work areas, freedom of choice within limits, and adults providing critical guidance for students. NDMA provides opportunities for children to learn through discovery. This involves providing practical, hands-on experiences with the whole child in mind.

“New Discoveries employs about 75 amazing individuals who show up every day and do hard work for the students and families that we serve,” Kirsten Kinzler, director at NDMA, said. “During the pandemic, we even delivered meals to our students who were homebound.“

New Century Academy, which serves sixth- through 12th-grade students, opened in 2002. Students learn about topics they are interested in or passionate about. Teachers become facilitators of that learning and help students draw connections between their passions in life and the requirements set forth by the state. Students have core classes such as English, math, science, social studies, physical education and the arts, with project-based learning used to further explore topics in a core class, as an elective credit, or to boost up the state requirement to receive a grade. Students and teachers work together to design a plan that will assure the student achieves to their best ability.

“It’s a small (middle and high) school,” Jason Becker, director at NCA, said of the school. “It is a more personal environment, there is more personal attention, with staff who know every student. We continue to foster an environment where students can feel they belong. We embrace the uniqueness of each student and celebrate our differences. Students have more choice and control over their learning.”

During the pandemic, both schools maintained their enrollment numbers.

“There were some changes in our enrollment during the pandemic, however it seemed when one student/family left another was enrolled,” Kinzler said

NDMA shut dovwn in November 2020 due to increased numbers of COVID cases, reopening in January 2021 to students who desired in-person learning. In February, the whole school was open again. It remained that way even when COVID numbers spiked during the 2021-2022 school year.

NCA stayed hybrid from fall 2020 to spring 2021. The students all attended their regular classes, however, those that chose to be home, attended through Google Meet. NCA opened to full in-person learning fall 2021 with no mask requirements. Once opened, distance learning was no longer available to students.

NDMA continues to maintain steady enrollment, while NCA has seen a considerable drop this year. Becker attributes this to students getting a taste of the virtual learning option and choosing o seek the state-sponsored ones. NCA has continual open enrollment — meaning students anywhere can start at any time of the year — unlike traditional public schools, which have a year waiting period. Becker hopes numbers at NCA will increase.


The small school environment, the willingness of staff to work with parents and the choices they can make for their children are what families like about both charter schools.

Katie Olson, Hutchinson, has three children enrolled at New Discoveries Montessori Academy. It was her oldest son’s individualized education program, or IEP, and the teacher that led her to the charter school.

“We love the school,” Olson said. “No school is perfect. For our kids, it (NDMA) has been. The staff work as a team with the parent and together we make a plan for my child.

“There’s a lot of anxiety on the parent’s side of it,” Olson said of creating the education plan. “NDMA is child-centered and the IEP team has been great.”

She especially appreciates that there are two teachers in the class at once. “With the team in the classroom, there is always an adult that has eyes on the students,” she said. “The special education students aren’t separated from their classmates for a period of the day this way. They are all together all day. ... The classroom is inclusive. The teachers are like extended family.”

Jennifer Hartz feels the same way. She appreciates the supportive staff at New Century Academy. Her daughter had been at NDMA until sixth grade when she transferred to Hutchinson Middle School. Hartz said she grew concerned when her daughter was bullied at the school. Hartz pulled her out and tried homeschooling but that didn’t work out. A friend told them about NCA and they decided to try it.

Hartz’s daughter went from failing to straight A’s — and third in her class — her first semester at NCA.

“My daughter had some personal stuff going on and the staff reached out,” Hartz said. “She was able to meet with a counselor who worked with her. She had someone to talk to and a safe place to go. ... I am awed how dedicated the school was to help my daughter.”

The school’s project-based learning and e-terms appeal to Hartz’s daughter. “They get to grow mushrooms and study other religions,” she said. “My daughter came home after she visited a synagogue and talked all about what they got to do there.”

Hartz also said her daughter likes being involved in choosing her own programming. She is taking guitar lessons for free during school hours for music and because they have a recording studio, gets to record some of her songs. This spring, Hartz’s daughter is excited about going to Florida on a STEM-oriented experience.

“My daughter is so connected with the teachers at NCA,” she said. “She is sad if she has to miss a day of school.”

It’s that excitement for students about having their own education model that is at the heart of Hutchinson’s charter schools. The pandemic hampered some aspects, but the teachers staying connected with their families was an important support system for all. Parents still having a voice, students continued making choices and teachers listening helped everyone through the unprecedented health crisis.

It is still the strength of the charter school system.