Wilderness high school planned for Ely district

Associated Press

ELY, Minn. -- The Ely school district is starting a wilderness high school to give students from all over Minnesota a chance to spend a year in the north woods.

The students will attend classes at Ely High School, but they'll also spend lots of time traveling the Boundary Waters wilderness in canoes and on snowshoes.

The idea came from Superintendent Ray Toutloff -- who grew up in Ely, moved away and returned to head the district. He said he noticed while studying up for his job interview that enrollment was shrinking, and that the district loses thousands of dollars in state aid for every lost student.

Ely schools had 2,000 students in the 1960s. They have less that half that enrollment now -- under 800 and falling. Toutloff guessed that his interviewers would ask if he had ideas to boost enrollment. He was ready.


"Well, I said, outside of bringing in an industry that's going to create jobs and bring in families, maybe there's something we can do with the resources that we have available here. Perhaps we could develop a residential school with an environmental twist," he said.

That was four years ago. Now his idea for a live-in public high school is taking form. The district is teaming up with the YMCA, which runs Camp Widjiwagan and Camp duNord outside of Ely.

The students will live in a dorm at Camp duNord, and get a half-hour bus ride to school. On weekends, they'll go to Camp Widjiwagan, or at least they'll start their weekends there. They'll take trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with camp staffers. The students will hike, canoe and winter camp. And they'll gather data for scientific studies they'll work on in the classroom.

Back at Ely High School, where they'll spend their weekdays, they'll take the same classes as other juniors. They can play sports or join the band. They'll also take a special class in the ecology of the Boundary Waters.

Science teacher Todd Hohenstein, who will run the class, said it will cover everything from geology to botany to climatology.

Hohenstein said the students will spend time in the woods with scientists, and they'll also spend time with loggers, to get a "balanced view" of the north woods.

No students have registered yet, but the school hopes to sign some up this month. Toutloff said local students can sign up, but the program is aimed at city kids.

"We're offering a variety of experiences that should attract a kid from the metropolitan area that can't have those kinds of experiences there," he said.


Toutloff says the program could eventually become its own separate school with as many as 100 students.

The program will compete for students with a new private environmental high school that's opening in Wisconsin. But Toutloff says Ely has at least one competitive advantage: the Wisconsin school costs $25,000 a year. The Ely program will cost about half that. Both schools say they'll offer scholarships.

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