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James E. Schul: The Education Village at WSU: Transforming teachers and our future

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James E. Schul
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There is a crisis in America. A rise in concentrated poverty in the last quarter of a century has led to drastic social and economic inequalities unprecedented in the history of our country.

According to Robert Putnam's book "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," a rising gap between the middle-upper classes and lower classes has resulted in such social dynamics as poorer children having fewer close friends, narrower social networks and a smaller range of informal mentorship than their more economically affluent peers.

These dynamics have presented new challenges for the American public school system. While the last 15 years saw federal and state policy initiatives use punitive measures upon public schools as a means to improve them, the state of Minnesota took a different approach and instead invested in public education. This proactive and progressive approach is manifesting itself in a significant initiative that aspires to transform how teachers are prepared: the Education Village at Winona State University.

WSU was founded in 1858 as the first teacher preparatory school west of the Mississippi River.

The American Midwest is known for being the hotbed for preparing America's teachers, and WSU plays a central role in providing public schools with highly qualified and prepared teachers to guide and enlighten America's youth.

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As a result, WSU is no stranger to being a proactive and benevolent partner with the Rochester community. The Winona State University-Rochester campus continues to expand educational opportunities in the area. Additionally, WSU's outreach in Rochester public schools resulted in a graduate induction program that places highly qualified licensed teachers in the classroom and the recently unveiled STEM Village, which empowers teachers by providing them with easy access to curricular materials that public schools otherwise may not have enough funds to purchase and provide.

The newest educational initiative from WSU is its boldest to date and promises to continue this trend of extending the university's reach beyond Winona. The state of Minnesota is in the midst of renewing this historical initiative by planning to invest nearly $31.2 million in bonding funds to renovate three old buildings on the Winona campus and transform them into an Education Village, where teacher preparation is conducted collaboratively with the communities and schools of southeastern Minnesota.

Imagine busloads of school children learning with teacher candidates in a large maker-space designed to experiment with the most modern digital technologies as a means to enliven a science or geography curriculum. Children will compete and collaborate with one another using miniature cars they've created themselves, experiment with electrical properties using squishy circuits or even explore and examine the outdoors from up high using drones they operate.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine the opportunities opened up for teacher candidates as they regularly interact with school children in their preparation and how these children benefit with hands-on, innovative programs that are not usually available to them otherwise.

Programs like these promise to create close interaction with teacher candidates and school children and will make southeastern Minnesota the talk of the nation as an area for teacher preparation, but we do more than just teacher preparation.

The Education Village also will become a center for older adults who aspire to grow in the areas of leadership, counseling, community education or educational policy. It will be a gathering place that empowers all public and private organizations surrounding it.

The Education Village is scheduled to be unveiled in spring 2018. The Minnesota State Legislature allocated the bond funding for the first phase in 2014, resulting in $5.9 million for architectural design. The second phase calls for $25.3 million in renovation, which Gov. Mark Dayton included in his bonding proposal earlier this year.

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A legislative bonding decision is needed for these funds, and we hope Minnesota legislators will make the Education Village a reality for all of us.

Get ready. Get excited. And, most importantly, share your support for the Education Village with your local state representative. Visit wsu.mn/EdVillage to learn more. Southeastern Minnesota is about to be part of something very special that uplifts your children and your community

James E. Schul, of Winona, is an assistant professor in the Education Studies Department at Winona State University.

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