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Back to his roots

Detroit Lakes native John Flatt has been the School to Work program coordinator since its inception in the mid-1990s. He plans to retire at the end of the school year.

"It's been an interesting ride."

That's how Detroit Lakes native John Flatt describes his 33-year career in education -- a career that began in industrial arts, and culminated in the development of the School to Work program at Detroit Lakes High School.

"It's certainly a major diversion from where I thought my original career plan was going to take me," added Flatt, who will retire as the district's School to Work coordinator at the end of the 2008-09 academic year.

Though Flatt had always envisioned a career in education, it was a two-year detour into working at SJ Electro Systems (now SJE Rhombus) that helped him discover his true passion: helping to prepare students for their future careers.

"I never knew there were so many people out there who lacked the skills to be gainfully employed," said Flatt.

As a plant operations manager at SJ Electro, it was his responsibility to conduct tours for prospective workers who had applied for a job there. What he witnessed during that time was that many of the applicants were completely unprepared for employment in a skilled labor setting -- some were lacking even the basics of reading, writing and simple math.

"My passion for School to Work and preparing kids for the workforce... a lot of it came from what I observed during that time," Flatt said.

But after Flatt left SJ Electro, he returned to the industrial arts classroom for a time, first at the junior high, and then the senior high level.

When Flatt's mentor at DLHS, industrial arts teacher Howard Tyberg, decided to retire, Flatt was offered the position.

But Flatt had learned his lessons well -- when he was laid off from his industrial arts position at DLHS three years earlier, at least part of the reason was because students' interest had been captured by personal computing -- which at that time was a business course.

"I knew if we wanted to survive in industrial arts, our curriculum would have to change," he said.

So Flatt put together what he called a Manufacturing and Technology Education (MATE) Advisory Committee, including local business leaders from SJ Electro, BTD Manufacturing and Dynamic Homes.

What the committee came up with was the addition of courses in Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) and Computer Numerical Control (CNC, which involved the use of computer-controlled metal working machines).

Flatt himself also partnered with DLHS physics teacher Kris Skrutvold to develop something that at that time was considered truly innovative -- a class known as "Principles of Technology," which integrated concepts of modern science and physics with industrial technology.

Their team-teaching approach was considered so innovative, in fact, that the duo was often asked to make presentations at schools across the state.

But as with many innovative programs, the new course did not come without a few early hiccups.

Flatt recalled one incident in which he made the mistake of announcing the following week's class assignment on a Friday afternoon.

"The assignment was to design a launching device for a tennis ball, and predict how far the ball would travel based on its components," Flatt said.

By the following Monday, some enterprising students had already built their device -- a cannon which used an explosive substance known as oxyacetylene, most often used in welding, to launch the ball.

"I called the dad of one of the kids (on the two-person team) and said there was a safety factor involved," Flatt said. "The dad signed a waiver assuming responsibility (for the kids' safety)."

It's something that never would have been allowed in a 21st century classroom, Flatt added. But the experiment was a success.

"It captured the interest of a lot of kids," he said. "I learned quickly that before you announce a project you'd better set the parameters ahead of time."

When his teaching partner left the district, Flatt went back to teaching industrial arts at the junior high level for three years -- and then, in the fall of 1995, Paul White of BTD Manufacturing approached him about starting a youth apprenticeship program at the high school.

The task force that was charged with the responsibility of creating the program involved representatives from not only BTD, but Team Industries in Audubon, Northwest Technical College (now M-State) in Detroit Lakes, and several area teachers and counselors.

"We created courses to go along with the work experience component of the high school curriculum," Flatt said.

That task force eventually became the School to Work Advisory Board. Over the years, the program was expanded beyond manufacturing and technology to include fields such as agriculture, communications, public safety and administration, marketing and more.

"One thing I'm proud of is our focus on the (individual) needs of the students," Flatt said. "I think that's why our School to Work partnerships remain so strong."

It's those partnerships that Flatt will miss most, as well as "the magic that happens when you see a student make a connection -- that 'A-ha!' moment -- and see the satisfaction in their eyes."

But at the same time, Flatt is looking forward to "getting back to my roots" -- i.e., woodworking and construction, which were his specialty as an industrial arts instructor.

"I'm putting up a woodworking shop," he said, adding that some of the work he does there is going to be for family, some for fun, and some for money.

But he has no plans to leave Detroit Lakes, where he and wife Cheryl -- a kindergarten teacher in Ogema -- have raised their two sons to adulthood.

"I just want to simplify my life a little," Flatt said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454