Kathrina O’Connell, the Lake Park-Audubon Elementary School teacher who started a groundbreaking summer reading program and made a name for herself as a leader of nature-based, hands-on learning projects, has been named one of the state’s four “2020 Educators of Excellence” by the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

“It’s such an honor,” O’Connell told the Tribune this week. “To receive this award is such a joy and such a privilege.”

O'Connell taught sixth grade at LP-A Elementary for nine years, up until this school year when she became a professor at Bemidji State University. Today, she teaches literacy courses to future educators through the university’s online program, while still overseeing the summer reading program at LP-A.

“I feel so privileged to have been able to work at LP-A for nine years, and I’m terribly sad to not be there with the staff and students and my teammate, Mary (Softing),” O’Connell said. “But I feel like in the role I’m in now, at Bemidji State…I can ultimately reach more students, but still get to work here at LP-A and continue with the project I started in 2019.”

That project is the Literacy Academy, a research-backed program she designed to keep middle school students engaged in reading over the summer months, to keep their literacy skills from suffering a summer slump. She started the program as her doctoral research project, after noticing that students’ reading test scores tended to be lower at the start of a new school year than they were the spring prior.

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While summer reading programs aren’t necessarily unique, the Literacy Academy at LP-A offers vital ‘extras’ that most don’t -- free meals and transportation for the students who enroll. At a rural school like LP-A, O’Connell said, those kinds of supports make all the difference.

The program is voluntary, but almost 100 students in grades 5-8 took part last summer, including more than half of all sixth graders. By the end, the students all said they felt their literacy skills had improved, O’Connell said, and 100% of parents wanted their kids to continue with the program. Test scores showed that participating students gained in reading skills over the summer, rather than lost.

“It’s four hours a day, four days a week, over 4 weeks, so it’s almost a quarter’s worth of reading time — a significant amount of instruction time,” O’Connell said of the Literacy Academy. She added that it's also fun for the kids, with recess every day, group activities, breakfast and lunch provided, and a daily “hot chocolate bar” with toppings like whipped cream and sprinkles.

O'Connell, masked up at the Literacy Academy this past summer. (Submitted Photo)
O'Connell, masked up at the Literacy Academy this past summer. (Submitted Photo)

O’Connell applied for grants and did a bunch of fundraising to help get the academy going, but she credits the LP-A School Board’s support — including that crucial transportation piece — as a key factor in the program’s success. She’s already gotten permission from the board to bring the academy back again next summer, and hopes to one day expand it to include younger ages and grade levels, down to pre-kindergarten.

The Literacy Academy won’t be her only lasting legacy at LP-A: She’s also well known for big projects related to gardening and growing things.

Introduced to nature-based learning by Softing, who is also a sixth grade teacher at LP-A Elementary, O’Connell said the two of them started a small vegetable garden for their students a few years back. That morphed into a pollinator garden and grew a little bigger. Then, in 2017, O’Connell won a competitive $10,000 grant from the national Grow Rural Education program to significantly expand the garden, and that opened the door for the whole school to get involved, along with about a dozen other community organizations such as the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“Every student in the elementary school had a part in the pollinator garden,” she said. “They dug the holes, they put the seeds in … It’s just an amazing thing to see. It’s just magical.”

Around that same time, she was reaching out to local businesses, as well as the LP-A High School’s Buildings and Trades Class, for their support in getting a greenhouse built at LP-A Elementary, for year-round growing. With the community’s help, she got it done. And soon after, the school had received two grants for two hydroponic gardens, one for each sixth grade classroom.

“So we switched from pollination to thinking about healthy eating habits and different systems of farming,” O’Connell said. “Especially living in an agricultural community, (it’s important to) try to get kids to think about, ‘What does agriculture mean for us?’ … To get students to think beyond just picking up a bag of vegetables from the grocery store.”

All the projects she’s gotten to be a part of over the past nine years, she said, “have been very rewarding, for many, many reasons.”

O'Connell, center, and her colleagues Mary Softing, left, and Shanna Bach, were left to take care of the plants at LP-A Elementary School without students last spring, due to COVID-19. They held a plant sale that raised $1,000 for future greenhouse programming. (Submitted Photo)
O'Connell, center, and her colleagues Mary Softing, left, and Shanna Bach, were left to take care of the plants at LP-A Elementary School without students last spring, due to COVID-19. They held a plant sale that raised $1,000 for future greenhouse programming. (Submitted Photo)

Craig Bahr, the principal at LP-A Elementary, described O’Connell’s teaching style as “student-centered,” “high quality” and “always relevant to the situation or the times.”

“Dr. O’Connell just created a classroom that, whether you’re an adult or a student, it felt like a privilege to be in the room,” Bahr said. “She always just chose such engaging activities.. It was great instruction and a great place to be… Schoolwide, she did so much.”

A “go-getter” type of person with high empathy, he added, O’Connell “would always do things to the best of her ability. She was just a model for us as a lifelong learner, for both students and adults.”

Born and raised in Lake Park, O’Connell has a deep and unique connection to the LP-A Elementary School — and to the sixth grade, in particular. She and her twin brother, she explained, both attended LP-A Elementary, and were taught by their own grandmother, who was the sixth grade teacher there at the time.

Ending up back in her hometown as an adult, at her old elementary school, teaching the same class that her grandmother once taught, has been “very, very special to me,” O’Connell said. She was hired 50 years — to the day — after her grandmother was hired.

O’Connell’s path back to her old sixth grade classroom was a winding one. After graduating from LP-A High School, she and her husband, David, moved around quite a bit for his military job. She taught in Spain and New York, to kids in preschool through third grade, and also taught English language learners — a role she continued at LP-A.

She and David have three sons, one of whom is in college and the other two who attend LP-A High School. The family lives in Lake Park.

O’Connell will be formally honored as an Educator of Excellence at the Minnesota Rural Education Association’s annual conference and awards banquet on Sunday, Nov. 15, which will be live streamed at www.mreavoice.org/mreacon.

She was chosen for the honor from a pool of nominees from four geographic zones in Minnesota, based on her impact, innovation, leadership and collaboration. The other three honorees this year are Jacqueline Stoffel of Bemidji, Chad Powers of New London-Spicer, and Andrew Hopkins of Waseca.