The industrial arts classroom at Belle Plaine High School bustled with activity on Monday, July 6. The unmistakable popping and hissing of a stick welder drowned out Bruce Mathiowetz’s voice as he gave instruction to a row of students learning to fuse varying widths of metal in varying patterns using sticks of metal with varying tensile strengths.
Students have filled the classroom, which more closely resembles an equipment laden garage, since June 15, when schools across Minnesota were allowed to hold summer classes. Except Mathiowetz’s students aren’t receiving credit, and they’re all okay with that.
Last March, right before the most stringent of coronavirus shutdowns began taking effect, BPHS was awarded a $5905 grant from the Minnesota Department of Education. The funds sprouting from the department’s Agricultural Education Summer Program are earmarked for schools around the state to pay for licensed agricultural education teachers for an agriculture program over the summer for high school students in extended programs. All told, the grant program was prepared to dole out $250,000 to qualified Minnesota schools on a one-to-one matching basis. With a limited grant window, Mathiowetz had a continually shrinking frame in which he could use the funds.
Now, Mathiowetz is wasting no time giving students what he describes as much-needed face-to-face instructional time. Within the scope of the program, Mathiowetz is offering a range of career and technical education courses, including welding, computer assisted drafting, construction, and farming classes, which take students to two plots of district-owned farmland.
Students of all skill and grade levels have stopped by Mathiowetz’s classroom. Many are seeing the tools in the classroom for the first time.
“Some of this is just kids coming in to learn and try,” Mathiowetz said.
Other students are using the summer program to finish projects leftover from this spring that they never had the chance to finish. Mathiowetz said he has even had a recent graduate return to the classroom.
Students who excel at welding specifically may get a chance to earn college credit. They can do so by earning 9s or 10s, which are given on a 1-10 scale, on about 25 different welds.
On Monday, a student who is set to enter 10th grade stopped by the classroom for the first time. Mathiowetz said she wanted to try welding because her grandfather has a welder, and she wants to learn how to use it. Mathiowetz tasked the student to attempt a straight weld on a flat piece of steel. What she produced was a gentle rolling overlapping pattern of once melted metal without extremities and in a virtually straight line.
“That would be a 10,” Mathiowetz said.
“Really?” replied the student with an even greater surprised expression.
Mathiowetz then called her fellow students, some of whom appeared to have at least some experience welding, over to view her work.
“It’s beautiful,” another student said before giving her a high five.
Mathiowetz said it’s not uncommon for new students, particularly those with an artistic flair, to “weld circles” around him. Seeing new students succeed for Mathiowetz is a welcome sight after COVID-19 ground his instruction, which is inherently hands-on, to a screeching halt.
But despite the excitement of returning to in-person instruction, Mathiowetz remains cautious about the possibility that instruction could be halted again at a moment’s notice. That’s why he plans instruction on a week-to-week basis and sends out a weekly sign up. Additionally, no more than nine students are allowed in any class at a time. But for now, he’ll take what he can get.
“I’m loving it because I’m working with kids again,” Mathiowetz said.
As for general summer school programs, they’ll start up in about a week, for now as distance-only programs, according to Superintendent Ryan Laager.
As of Monday, district administration was reviewing data collected from a public survey asking the Belle Plaine community whether they would like to see school remain in a distance learning environment or in-person instruction. The survey also gauged interest in school-sponsored transportation, among other items. Administrators were set to review the survey Tuesday, July 7, after the Herald went to press.
The Minnesota Department of Education in conjunction with Gov. Tim Walz are expected to announce whether schools will return to in-person instruction, continue as distance learning or a hybrid of both on July 27.