Students join White Bear district’s Big Sleuth project

Students give input on White Bear Lake Area Schools’ Big Sleuth idea project at Flipgrid in Minneapolis during a meeting in January. 

Earlier this school year, White Bear Lake Area Schools staff submitted 143 innovative ideas for The Big Sleuth project. 

Staff members then voted on the ideas and six came out on top — in terms of cost, one big idea, two medium ideas and three small ideas. 

The one big idea is how the district can best provide mental health support for staff and students. The two medium ideas are a washer and dryer at the Area Learning Center (ALC) and considering delaying secondary school start times. The small ideas are more recess time, flexible professional development options and how teachers can share their school pictures with families in need.

Students are now helping staff and design coaches determine how to accomplish the ideas, said Mark Garrison, director of technology and innovation. Students selected by winning staff members met together at Flipgrid in Minneapolis last month to brainstorm using the “design thinking” process, which focuses on understanding what users really need, he explained. The district plans to begin implementing or researching the ideas this year. 

For example, it would be simple to add a washer and dryer to the ALC this year but the core need behind the idea is student dignity, Garrison said. The group discussed what else it could do to promote student dignity at the ALC.

Other ideas, like considering changing school start times, will take considerable research and further community involvement, in addition to a vote by the school board.  

One teacher at Hugo Elementary will complete a prototype study this semester on recess time. They will document amount of recess time, class behavior and engagement, Garrison said. A teacher team at Otter Lake Elementary is also performing a six-week study on recess options — outdoors, indoors and a student choice room. 

“We might have a (recess) prototype ready to propose to all of district by spring or fall,” Garrison said. 

The group that is looking at how teachers can share their school pictures with families in need will also be discussing other areas where finances are a barrier for students. The group will work with the photography company to determine how teachers, who always receive a packet of school pictures for free, can instead share them with students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

White Bear Lake Area Schools is being mentored by UnitedHealthcare for The Big Sleuth. The company has been mentoring more and more school districts over the last several years in a program that gathers ideas from staff on the front lines of work using a method the company has found to be successful.

The district did not need to obtain special funding for the program; it will come from regular budgets. The big idea won't cost over $5,000 and the smaller ideas will cost less.

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