The fourth graders of Willow Lane Elementary School in White Bear Lake are taking the premise of reality show “Shark Tank” and making it bite-sized.

Willow Lane reading teacher Leigh Anderson and her students are preparing to pitch a charity of their choice to five “sharks” in the hope that a $2,000 donation will be awarded to their winning charity.

Anderson decided to start the Minnow Tank project with her fourth graders after getting inspiration from Willow Lane’s partnership with Donatelli’s Italian restaurant in White Bear Lake.

Every year the fifth graders from Willow Lane have an opportunity to gain some real-world experience building resumes, practicing interviews and working side by side with the staff at Donatelli’s restaurant. The tips collected from the night go to Hopekids, an organization that works with children and their families who are affected with life-threatening illnesses.

Anderson wanted to provide a similar charitable, leadership-based project with the fourth graders where they could conduct research on a cause they care about under the mentorship of adults from the community. They would then pitch the existing charity to a group of donors, who will serve as the judges, or “sharks.”

Anderson aims to raise a total of $2,000, donated by the community, which will be awarded to the group with the best pitch and donated to the students’ charity of choice.

The Minnow Tank’s pilot began in 2018 and various iterations of the project followed in 2019 and 2020, but 2021 is the first year Anderson has officially had the project down pat with her fourth graders.

Willow Lane Elementary is particularly unique because of its diverse student population. According to Anderson, 70% of students at Willow Lane are students of color.

Anderson wanted to give these students a chance to feel empowered while looking for an opportunity to close the achievement gap that students of color face.

“We want to empower kids, not enable them. And if we’re truly going to break that cycle, we need to show them that their presence in the world matters,” says Anderson.

Anderson hopes to instill the idea that her students could make a difference in their community, so she began to show her students examples of kids just like them who have chosen to donate to charities in their own community.

“I soon found that when we started the project, the kids didn't understand what charities were. I took that as a sign to practice our research skills.”

The fourth graders were assigned to go home to their families and have a discussion about their personal values. When the students reported back the next day, several themes began to emerge.

The students valued causes like animals, veterans, childhood diseases, cancer, climate change, eliminating hunger, and keeping the ocean clean. From there, Anderson matched the kids with charities that fit their interests.

This year, the fourth graders selected 11 charities:  White Bear Lake Food Shelf, Environmental Protection Agency, Hopekids, Ocean Conservancy, The Jane Goodall Institute, Masonic Cancer Center of Minnesota, White Bear Lake Humane Society, Muscular Dystrophy, Wounded Warriors, Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue, and Pacer, a children’s mental health resource.

After the fourth graders selected their charities, they were paired with coaches provided by the White Bear Rotary to guide the students in their research and help them with their final presentations.

Jackie Reis of the White Bear Lake Rotary, a service organization, became connected with the Minnow Tank project after the club made a goal to recommit to its diversity, equity and inclusion goals following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020.

Rotary set a goal to understand how systemic racism affects the White Bear community. Given given the percentage of students of color at Willow Lane, Rotary members wanted to reach out and see how they could break some of the cycles that affect students of color by mentoring students through the Minnow Tank project.

“It’s got to be so mutually beneficial, because the students and adults are both learning from each other,” said Reis. “The students can see the adults care about them, and the adults see what today’s young people are like.”

The coaches began working with students Nov. 29, and will see their assigned group a total of six times for half an hour each Monday and Tuesday until Dec. 14. The students will present to the sharks on Dec. 20.

But the Minnow Tank project doesn’t end there. Anderson’s vision is to have members of Rotary continue to mentor the students of Willow Lane over the span of three years.

Rotary coaches will be paired up with a group of third graders and stay with that group until fifth grade, mentoring them along the way as the kids learn more about charities and acts of service.

“I think, hopefully, we’ll watch them mature as they learn more about giving back and gratitude and service. The Rotary is all about service,” said Reis.

And while the fourth graders work toward that goal of gratitude and service, they’ll get a chance to face off with the sharks of White Bear Lake for the coveted $2,000 donation.

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