August 20, 2007

Behind the scenes of DC Community Ed

Five staff members are crucial to the success of the Dassel-Cokato Community Ed program

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Behind the scenes at Dassel-Cokato’s Community Education, a person will find five busy individuals working together to bring a variety of programs and classes for kids and adults of all ages.

The five staff members that are crucial in providing programs of opportunity and fun include Perry Thinesen, director; Colleen Compton, adult programs coordinator; Rebecca Warpula, early childhood programs coordinator; Leslie Arnold, youth programs coordinator; and Shannon Smieja, secretary, receptionist, and graphic designer.

Each have different jobs to do, but all work together to make Community Education possible for DC.

Community Ed Director

Now acting as both the activities director for the high school and Community Education director, Perry Thinesen will have his work cut out starting this fall.

Thinesen officially took over the part time director position for Community Education July 1.

Prior to this, DC shared a community education director with Litchfield, but recent budget cuts forced the district to make some changes, including combining the two positions.

With this combined position, Thinesen will be working with Community Education 40 percent of his time, or approximately two days a week.

“This will vary since each area has its exceptionally busy times,” Thinesen said.

His duties are primarily administrating the program and working with and overseeing the other staff members.

“Much of it is making sure we have programs reflective of the community and meeting their needs and wants. That’s what Community Education is all about,” he said.

Thinesen has an extensive background in working and directing for community education, not to mention his early years participating as a youth.

In 1997, Thinesen received his master’s degree in Community Education administration while teaching and coaching at DC.

Then, he left DC and accepted a job in community education in Caledonia, before moving on to Farmington, and then to North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District before returning to DC in 2003.

These three districts gave Thinesen the opportunity to see a variety of programs and how they fit each community.

As far as working in Community Education, there is a lot to like about it, Thinesen said.

He especially likes the idea behind Community Education, which is providing lifelong learning opportunities from preschool-age to senior citizens.

Having grown up in DC, Thinesen spent much of his childhood participating in Community Education programs including Little League baseball, attending a variety of field trips, and summer recreation programs.

As he got older, he began working for Community Education in high school and college.

He coached Little League, was a summer recreation coordinator, and even a bus driver.

These positive experiences helps “spur” him to work in Community Education.

With his experiences, Thinesen can say DC has one of the best Community Education programs around. He credits this to the “exceptional” staff and the advisory council; a representative council of 10 which meets six times a year to discuss and suggest program ideas.

“This makes us feel more confident we are not missing any groups in the community,” Thinesen said.

Thinesen has been spending the past month learning what is done here and figuring out how to go about business in his new position at DC.

So far, things are going well for him, but once school starts, it will be “interesting to balance,” he said.

Once programs begin in the fall, Thinesen plans on observing and watching the kids having a “blast.” He particularly likes watching kids having fun while learning, Thinesen said.

Adult Programs Coordinator

Colleen Compton, like the others, wears several hats. She is not only the adult programs coordinator, but she also is responsible for some youth enrichment programs including music and dance lessons, coordinates the Prairie Fire Children’s Theatre summer productions, and is the school liaison to the Dassel-Cokato Arts Association, where she is also the executive director.

Although the arts association is separate from Community Education, the association does contract with them to sell tickets, make brochures, and newsletters.

“We are the Ticketmaster for the arts association,” Compton said.

There are many things Compton enjoys about her job, but one of her favorites is working with the arts, such as community theater.

Having worked for Community Education for 17 years, Compton has seen kids that once performed in the Prairie Fire Children’s Theatre come full circle to perform in community theatre.

Although the Community Education budget was trimmed by $10,000, the fees remain affordable, and with the quality of staff, it is able to offer more programs.

This year, Community Education offered 509 classes/programs and had 4,351 participants.

One of the challenges for Compton is finding space for the programs. It gets especially hard during the school months when so many school activities are taking place around the high school/middle school facility, but nonetheless it is a good problem to have, she said.

Some people ask Compton why she’s so “chipper” when she answers the phones. She replies, “Because I love my job.”

Compton feels blessed to love her job so much. She also likes to think that the work she does with Community Education and the Arts Association helps to make this a better community, she said.

Youth Programs Coordinator

Leslie Arnold is in her sixth year working for Community Education. She oversees and sets up youth recreation and the school-age child care program, Charger Kids Club.

Along with this, Arnold administers the Wright County Family Service Collaborative grant which funds at-risk programs in the district.

Some of the programs include Jump Start; an elementary early intervention program, which sets academic and behavioral goals before school; the youth mentoring program, FLY, for high school and middle school-age students; and Kindness, Courage, and Respect retreats for fourth, sixth, and ninth grade students.

As a youth, Arnold participated in several of Litchfield’s Community Education programs and was in three youth sports. Her participation as a child has made her eager to work as a youth programs coordinator.

Her favorite activity is sports equipment handout night when the fifth and sixth grade tackle football teams get their pads and uniforms.

“They get such big smiles on their faces, you know you are making someone happy,” Arnold said.

Some parents have even told her, their sons slept in their uniforms after they got them.

Community Education is a place to make [kids] feel they belong, she said.

“We are all good at something different,” she added.

Early Childhood Programs Coordinator

Rebecca Warpula believes a great education starts early, which happens to be the program’s slogan.

She is responsible for Early Childhood and Family Education, school readiness preschool; Play ‘N Learn, and early childhood screening.

Much of her work consists of planning activities for parents and children, birth through kindergarten.

The philosophy is, “To support parents in the job of parenting young children and providing quality education for children.”

The last few years have been exciting for Warpula with new research on brain development.

“We now know how important prenatal to age 3 is for brain development – how vital parent interaction is with children during that time,” she said.

Warpula says that’s the time to grow a genius.

Research shows that the more parents interact with a child during that stage, the greater their vocabulary. This is important since a child’s future learning ability is based largely on their vocabulary, Warpula said.

Early Childhood programs are a great introduction to the Dassel Cokato school system, she added.

“A great education starts early,” she said.

A helping hand

Shannon Smieja also has a wide variety of duties in the Community Education office. She is the point of contact for ECFE and Community Education.

“I’m the first person they meet and talk with,” she said.

As with the other staff, Smieja wears many hats, but she says her favorite part of the job is multi-tasking.

With a degree in graphic design, Smieja is contracted to do posters and newsletters for the DC Arts Association. She is also responsible for the online registration for Community Education.

Her coworkers can also say she is the money girl since she is in charge of a lot of money that comes into the office.

“A lot of money passes through her hands,” Compton said. Smieja is responsible for finances, bookkeeping, registration, and selling tickets for the arts association.

“We couldn’t do it without her,” Compton said.

Advisory Committee

To help ensure Community Education programs are representative of the community it serves, there is an advisory committee to help with suggestions and ideas.

With approximately 10 members, the committee meets six times a year to discuss current and future programs.

“It functions for Community Education like school board does for the district,” said member Bob Gasch.

Being a storyteller and visiting several districts, Gasch has a sense of what other districts offer.

“I come back and realize how great ours really is,” he said.

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