MPA Free Spirit: Setting The Example For Our Students

Katie Murr, Upper School history teacherBy definition, a free spirit is an independent person. And at MPA, we teach kids to think independently–by setting the example for them. MPA teachers are free spirits themselves, equipped with a community of support behind them. When asking teachers what their favorite part about teaching at MPA is, we often hear a trait that they say is very unique to MPA: the freedom of teacher autonomy.

There’s a lot that makes MPA teachers amazing, memorable, and impactful. But their autonomy to be creative and collaborative allows them to not only adjust their lessons to fit the ever-changing world, but to ensure that their students are enjoying what they’re learning. In MPA’s early years, the first batch of teachers shared a common vision around creating a different type of school and learning environment for children. Our founding faculty wanted to teach at a school that would foster their own collaborative spirits as well as their students’. They began working together to design a cohesive curriculum, and this early emphasis on collaboration among faculty set the foundational groundwork for teacher autonomy at MPA today.

Free Spirits Know Their Students
Teacher autonomy applies to all disciplines at MPA and is highly valued by teachers and administrators alike. In order to work, it relies on trust and the understanding that MPA teachers are professionals who know their students best. Knowing our students is one of the hallmarks of a Mounds Park Academy education, stemming from our commitment to small class sizes.

Upper School biology teacher Mitch Thomsen can attest to this. He appreciates that each lab, project, and lesson can be customized to fit his students’ highest possible growth and potential. “The small size makes it easier to communicate with colleagues and to help ensure that no student gets lost in the shuffle,” he remarks. “I like that I am in charge of my budget and the chance to obtain materials, in the right amounts, to maximize the learning from each lab.” Read More

Thriving Through Winter in Minnesota

student playing in the snow at recessWith any relocation, there are many moving parts as families transition their lives somewhere new–one of them being your first Minnesota winter! Minnesota has a climate that allows us to experience four distinct seasons. With the right mindset and preparation, experiencing the transformation from one season to the next is inspirational and invigorating. Here’s how you can set your family on a path to thrive, not just survive, through your new favorite season here.

Keep Kids Moving
The winter months can get long here in Minnesota. It’s cold outside and there is less daylight, so it can be hard to stay motivated, but physical activity is important for everyone all year round–especially young children. Physical activity is vital to a child’s success emotionally, physically, and mentally. It helps them build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints, and prevents chronic diseases. Physical activity is beneficial for the development of cognitive skills, which can help kids stay more focused in the classroom. It also helps kids sleep better and significantly reduces stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

At Mounds Park Academy, we believe in the importance of physical activity and encourage students to be active outdoors throughout the year. We know that children need time to play and socialize, so our students have recess every day—even in the winter. Although it’s colder outside, all it takes is a few extra layers. The benefits are seen in the classroom as well as on the rosy faces of our students.

MPA students also embrace winter through their activities and athletics, such as the Middle and Upper School Alpine (downhill) ski team, Middle and Upper School Nordic (cross country) ski team, the boys hockey team, grade level group outdoor adventures like snowtubing, and Northern MN i-Term adventures like dogsledding. Read More

What Students Discover In Ninth Grade At MPA

Upper School chemistry class in a labAt Mounds Park Academy, Upper School is demanding, but not draining. The rigorous college-preparatory curriculum is balanced and always focused on the application of learning rather than memorization. Whether studying chemical processes up close and hands-on, diving deep into constitutional law, or taking on a character through the art of improvisation, our students connect their profound content knowledge to the world in ways that prepare them to make an impact.

So, what will you discover when you begin your Upper School journey at MPA?

Rigor With Purpose
“I love the sense of high expectation coupled with a supportive environment which I think is so key for my daughter,” says MPA alum and Upper School parent Dr. Sirid Kellermann ’88. “It can be challenging to recognize and play up your strengths, and to work on the things you’re not so hot at academically.”

Academic rigor peaks in Upper School at MPA, intentionally woven into Upper School students’ education every day. In addition to asking the “why” and “how” behind their lessons, Upper School teachers also ask more of their students, and synchronously, students expect more from their peers. This beautiful balance results in classes that are engaging, hands-on, and challenging. Rigor means that students are not told how to solve problems, but rather given the chance to explore and discover applicable solutions, because at MPA, rigor equates to participation and involvement. It means that students are not sitting in the back, bored, disengaged and distracted, but instead are challenged, attentive, actively participating, and eager to be diving deep into complex concepts. As a result, students graduate prepared life. Read More

MPA Doer: Growing A Sustainable Future

Cassie AtkinsonWe are launching a special story series where we profile Dreamers, Doers, Freethinkers, and Right Makers in the MPA community to inspire one another. Do you have an impactful story to share? Email!

If you spend time at MPA during the summer, you’ll notice the lavish blooms and abundant vegetables and herbs that sprout about every year. You’ll also notice a particular student tending to the flora, ensuring that it is reaching its full potential and seeking out ways to enhance and sustain it. MPA senior Cassie Atkinson, consistently gives her time, dedication, and creativity to the campus gardens during the summer and throughout the year. She has a love for the outdoors, including a deep knowledge of plants and animals, is a leader of the Upper School E-Club, and inspires those around her to consider the environment with the same care that she does. Her work includes the general caretaking of the outdoor space, but it also careful curation and ingenuity when it comes to environmental efficiency. Cassie’s notable passion for sustainability has even produced amazing features such as the medicine wheel garden, a native botanical practice.

Cassie working with E-ClubCassie’s commitment to sustainability does not go unnoticed among our community. In fact, it led to Dr. Jurewicz—the interim Lower School director—approaching the senior, asking if she would take on the task of getting MPA’s old aeroponic tower up and running. Since this tower has been unused in the building for decades, Dr. J saw an opportunity to put it to good use and have an experienced student teach younger peers about an important topic. Shortly after, a senior service project was born, as Cassie agreed to use this growing equipment to teach younger students about aeroponics and sustainable growing. Cassie will show students what the aeroponic tower can grow, how it works, and even have some taste tests from whatever is harvested.

Cassie expressed that this is an incredibly important project, because “sustainable living is the future.”

“Especially for young people, who don’t have the financial liberties to make sustainable choices in their energy consumption,” she said.

Through the awareness Cassie is raising, a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds can have the opportunity to participate in sustainable living by growing their own produce, and protecting wildlife and their habitats. She’s very excited to promote this project and mission to the community.

Although Cassie had plenty of sustainability topics to choose from she says that “aeroponics is becoming increasingly important for humans to acknowledge because the resources and land we live on are critical and limited. Ninety percent of farmland is cultivated for cattle in the U.S.– That is a lot of tallgrass land that should be restored to preserve a natural carbon cycle. It’s also important for people to know that it’s possible to grow your own food in urban settings, with limited or no space for soil. Machines like the aeroponic tower preserve space and make it possible.”

Cassie’s senior service project is one that will impact younger generations to invest in their future through sustainable methods. The project’s initial processes will start this month and take four to six weeks to begin running smoothly.

The Power Of Connection

Justin in the Upper school commons with friendsThe following essay is adapted from MPA Class of 2023 member Justin Choi’s Senior Speech.

I’ve always feared change. There’s something about leaving everything known and entering new territories that scares me. When my family and I made a choice to move to Minnesota, I didn’t have the time to fully evaluate the process of moving to a new country, a new environment. I was on the plane to Los Angeles when I realized how much of my life was packed on a small island in Hong Kong, and in that plane seat I also realized how frightened I was. I had never even met a single person in America. I had only met my aunts and uncles when they would occasionally visit Hong Kong or the rare time we would visit America, but even then, I’d never had a whole conversation with them. I realized this was going to be the biggest change of my life, and I had no idea how to even adapt.

I landed at MSP, and I immediately felt lost. I didn’t know where I was in the country, I didn’t have any friends, I had never seen lakes, boats…farms! I felt tiny–coming from Hong Kong, where I was the same size as everyone else–felt weird. In Hong Kong, there were mountains surrounding a concrete jungle. I could walk the streets throughout the whole city and find my way home. Here, I couldn’t even get from my house to my school…and for our first year here, we lived in the apartments right by MPA! Read More

MPA Preview Sessions Revealed!

Middle School science projectIf you have ever dreamed of a way to experience life at MPA in a day, the PreK-12 Preview is the perfect opportunity to discover why you belong here. You and your entire family are warmly invited to attend the MPA Preview on Sunday, November 6 at 2 PM.

This event will provide prospective families with an opportunity to truly discover the type of remarkable hands-on learning that MPA students do each day. You will rotate among several classes taught by our expert faculty. These will be interactive, experiential sessions that are actually abbreviated versions of real MPA lessons, modified to be appropriate for all ages.


Physical Education: Juggling Scarves
Get ready to move, play, and laugh! Students will learn the basics of juggling by using one, two, or three scarves.

The Joy of World Language
There is so much joy in world language at MPA! In this session, you will learn some fall vocabulary, sing songs, play a game, and possibly work on a small craft.

“The Fall Song:” Bringing A Poem To Life
With “actor tools”–your body, face, and voice–join us for this intro to Lower School theatre. Put these tools to work and bring a poem to life!

Makerspace Marble Roll 
Ready, set, roll! This beloved fourth grade Makerspace activity requires teamwork, creativity, patience, and enthusiasm.

Food Education
Join Ms. Santiago for a condensed hands-on version of her “Edible & Educational” ISACS food education fellowship work!

Science Sort
Students will love this sorting activity with our first grade teachers. This activity will be based on a short book, and then students will sort object-possible buttons by various features such as size and color. This will be hands-on and participatory. Read More

One Space, Infinite Possibilities

MPA’s Makerspace intentionally provides students with opportunities to construct meaning through making with practical, hands-on, interdisciplinary, problem-based projects. In this space, students of all ages use design thinking to develop empathy with individuals and design creative solutions to problems through an iterative process involving brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. The Makerspace allows for the blend of technical and creative skills conducive to developing a well-rounded individual.

Kindergarteners are experiencing the immersive magic that occurs daily in our Makerspace. For one of their first projects of the year, the eager students gathered around Mr. Braafladt, the Makerspace technology and innovation teacher. They watched in wonder as he carefully demonstrated their tasks and introduced the letter block activity.

The first letters that children learn are most often the ones in their names. In early kindergarten, names are used to practice letter recognition, syllables, counting, and so much more. In this project, Ms. Santiago’s class leveraged the Makerspace to take this foundational literacy work to a more creative and hands-on level.

For this experiential learning activity, kindergarteners were given small blocks of wood with the letters of their names outlined on them. Their challenge was to glue different materials over these outlined letters, producing unique and personalized art pieces.

Ms. Santiago explains, “Even though this project gave each student a beautiful end product, it is a prime example of a process-driven Makerspace experience for the students. Mr. Braafladt and I offered a wide variety of materials and intentionally left the rest up to the kids. They had to decide which material to use, how to best attach the material to their letters, and how to troubleshoot the problems that came up as they worked. Process-driven learning fosters creativity, independence, and perseverance.”

According to a Philly Art Center article on the importance of process-driven art for children, “If we show them an example and proceed to teach them exactly how to make their project the same as ours, we have only given students one answer to one question and both came from us. But if we instead give them materials and demonstrate the many ways they can use that material, we are posing questions and teaching them to find their own solutions in a world of possibility.” The Makerspace letter block project is an instrumental activity in developing autonomy for young MPA learners!

Tools For A Successful, Happy, And Healthy School Year

Two Upper School students working togetherfrom Dr. Jules Nolan, MPA school psychologist

Among the excitement and speedy pace of returning to school, we tend to feel a lot of varying emotions. Friendships and routines are re-ignited, new ones are formed, and our students begin to settle in amidst change all around them. This fall, we asked Dr. Jules Nolan, MPA school psychologist, for advice on supporting children in a new school year to equip you and your family with tools for a successful, happy, and healthy year.

Dr. Nolan’s Top Three Tips
First, remember that anytime we experience big changes in our lives (new school year, new house, new baby) our brain goes into “safety” mode and spends thinking resources scanning the environment to ensure safety. This is a largely unconscious process but can manifest in our bodies like nervousness and feeling uncertain. During times like this, we are likely to be forgetful, feel scattered, and have a hard time initiating tasks or persisting when things get tough. In children and teens, this can look like low frustration tolerance, reluctance to try new things, high emotionality, tiredness, and so on. Our brains are calmed by routine, familiarity, pattern, and predictability. It is important to fortify your routines so that you are getting up and going to bed at the same time, eating at the same time, choosing clothes the night before, setting out what you need to remember the night before, etc. Essentially, your brain gets busy with seeking the familiar, and that makes it hard to make small decisions, remember things, and so on. Routine and structure calm the brain and this phase will pass quickly (a few weeks) if you focus on predictability, routine, and structure.

Second, remember that even if you have had a great and smooth “back to school,” after a few weeks of “honeymoon,” you may begin to see changes in your students like loss of motivation, lack of interest in studying, and lower performance. Remember that this is a good time to teach your children about motivation. Some people mistakenly think that intrinsic motivation (feeling motivated by the subject matter or the satisfaction of completing something) is the “good” kind and that extrinsic motivation (using tangibles, activities, or praise) is the “bad” kind. The truth is that people who use both kinds of motivation to do the things they don’t like to do–but must complete–are the most successful. Think of what you use to keep you working on things you despise (taxes, laundry, cleaning, etc). Often, we use external motivators to keep us engaged and that make us successful. The best motivators are those that your children choose themselves, but remember that work always comes first and the “break” time should be no more than a few minutes. We do best with many intervals of working and breaking rather than one long work period followed by a long break.

Third, be careful not to over-schedule your family. All of the activities and experiences we want our children to have can actually hinder development and lower confidence, especially in young children. A child who has structured lessons and coaching in several areas can come to feel that they are not good enough as they are. Dr. Lisa Damour, NYT bestselling author of “Under Pressure” tells us that we should think about what we could do at 100% of our effort, and then scale back to about 75%. Our teens can also easily get overscheduled. If your child’s sleep, eating, or socializing is suffering, you need to pare down their schedule. Read More

Homecoming 2022 Recap

Homecoming 2022: We Are Panthers was a huge success!

Thank you to students, parents, faculty and staff, volunteers, alumni, and friends of MPA who joined in to make this year’s Homecoming festivities a wonderful time for all. After a week of celebration and school spirit, Saturday was a festive day with MPA athletics, camps, and honoring MPA alumni.

Thank you to Olympian Mason Ferlic ’11 for leading many Lower School students who participated in our cross country clinic, and sharing his experiences as an MPA graduate and Olympian. Students loved the physical activity and joyfully shared their experiences “running a mile” and showing off their new skills.

More than 30 students also participated in the soccer camp led by Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Scinto. We loved watching parents cheering from the sidelines. Read More

From Host Family To Chosen Family

Nastya and Sarah traveling together with their familiesNastya Vershenya ’01 and Sarah Hanson Salgado ’03 are each other’s chosen family. Their story begins in Sarah’s seventh grade year at MPA, when, as an only child, MPA’s call for families to host an international student was appealing and exciting. Both Sarah’s family and Nastya, coming as an international student to MPA from Minsk, were looking for the same thing, but none of them expected to gain a bonus sister/daughter in the process.

“Twenty some years later, she’s still a part of our family,” Sarah said. “Her [Nastya’s] daughter calls my parents her grandparents, and my parents refer to Nastya as their bonus daughter. We truly did gain a family member from the experience.”

We were able to connect with Sarah and Nastya together to share their heartwarming story as a host family and bonus family member.

How did you meet and become family?

Sarah found what she was searching for in a sister and friend in Nastya. “I’m an only child. When I was preschool age, my parents had done a couple college student homestays at our house. As a three, four, and five-year-old, that was really fun for me! I remembered liking that, and the summer after seventh grade, MPA sent out a newsletter looking for host families. I called my mom at work to say ‘Mom, you have to call MPA right now, and we’re gonna do this!’”

Nastya was drawn to MPA after her family’s experience with Friendship Force. Friendship Force connects families with others, staying with each other as host families for weeks at a time. Her family happened to connect with an MPA family, and they presented an opportunity for the international program to her.

The day Nastya was supposed to arrive in Minnesota, there was a massive airline workers’ strike. She couldn’t get to MSP, and had to reroute to Chicago as the closest available airport. Sarah’s family was so adamant about not delaying Nastya’s arrival, that at three in the morning they made the drive to Chicago to personally pick her up. Read More