The Community Education department in the Alexandria School District has been a beehive of activity this past month, working to bring Lakes Area Recreation into the fold in the wake of its dissolution.
LAR had administered close to two dozen recreation programs in Alexandria for more than three decades, operating under a somewhat unique joint powers agreement between the city of Alexandria, the townships of Alexandria and LaGrand, and the school district.
But on Jan. 1, those recreation programs moved under the direction of Community Education, with the message “Stronger Together.” Its director, Lynn Jenc, is enthused about the opportunities presented by the change.
“LAR has a long-standing tradition of great programs, and we’ll continue to move those programs forward,” she said. The people who have been running the rec programs are still doing so, and Jenc said they have a great team with a variety of skill sets. “We just expanded our team, which gives us some efficiencies and some leisure to try some new things. In the end, it’s a great benefit.”
Fritz Bukowski, the longtime LAR director, said everything has gone very smoothly.
“It’s been great. The school district has welcomed us,” he said. “The public shouldn’t notice any changes except they’re going to a new website.”
Jenc’s goal is to make the transition as seamless as possible. Toward that end, people who are used to going to LAR’s website and do so now will be directed straight to the Community Education site. The same has already happened with phone numbers and email addresses.
Technology upgrades have been made, including point-of-sale systems at the gymnastics center and the indoor playground, Shenanigans, at what was LAR’s location within the Douglas County Service Center’s building. Security cameras have also been added.
“We have done a lot in a really short amount of time,” Jenc said, under the idea that all the moving parts would be internal and not on the consumer’s end. “That was our hope, that our community would not notice a big change – that they’re able to find what they need, or call.”
Jenc, who has worked in Community Education programs for 23 years over three districts and has served as board president of the Minnesota Community Education Association, has seen community recreation handled in various ways.
“This is a completely natural configuration in the state of Minnesota,” Jenc said of Alexandria’s current setup.
Bukowski also called it fairly common. “It was like that long before I came here,” he said.
Community Education covers a lot of ground, with 32 full-time and 230 part-time staff. More than 8,700 youth and nearly 5,200 adults take part in its programs, and it handles everything from Early Education and school-age child care at all elementary schools to youth and adult enrichment classes, Adult Basic Education, and the district’s volunteer services, facility reservations and performing arts.
“People are used to seeing the catalog and think they know what Community Education is. But they sometimes forget or are unaware of the other pieces,” Jenc said.
LAR also had more than 7,200 registrations in 2019, including swimming, and facilitated another 2,000 in youth camp, plus hundreds more who participate in adult volleyball, basketball and pickleball.
Bukowski pointed out the likelihood of a crossover between some people who enrolled in LAR and Community Education programs, and in that case people would already be familiar with the Community Ed website and have user names and passwords already set up for that.
“They would already be in the system,” Jenc agreed, noting Community Education will now be a one-stop shop for many parents, where they can sign up a child for preschool and register for basketball, for example.
Those who had not registered with Community Ed previously would have to sign up as a new user. By doing so, Jenc noted they might come across a Community Ed class that sparks interest.
Financially, Community Education gets a majority of its funding from fees and a small portion from state aid and levy, specifically for youth programs such as Early Education. Community Education is not part of the school district’s general fund that supports K-12 education.
Approximately 78% of LAR’s funding was also primarily from user fees, with the remaining funds coming from three cities, 11 townships and Community Education, Jenc said. The city of Alexandria has agreed to financially support Community Ed’s youth programs, and Jenc said she is in the process of communicating with area townships and cities that supported LAR.
It can take time to establish an audience for something new, but that was not the case with Shenanigans. Since opening in early 2019, its slides, mazes and play areas have attracted a steady following of kids through age 12.
“We’re very pleased,” Bukowski said of the playground’s first year. “People have received it well.”
With the abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities for children in the summer, use of indoor playgrounds sees a dropoff. However, Shenanigans remained an attraction on cool and rainy summer days, and its users were frequently from well outside of the area.
“Tourists in the summer were the biggest surprise,” he said.
Community Education is leasing space from the county for two gyms, one housing Shenanigans and the other used by pickleball players. Jenc stressed pickleball’s importance and how they want to safeguard that program.
She also said they will continue to have facilities discussions and examine leases. Lakes Area Gymnastics operates out of a building on Aga Drive near the airport. Shenanigans is movable and could be relocated.
Jenc said they will continue to examine their offerings and look for programming areas that fit the interests of residents.
“We have a very intellectual community, an aged community, and a community that is very focused on health and wellness. We know that. And it’s family focused,” she said.
“For now, we’re keeping programs as they have always been, and we’re looking at growing and changing. And we have some room to grow,” she said. “When you create more efficiencies, you have the luxury to try different things and experiment more. When you have more minds working collaboratively, sometimes new programs are created.”