Assistant Head of School for Student Development and Community Engagement
- Center for Learning and Teaching
- Counseling Services
- Health and Wellness
- Intercultural Life and Diversity
The Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) serves all students and teachers in all divisions, and is the school's center of expertise for academic support, learning differences, and faculty professional development around learning and brain development.
Within a context calling for academic excellence, SPA holds to graduation standards consistent with its history and mission. At the same time, the school seeks ways to help students meet those standards as they prepare for colleges appropriate to their ability, motivation, and academic performance. SPA provides support services for students with documented learning disabilities based on a student’s individual circumstances and in accordance with the school’s legal obligations, and the school adjusts methods of instruction whenever appropriate to support students in achieving the goals and expectations of our academic program. For students with learning disabilities, as with all students at SPA, the school seeks to foster and support individual success. At the same time, the school recognizes that success is an individual matter and therefore sometimes beyond its control and influence. In all three divisions, the school employs a learning specialist who oversees and guides the academic supports for students with documented learning differences. In developmentally sequenced ways, each division prepares students for increasing independence in understanding and managing the necessary tools for personal academic growth and success. By the Upper School, successful students demonstrate a deep understanding of their strengths, challenges, and necessary support systems, and a commitment to employing these systems as warranted.
The CLT is directed by Karen Rassmussen, who takes a lead role in supporting individualized teaching and differentiation in all three divisions. Karen coordinates direct service to students with documented learning differences, manages SPA’s academic tutoring program, and provides counsel and support to parents. She also provides support and professional development for faculty around best practices in teaching, and helps teachers apply current research to improving their practices in the classroom. She works closely with Billie Stensby in the Lower School on academic support initiatives for students in Grades K-5, and oversees the academic tutoring staff in the Middle and Upper Schools. Ms. Rassmussen has an M.A. in Educational Leadership from the University of Saint Thomas and a B.S. in Education from the University of Minnesota. A life-long learner, she is certified in Orton-Gillingham instruction, has certification in the area of Autism Spectrum Disorders, and is currently working towards her M.A. in Special Education at the University of St. Thomas.
The Center for Learning and Teaching staff also includes:
Jennie Sorensen, Middle School Learning Specialist: Jennie supports students in their academic endeavors and helps them navigate the intellectual changes that are characteristic of the Middle School years. Jennie provides direct academic support to Middle School students both individually and in small groups, and teaches the Grade 6 Compass class, which is required of all students and focuses on developing strong academic habits. She holds a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.A.Ed. from Hamline University, and is an ADHD/Executive Functions Coach for adolescents.
Billie Stensby, Lower School Learning Specialist: Billie Stensby has extensive experience as an educational leader, including time as a classroom teacher, instructional specialist, professional development lead, and reading specialist in the Mounds View, Minneapolis, and Fridley School Districts. She holds a B.A. in Elementary Education from the College of St. Scholastica and a M.A. in K-12 Reading and Literacy from the University of St. Thomas.
Laura Duke, Lower School Literacy Support Specialist: Laura Duke holds a B.S. in Physical Education from Pacific Lutheran University, a M.A. in Education from St. Catherine University, and certifications in Reading Recovery and the Wilson Reading System. In her role as Literacy Support Specialist, her experience as both a classroom teacher and as an interventionist informs her connections with students and colleagues in the Lower School in meeting the literacy needs of our diverse student body.
The four-person counseling staff supports individuals and small groups of students when social, emotional, or behavioral challenges may arise. Counselors can offer assistance in problem-solving and conflict resolution, guidance on developing and maintaining healthy relationships, and self-esteem. Counselors collaborate with students, teachers, and families to create supportive learning and social environments for students.
Our counseling staff does not replace the role of individual therapists, although counselors do offer brief, time-limited therapies in school adjustment, self-regulation, stress-management, social skills development, and self-care. Counselors can support the ongoing work of individual therapists by providing context and support at school that enhances the ongoing work of the primary individual therapist with a student outside of school.
The counseling staff includes:
Dr. Timothy Elchert, Lower School Psychologist: Dr. Timothy Elchert, known as "Dr. E" to students and families, is a resource for the entire Lower School community. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Elchert works with students to reach their academic and social-emotional potential. His interests include social-emotional development of children, building resilience, and anxiety disorders. Dr. Elchert earned a B.A. from Macalester College, an M.A. in counseling and psychological services from St. Mary's Graduate School, and a Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of Iowa. He is a member of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Sara Mairs, Middle School Counselor: Sara Mairs helps support the individual well-being of every student and the overall health of the Middle School community. Sara holds a B.A. in psychology from Amherst College and an M.A. in counseling psychology from the University of St. Thomas. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association and is a Minnesota State licensed psychologist. Sara is available to all Middle School students, individually or in groups, for discussion of their emotional well-being, social adjustment, academic motivation, conflict resolution, or any issue important to the student. Sara co-teaches the Grade 6 and 7 Compass classes, and coordinates the grade 8 wellness seminars. Sara is also available to meet with Middle School parents about any questions or concerns they have for their child, and can help identify out-of-school resources as well.
Emily Barbee, Upper School Counselor (Grades 9-10): Emily Barbee serves as the Upper School counselor for Grades 9 and 10, and is available to all students and parents as a resource, guide, and sounding board. Emily works closely with the Upper School Principal and Dean of Students on a broad range of issues related to student mental health and community well-being. Emily joined SPA's Middle School in 2018 as a sabbatical replacement for Sara Mairs, having previously served for five years as Middle School Counselor at the Harker School in San Jose, California. Prior to her time at Harker, Emily served as a treatment coordinator/adolescent therapist, a mental health clinician, and a school-based therapist. Emily earned her B.A. from Carleton College, and her Master's studies were completed at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
Susanna Short, Upper School Counselor (Grades 11-12): Susanna Short serves as the Upper School counselor for Grades 11 and 12, and is available to all students and parents as a resource, guide, and sounding board. Like Emily, Susanna works closely with the Upper School Principal and Dean of Students on a broad range of issues related to student mental health and community well-being. Susanna Short has worked in counseling and advocacy for two decades. Prior to joining in SPA in 2010, she served as the school social worker for Tartan High School and Skyview Middle School in Minnesota district 622, where she provided support, crisis intervention, and consultation to students and their families. She has also held positions at Valley Crossing Community School, Centennial High School, and the University of Minnesota. She holds a B.A. from Albion College and earned her M.A. and M.S.W. from the University of Michigan.
SPA students benefit from an intentional culture and integrated curriculum promoting healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy relationships. At all grade levels, beginning in kindergarten, health and wellness lessons are embedded in the homeroom, through advisory, in science, in physical education, and through wellness and Compass classes. We believe in educating the whole child, which encompasses an emphasis on developing healthy habits of mind, developing a foundation of critical thinking skills with regard to health, decision making, respectful interactions, and alignment of one’s values with choices.
In the Lower School, this includes a sequenced curriculum on sexuality development; lessons on topics such as human anatomy, families, puberty, gender, human reproduction, friendships, stress, and consent are presented across the curriculum, in age-appropriate ways. Students engage in conversations that support positive identity development and a healthy regard for themselves and others, utilizing the Lower School Toolbox and carefully designed lessons that mirror developmental needs and milestones across the grade levels. In this manner, students learn that the range of trusted adults in their community value the experiences and differences that each student brings with them to school; their teachers model and teach the tools to help students explore, and be confident in, their developing selves, physically and mentally.
Middle School Compass courses engage students in an interdisciplinary approach to health and wellness. The Grade 6 and 7 Compass courses are team-taught by the Learning Specialist, the MS Counselor, and the Director of Intercultural Life. Students explore social skills, academic strategies, human relationships, healthy communication, identity development, and personal values. In Grade 8, Compass class explores health-related topics such as substance use and abuse, stress management, nutrition, and sexuality. Through the advisory program in the Middle School, students develop a shared understanding of community values. Through advisory activities and lessons, students engage in cultural conversations, building an appreciation for diversity and a foundation to take action for equity, supporting each student in developing a positive regard for their multiple identities and a community that values diversity of experiences and opinions. Physical education and Fitness 8 courses are designed to help students think about their own personal fitness goals, which includes nutrition, sleep, balance, and exercise.
In the Upper School, Fitness for Life is a required Grade 9 class in which students explore topics and activities designed to promote their physical and emotional health and well-being. As part of the school's Wellness curriculum, students engage in discussions and activities to explore various topics that help promote a healthy sense of self and a positive approach to fitness, nutrition, and healthy habits in general. As a physical education class, the emphasis is on learning life-long skills in fitness training and team competition. As part of the Fitness for Life curriculum, students receive training in CPR, AED use, and basic first aid.
Grade 10 Wellness classes introduce the concepts and skills that assist teenagers in being mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically healthy. Students explore their understanding of identity, community, and personal responsibility. The foundational belief of the course is that success and wellness are best achieved when student's values, identity, and behavior align. This is a process-oriented class exploring concepts through experiential activities, personal reflection, and group discussion. Content and skill areas include: handling stress, communication skills/conflict resolution, mental health issues, chemical health, understanding and establishing boundaries, eating disorders and body image, relationships (familial, romantic, friendship), sexuality, spirituality, and personal integrity.
At SPA, we seek to achieve ongoing excellence in academics by also tending to the environments and mindsets that allow students to engage with and work through differences in healthy and productive ways. Our work around diversity and intercultural life is designed to support students in the development of skills that promote collaboration across, and understanding of, diverse perspectives, opinions, values, experiences, and identities. The Director of Intercultural life, Dr. Naomi Taylor, plays a key role in helping to shape a community where inclusivity, pluralism, and a high regard for the value of diversity and equity are paramount to our school program and learning community. Dr. Taylor works across all constituencies and may provide consultative services to the student support team, classroom teachers, and parents and guardians. In all divisions, Dr. Taylor serves as a resource for teachers and families on matters of positive racial identity development, gender and sexuality inclusivity, cultural and religious diversity, and socioeconomic diversity.
Team sports at SPA are introduced as class activities in the physical education program starting in Grade 3, and interscholastic competition begins in Grade 5. The Middle School athletics program is very strong, with almost 80% of Middle School students and almost 90% of Upper School students participating in at least one SPA team sport. In the Upper School, our varsity teams are consistently ranked in the top 10 in the state and our athletes are regularly recognized through selection to regional and national team events. Annually, the school fields 90 teams in 17 sports, with teams participating in over 1000 contests in 42 weeks.