by Jim Boyle
Every school day at Twin Lakes Elementary School starts the same way with Principal Dan Collins delivering a live news broadcast.
He has Ollie the Otter, the school’s mascot, with him and at least one fifth grade student to help him. The students provide a joke of the day, the school lunch menu and talk with their school leader about current events and various tone-setting updates during a 15-minute show.
The Elk River principal says it’s a chance for him to make his school welcoming for students and help them start their day on a positive note. He uses much of the time to promote messages of respect, kindness, responsibility and safety that the school prides itself on and his teachers are able build on what he talks about throughout the day.
This past Tuesday Collins talked about how proud he was of what he saw during bus evacuation drills. He raved about fifth graders helping kindergartners get off the bus and how the students and staff at Twin Lakes Elementary School are a family.
“I’m able to say what respect, responsibility, kindness and safety look like at our school,” Collins said. “I’m able to show them how they’re responsible for themselves and get them to believe it.
“If you’re responsible, we can help you. Kids and parents have bought into it.”
Students have come to count on the segment, and there’s a bit of mystery among some children over whether Ollie is real or not. He could be a stuffed animal, but maybe not. He talks like he’s real.
If Collins is tied up, he has a backup. If the newscast doesn’t happen, students are asking about it.
Principal Collins shared big news this week that came out of Washington, D.C.: The school was named a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School. Twin Lakes is one of only three Minnesota elementary schools earning this nationwide recognition.
“We’re being recognized by the president,” Collins told his students and staff over the livestreamed newscast.
As always, the newscast ends with the students and staff standing for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Collins is as comfortable as he can be behind the microphone, talking with his students and having Ollie the Otter right alongside him the whole time.
“It takes some work,” he said. “You have to make it part of your routine, but it’s worth it in the long run.”
Collins finds it more difficult to talk about the success of his school when being interviewed by a Star News reporter.
“This is hard for me,” he said. “It’s like I’m bragging.”
Collins, who started in the Elk River Area School District as the Parker Elementary School principal nearly 30 years ago before opening Twin Lakes, has been quick to spread the credit around to both past and present students, staff, parents, cooks, bus drivers and other colleagues and the school district administration.
“This award isn’t just about this school year,” he said. “It’s about the hard work that has been put into the school throughout the 14 years since it was opened.”
Collins said it has been a warm feeling to hear praise from people as word has gotten out. He is proud to have been recognized throughout the state by the Minnesota Elementary School Principal’s Association during the 2013-14 school year, and the national award is even more rewarding.
“It’s such an honor,” he said. “We’re doing some things that are making a difference.”
The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. Every year the U.S. Department of Education seeks out and celebrates great American schools, schools demonstrating that all students can achieve to high levels.
Collins had the help of Twin Lakes team members Rachel Johnson, Sarah Smith and Angela Swaggert after it was learned data supported the school applying for this award. They completed the application by April 9 and then waited and wondered.
When they didn’t hear back that more information would be needed or anything would need to be clarified, Collins said they took that as a good sign. The announcement was made at school on Sept. 22.
“I heard the roar of the students and staff in the school,” Collins said before spreading the credit around again.
“Parker Elementary School set the stage by winning the National Blue Ribbon four years ago,” Collins said. “Our district has great staff and great leadership and great parents and kids doing the right things.”