In February 2020, the Lakes International Language Academy community was celebrating the grand opening of the newest wing of our secondary school. We were reveling in the luxury of our brand new performing arts center, giving tours of our multi-level library and classrooms, and envisioning the next basketball game in our classic wood-floored gymnasium complete with bleachers, locker rooms, and our Dragons logo. Life was great! Less than a month later, and only months into my new role as Executive Director at LILA, I found myself recording announcements to families telling them that all three LILA school buildings would be closing due to the pandemic.

Shutting our doors was 180 degrees from how I had hoped to lead the school into the future. Yet that is what we did in March of 2020. Last year’s graduating class had an outdoor, masked, and a socially-distanced commencement. Like other schools near and far, classes at LILA became a mix of online, in-person, and hybrid learning until just a few months ago.

One of the biggest lessons of the pandemic has been that we need each other. Children and adults struggled this last year, the isolation impacting health and well-being in numerous ways. But, it has also shown us that human beings can be quite creative and resilient! Despite the pandemic, we have a lot to celebrate at LILA.

As soon as we were able to return to full in-person learning, we put the new wing into full use. Classrooms and hallways were filled with a liveliness we hadn’t experienced in a long time. Sports, arts, and activities returned with vigor. Seniors took over the atrium with their art exhibition, each sharing a series of pieces they had been working on all year. The archery team placed first in both categories at the virtual state tournament and made an impressive showing at nationals! The theatre department hit the new stage with the full-length musical, Matilda. It was quickly followed by a challenging production, the U.S. premiere of The Dream, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. LILA’s technical theatre team built impressive sets from scratch, one of them with actual picket fences and live sod that was ultimately transported to a teacher’s classroom as part of an elaborate senior prank. It felt so good to be back to normal.

But, our celebration didn’t end there. At our academic awards ceremony, we quickly learned just how resilient our seniors were. This was the first class to go all the way from kindergarten through grade 12 at LILA, and the first to be offered the two-year International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. The aim of IB is to help students develop into internationally minded individuals who work to create better local, national, and global communities. Nearly 75% of our graduating seniors completed IB coursework and can apply this toward free credits or course exemptions in their post-secondary institutions, as others do with PSEO or AP credits, depending on their college’s standard. As an example, the U of M awards up to 32 credits for an IB diploma! Overall, the IB diploma is the most recognized high school credential in the world.

In addition, every student who chose to test their language skills is eligible for credit at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and other universities. All of the full immersion students earned the highest honor of a Platinum Seal, giving them 4 semesters of college credit in their second language.

LILA graduates are following many different paths. Some are taking a gap year to work or travel. Nearly 75% of them are going to college, at either four- or two-year institutions. One is off to West Point, with its exclusive 12% acceptance rate. Another, a National Merit Finalist, was accepted to the highly competitive University of Virginia. Another student earned a place in the U of M’s College of Science and Engineering program. Overall, fifteen graduates will continue their education in Minnesota, twelve will go out of state, and one is going out of the country. Collectively, these college-bound seniors were awarded well over $1 million in scholarships, some from the Forest Lake Area Community Scholarship Foundation, some from their individual post-secondary institutions, and some from the military. And all of this during a pandemic.

We are so proud of our students, and the teachers and families that supported them this past year. Whether they’re off to college, going directly to a career, headed the military, or traveling the world, our wish is that they find their passion and choose the pathway that’s the best fit for them. As long-time LILA teacher Erin Maher states, “We want them to be happy, successful, and proud of what they are doing both in, and for, the world.” With the IB Learner Profile close to their hearts, and the LILA Action Statements at the top of their minds, we educators hope that we have been helpful to these students and their families as they launch into adulthood.

Shannon Peterson is the Executive Director of Lakes International Language Academy, a tuition-free public K-12 charter school, located in Forest Lake. 

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