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(SUN POST STAFF PHOTO BY KEVIN MILLER)

Second grade teacher Mel Niewendorp teaches a science course focusing on the engineering process at Twin Lakes STEM Academy, newly located in Brooklyn Center at 6201 Noble Ave. N.

Twin Lakes STEM Academy was hunting for a new, larger location when many schools were still navigating web-based learning and the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The charter school, founded as Tesfa International School in 2014, moved from a smaller location in Columbia Heights to the vacant school building in Brooklyn Center at 6201 Noble Ave. N. over the summer.

“The first reaction when I brought this to our board was, do we really want to be looking at doing this with COVID going on right now?” said Jonas Beugen, executive director.

“I said to them, we probably can’t get this building if we wait another year. Because everyone else isn’t looking to move, there’s a lot less competition for the place, so we kind of looked at it as an opportunity that we might not be able to find something comparable in the future. So, we eventually kind of came to the conclusion that it was the right place at the right time.”

The nearly 55,000-square-foot building, located near the border between Brooklyn Center and Crystal, once housed Odyssey Academy, and later Nompeng Academy.

The building is the third, and hopefully final location for the charter school, Beugen said. The school initially operated out of St. Paul before moving to Columbia Heights, where the operation had filled to capacity.

“We maxed out what we could do in that space,” said Beugen, a former principal at the Osseo Area Learning Center in Brooklyn Park and girls basketball coach at Champlin Park High School.

The school is looking to expand the diversity of its students, who were largely east African when the school first opened. “We’ve been very intentional about it, in terms of how we’re trying to reach out to families and it’s started to pay dividends,” Beugen said.

Brooklyn Center offered a diverse population to bring new students to the school, he said.

“The diversity in the community surrounding – we’re right on the border with Brooklyn Center and Crystal and that there’s so many cultures here to try and create the multicultural, multi-racial student body that we wanted to have,” he said.

“We’ve enrolled four Asian students in the last week, and we’ve enrolled African American students, bi-racial students, and West African students, and so we’re becoming a much more diverse school.”

Plans for eventual expansion go beyond the diversity of the current enrollment of 232 kindergarten through 6th grade students now attending the school.

The property “provided the space to not only add pre-K and seventh and eighth grade in the near future, but land,” Beugen said. There is “land available if we wanted to become pre-K to 12 at some point. We have the land to add on and do that down the road.”

The school expects to host 7th and 8th grade students by fall of 2022.

The new building offers 19 classrooms, enough space to host two classes of each grade level.

There is also a gymnasium, kitchen, community gardens, a playground, and outdoor teaching or ceremonial space.

The school, as evidenced in its new name, has a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

“The whole STEM focus is about preparing them for what the jobs might look like in 20 years, not what they look like today, because the jobs they’ll be doing, a lot of them probably don’t exist today,” Beugen said.

The teaching philosophy at the school also aims to give students “a global perspective, bring a lot of cultures together,” Beugen said.

The school has two new language offerings for students – Spanish and Arabic, although the school is still hiring a new Spanish teacher.

The vast majority of the students attending the school are doing so in-person this year.

“When I was at home and then doing online, it was not kind of fun, but then when I came to school it was much funner and then I could see people face to face,” said Salma Dirir, fourth-grader.

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