Ryan Larson reimagined an industrial tech space to create a project-based learning environment where students can learn English, science, math, social studies and more.

The former English teacher now looks more like an industrial tech instructor, helping students create everything from maple syrup and peg board games to paddles that they use for their voyage on a umiak built by another groups of his students at Pine City Public Schools.

Donald Aasen was among the first group of graduates from the program. He said he struggled in a traditional classroom. “We did hands-on projects in our learning instead of sitting at a desk all the time,” he said.

He helped build the umiak and remembers how rewarding it was to be a part of the maiden voyage. Like many of Larson’s students, Aasen found a place where he belonged at Dragon Academy. and could see a future.

Larson started Dragon Academy, named after the school’s mascot, to provide opportunities for at-risk learners to meet their academic standards in math, science, civics, geography, STEM, and English through a more active approach. It started in the middle school and has grown to engage students from 8-12 grades.

“Along with the care that he has for students, he has the knowledge of content and methods and ways of working effectively with people that made him very effective at getting the kinds of results we are looking for in education,” said Dr. Candice Ames, a member of the Pine City School Board.

“He is able to take struggling students and to incrementally give them the academic skills and the confidence that they need to go on and approach projects and subjects at a more difficult level than they could ever do before.”

Rewarding Experiences

Larson partners with other teachers to co-teach classes and direct projects for Dragon Academy. He wants the learning to be integrated and interdisciplinary.

Larson sees his role far beyond the two hours of class time with his students each day. He seeks to connect with his students and help them overcome challenges outside of the classroom that affect their academic success.

Seeing them receive their high school diplomas makes all the hours, energy and care he puts in his teaching worth it because he knows what it has taken some of his students to walk across the stage. It brings him to tears.

“It is a long road for some of those kids,” Larson said. “My dream for my students is for them to have hope, to have joy and to not struggle all the way through life.”

He’s giving them that. The interdisciplinary program has proven to increase student engagement as demonstrated by their attendance, behavior and ultimately, achievement for at-risk students.

“Success is a lot more than grades,” Larson said.

Educator of Excellence

MREA honored Larson as a 2019 Educator of Excellence for his innovation, collaboration and unwavering commitment to get results for his students. See more stories of Educators for Excellence.