Pine City Teacher Creates Unique Program to Serve At-Risk Students 

Pine City teacher Ryan Larson has been named a finalist for the 2020 National Rural Teacher of the Year Award. This award, presented by the National Rural Education Association, seeks to honor the work of teachers who strengthen rural communities.

Seeing the potential in at-risk students with whom he worked in school led Larson to develop an interdisciplinary project-based learning program that incorporates core academic standards for English, math, science, social studies and more.

“The results have been significant among an at-risk student population who our communities cannot allow to fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Fred Nolan, MREA Executive Director. “This program has led to improved academic performance and graduation rates. Every Pine City senior who began the program as an 8th grader graduated this spring. That’s a major feat and a testament to the program’s effectiveness.”

Larson, a licensed English teacher, pitched the concept to school administration and the school board in the spring of 2015 and launched the program that fall. “Other schools across our nation can use this program as a model to serve their students better and Mr. Larson has demonstrated that we don’t have to wait to improve equity and achievement,” Nolan said.

Crediting Farm Life

Larson credits growing up on a farm for his ability to develop and implement this engaging educational program. He frequently draws on his experiences as farm kid, timber framer, and outdoor educator in the Northern Minnesota woods to give his students opportunities not typically found in the regular classroom.

One of the program’s more significant projects included students building an umiak, 20-foot skin-on frame boat based on traditional designs from indigenous people. It incorporated academic standards in technical reading, math, STEM, and geography. When it was finished, students made the first voyage together on a nearby waterway. View video of Larson.

“As a rural teacher, I am grateful I have the freedom to weave the outdoors, woodworking, and agriculture into my students’ English, science, math, and social studies course work,” Larson said. “Education is about real life, and teaching in a rural school allows me to show, not just tell, this to my students.”

MREA nominated Larson for this national honor. The National Rural Education Association will announce the 2020 honoree in August. The award is sponsored by The College Board and comes with financial honorariums for the teacher and district. View past winners.

“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.”

Seeing Potential

Many of Mr. Larson’s students are often considered “at-risk” because of unstable housing situations, complex family dynamics, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and other significant factors.

They come to him with emotional, social, and academic challenges. Many don’t see themselves as ever being successful in school. Their futures feel limited. Then, they meet Mr. Larson. 

He does not see them as “at-risk;” rather, they are his crew and together they set out to recognize challenges as opportunities and build skills to change the trajectory of their lives. 

A set of grandparents caring for their grandson shared that he had barely passed each grade until he started working with Mr. Larson. They noticed a difference in his demeanor and enthusiasm almost immediately.

“He would come home from school every day and excitedly tell us about what and how he was doing in Dragon Academy,” they said in their letter recommending Mr. Larson for this honor.

“He began doing better academically while also becoming more confident, clear and respectful. We saw a significant transformation in a boy who had struggled in school for eight years. It gave us hope.”

Their grandson now has become a regular on the B honor roll and they directly attribute it to Mr. Larson’s intervention.

“Mr. Larson has been instrumental in molding [our grandson] into the fine young man he has become. And for that, we are eternally grateful. Mr. Larson is changing the lives of students and creating a better future for them.”


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.