Two-and-a-half years ago Starbuck, Minnesota, was dealt a brutal one-two punch. The local hospital, one of the smallest in the state, closed after years of losing money. Then in the same week, the elementary school just a few blocks away was shut down after years of declining enrollment. Dyanne Parsons, a 14-year veteran at Starbuck Elementary, lost her job as a science teacher when the school closed.
"It was just terrible. I just remember feeling so bad for Starbuck and the impact it was going to have on such a small town," Parsons says.
But now Parsons is back in school. A group of local residents in this town of 1,300 hired her to start up and direct a new K-6 charter school.
Starbuck's deserted hospital, on a hill on the west side of town, offered the perfect location. It took a group of volunteers, charter school board members and teachers less than 12 months to turn the empty hospital into what is now Glacial Hills Elementary.
In one part of the school, 14 kindergarteners gather around their teacher in a small carpeted room once used as hospital administrative offices. With walls covered in brightly colored decorations, it has the look of a kindergarten hangout.
Down the hall, the school's former life as a hospital is more evident. Dyanne Parsons points to hulking porcelain sinks outside one classroom. This is where surgeons used to scrub up before heading into the operating room.
"This was the operating room, now it's the second and third grade. That is the biggest class and that is the biggest classroom, so we put them in here," Parsons says.
Before the room became a classroom, teachers had a major distraction removed from the ceiling.
"They had those huge lights, and so we had to take those down. They looked like aliens coming out of the ceiling," Parsons says.
The most ironic part about turning a hospital into a school, according to Parsons, is that some of the kids studying here were also born here.
The charter school is funded in part by $640,000 in federal and state startup grants it will receive in its first three years. The school also receives per-pupil funding from the state, about $6,000 for each of its 79 students.
The school runs a lean operation. It has a small staff and relies heavily on volunteers and donated items from the community. Many of the school's desks were salvaged from an old school being torn down in the nearby town of Morris.
What's important for the students' families is that their children are once again able to go to school in their own town. For a couple of years, the only option was for the kids to be bused to neighboring communities.
Starbuck resident Charleen Drewes says now her two kids can walk or bike to school.
"We're all excited. The kids are loving it. They're excited to get up and go to school every morning. To have a school in our community is very, very important," Drewes says.
Glacial Hills Elementary director Dyanne Parsons hopes within a few years the school reaches its capacity of 140 students. She says if that happens they'll move out of the old hospital and build a new school.
"This is a good little school. It's local, we have a great staff, and that's what people like," Parsons says.
Parsons is optimistic about their growth. The school has been open for just a month, and already next year's kindergarten enrollment is nearing its 20-student capacity.