At North Park Elementary School in Columbia Heights, principal Jeff Cacek and his staff have put significant time into setting up a school that's designed to maximize student engagement. Their classrooms are modeled on a learning studio concept, where large, open spaces accommodate movable walls and furniture. Classrooms are hubs of activity and collaboration.

Jeff Cacek, prinicpal North Park Elementary School

"Students can move around as they see fit, and our students are encouraged to work collaboratively in small groups or independently," says Cacek.

Cacek says their classrooms provide the right context for the school's focus on 21st century skills, and STEAM-centered curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics).

Students do hands-on learning, and teachers rarely lecture. Instead, they work together to facilitate learning through small group discussions and project-based assignments.

Cacek says their setting is a great fit for the student-teaching partnership with the University of Minnesota, whose teacher candidates he describes as intelligent and flexible. He adds one of the things he's always liked about the University is their training of urban teachers.

"They don't come in feeling sorry for kids coming from poverty. They keep clear, high expectations but they also understand that there are going to be a lot of barriers," says Cacek. "They come in with a lot of tools, or at least a willingness to gain tools on how to overcome their barrier." Cacek says he's always looking for teachers who can solve problems, and have fun doing it. He sees the University teacher candidates as being prepared to do just that.

Because the University is having students in the classroom all year, it shows me they are serious about students who are ready to get in the classroom and not require a year or two to catch up."