Located in Starbuck, the unique school attracts students from all over the state

By Melanie Stegner


Pope County is a special area with beautiful Lake Minnewaska, unique celebrations, friendly citizens and excellent schools that cater to many types of learners. WIN Academy in Starbuck is no exception. Part of the Minnewaska Area School District, WIN, or What I Need, offers an education experience like no other.

There are four federal school special education settings based on a student’s needs. Setting one is the least intensive with students receiving special education services outside of a regular classroom for less than 21 percent of the school day. Setting two is for students that receive services for 21 to 60 percent of the school day. In setting three students receive services for more than 60 percent of the school day. 

In Minnesota, students receiving special education services have an individualized education program or IEP that describes the type and location of special education and related services a student needs, meeting the student where they are at on a truly individual basis. Setting four is the most restrictive school setting provided by a public school district. Students in a setting four school require more intensive services. This is evidenced by a high staff to student ratio and small class sizes. 

WIN Academy is a federal setting four school. It is a public day school where students receive services in a separate setting for more than 50 percent of the school day. WIN is also a Minnesota Department of Human Services certified Children’s Therapeutic Support Services school. Students receive academic instruction in their core subject areas and two to three hours per day of mental health services. 

The school is also a certified Positive Behavior Interventions Supports school. PBIS creates a climate where students and staff feel welcomed and safe. Staff members are trained on how to provide proactive, positive interventions to students. WIN provides a program called STAR. STAR stands for Safety, Teamwork, Accountability and Responsibility. The program clearly lays out the behavior expectations for students and creates a system for students to be rewarded for their positive behavior. 

Class sizes at WIN range from 10-30 students depending on the child’s needs. A typical day for a student at WIN may include anything from an hour a day with a counselor, group therapy, individualized therapy or any combination of these. The other half of the day the child spends learning. 

So, what makes WIN so unique? Of the 2,403 schools in Minnesota serving over 800,000 students, there are less than ten setting four schools statewide. Children attending the school come from several school districts throughout the state due to the uniqueness of the learning environment. “We want to transition our students to their home district school as efficiently and effectively as we can,” said Susan Knutson, Principal of WIN Academy and Special Education Coordinator. 

Enrollment at the school ranges from 40-60 students depending on staffing and other factors. Typically, the combination of therapeutic interventions, positive reinforcement and the low staff to student ratio allows the transition to happen within a short period of time, but the school is available for as long as the student needs it. 

“We use a huge team approach to learning at WIN. Our professionals (therapists, social workers, etc.) oversee and develop plans for our practitioners and teachers to create an effective learning experience for each student,” stated Knutson.

The 2022-2023 school year is Knutson’s first with the school, but her experience and education are insurmountable. She has over 28 years of experience in education with degrees and training in Special Education, School Counseling and Administration. Prior to coming to WIN, she was working at West Central Area Schools. “I haven’t been too far away, so the transition has been very smooth,” she said.