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Q & A: Dedicated coordinators lead Project KIDS program

Q & A: Dedicated coordinators lead Project KIDS program

Project KIDS (Kids Individualized Developmental Services) has provided before and after school educational, recreational and developmental activities for elementary students in District 191 since 1976. The Community Education program started at Rahn Elementary and has since expanded to every elementary school in the district. About 400 students are currently part of Project KIDS, and that number often increases by 100 or more students over the course of the school year.

Project KIDS

Another 500 or so students attend The Edge, a Project KIDS summer program that builds community and promotes independence and socialization in a fun, recreational and educational environment. The Edge serves students ages 12-15 from District 191 and surrounding communities.

The school sites and program offerings have changed over the years, but one constant has been the leadership of four coordinators - Martha Dudley, Stacey Konopa, Jeanine Kristjanson and Shar Lattery - who have a combined 131 years of experience working in Project KIDS.

Coordinator Profiles

Martha Dudley studied human relations at the University of Minnesota. She applied for a Program Coordinator position with Project KIDS after seeing an ad in the newspaper. She’s been part of Project KIDS for 34 years.

Stacey Konopa started as a Program Supervisor after graduating with a degree in elementary education from Minnesota State Mankato. She’s been part of Project KIDS for 33 years. “My intent was to continue to apply and interview for a teaching position outside of the district, but after a few months of working at Project KIDS, decided it was just as fulfilling and engaging as being a classroom teacher,” she said. 

Jeanine Kristjanson started working for Project KIDS as a senior in high school after hearing about it during social and family living class at BHS. She earned her degree in Family Education and Youth Studies from the University of Minnesota and has been part of Project KIDS for 35 years. 

Shar Lattery graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a degree in child development and counseling. She started as Program Supervisor after hearing about the position from a friend. She’s been part of Project KIDS for 29 years. Kristjanson and Lattery are both Burnsville High School graduates.


Q & A

You have all been a part of Project KIDS for a long time. How has the program’s approach to engaging with students evolved over time? 

JK: In the beginning children were expected to participate in only staff-led activities, no choice. As the years went on our leadership team recognized that children need to be offered choices and opportunities to empower themselves while attending out-of-school-time programming. Today, children actually plan and implement the activities they participate in.

What are some of the activities that kids get really excited about? 

SL: Non-school days are offered as full-day care for Project KIDS participants. On these days, staff plan bigger and better activities including off-site field trips. Taking kids to places like trampoline parks, apple orchards, Valleyfair, zoos, local community businesses like Grand Slam, Sky Zone, Skateville and various restaurants, museums, 4H University of Minnesota Extension programs, and to meet city fire and police officials. 

Project KIDS

MD: Many parents sign their children up for those days, even though they may not need care on a particular event day.

What’s an example of a change you’ve made to Project KIDS programming that has been beneficial for students?

SL: We created and implemented The Edge summer program for children going into 6th grade until they turn 16 to get kids out in the community, interacting, learning and having fun. It just finished its 20th summer! 

JK: We’re always finding creative ways to make programming work for children in grades K-5 all at one time versus the regular school day where kids are in same grade classrooms all day.

Collectively, how does your wealth of experience working with kids help this program be successful? 

SK: The four of us have worked together for 29 years in our leadership roles. We all know each other's strengths and weaknesses and know how to work together and work off of each other to provide the One91 community with the out-of-school-time program they have grown to know and expect.

What are some of the skills your fellow coordinators possess that makes them great at their job?

SK: Shar is fantastic at working with the older kids.

JK: Martha and Shar always find exciting activities and new ideas for trips and summer programming. 

SK: Jeanine is good at developing spreadsheets and ways to track specific programming pieces like participants with special needs and staffing and tracking and documenting The Great Start Compensation Support Payment Program. 

JK: Stacey helps to move us forward with technology. She set up our billing system so families can now register online and manage their monthly schedules electronically. 

SL: The four of us work so well together. We depend on each other and support each other daily. I believe that the success of our program is because we’re united in our goals and beliefs. We rely on each other and respect and trust each other. When I think of the word “team,” I think of us!

SK: We respect each other as not only Community Ed leaders and co-workers but as long time friends, recognizing the challenges women face with working full-time and having families of our own. Each of us, unsolicited, helps one another and likewise none of us hesitate to ask for help from each other. 

What role does Project KIDS play in supporting families and how does it benefit the community as a whole?

MD: Project KIDS is a necessity for the majority of our families. It is very convenient for the kids to come down to us right before or after class. Parents love the convenience of our program being in the schools and many times close to their homes, and it also allows them to attend a school from out of district since care is available at the school and bussing isn’t an option for those students. Teachers like the fact they can have kids stay late in the classroom or get additional help if necessary.

In addition to consistent leadership, what else has helped Project KIDS be successful?

MD: We also need to give credit to the staff we have had work with over the years in making our job easier and more fun. We have had some incredible staff who have stayed for many years too. But that says a lot about a program where we have so many staff who stay for years or come back from college year after year to work in the summers. We are doing something right!

Who motivates you to continue your work with Project KIDS? 

JK: Working with children, we get to hear their stories, jokes and celebrate their daily accomplishments. This always brings a smile to all our faces! 

MD: This is what brings us back each day. Every day is different with more stories, celebrations and fun!

SL: A lot of kids are getting experiences they'd never have the opportunity to have. Having them active, socializing, having fun and feeling safe with us is fun to see. It’s so rewarding.