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Minnesota's first online high school set up to provide intensive hockey training has produced a girls' team that is charging toward next week's state tournament.
Regarded as "a new animal walking among the herd" by one high school coach, Achiever Academy is the top seed in Section 4 heading into Tuesday night's Class 1A semifinal game. The private school offers students, including those on a boys' team also playing well this season, up to three hours of hockey training in the morning and an online academic curriculum in the afternoon.
That unusual approach is raising questions in hockey circles about Achiever's legitimacy as a high school program even as its new owners, who took over the struggling business in January, scramble to provide answers.
Greg Gartner, a Stillwater-based business owner and youth hockey coach, and Tom Forsythe purchased the private high school in January. Achiever Academy and its originating program, Northern Educate, faced "imminent closure" otherwise, Forsythe said.
Gartner, who has a son at Northern Educate, said he believes in an alternative education model where kids are driven by a love of hockey, but he is aiming for a better balance of the school's athletics and academics.
Northern Educate opened in 2011, providing a whopping 480 hours of ice time for players during the school year. Launched a year later, Achiever Academy gave the grade-7-through-12 students a high school team to call their own.
Questions quickly ensued as Achiever began competing, ranging from the validity of the academic curriculum to fears of burnout for young athletes to complying with the Minnesota State High School League's eligibility rules.
"There is a lot of dissension among some coaches," said Tim Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Girls
Hockey Coaches Association. "The concern is, how does this fit in with the Minnesota State High School League and community-based programs?"
It also has generated scrutiny by the high school league, which recently received information concerning the eligibility of two players on the girls' team. Gartner and Forsythe discussed the situation, which reportedly involved compliance with a residency requirement, with league officials Friday. No final determination was made on the case, and both players participated in Saturday's quarterfinal victory.
Forsythe said the school is "willing to accept the consequences" of a future league action, which could include forfeiting games and exclusion from the state tournament if a player is found to have been ineligible.
Aware of what Gartner called the "perception in the industry" about Achiever's approach, he and Forsythe "want to be good citizens," he said, by adhering to high school league rules. It also means matching the hockey training at both schools with stronger academics.
"We do have a great hockey product," Gartner said. "But do we have a great academic product? I don't know that I can answer that affirmatively today. But I guarantee as this thing moves forward that will be our focus."
Achiever Academy's 71 students receive academic and athletic instruction at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center, paying annual tuition of $13,000. Chris Peterson, hockey coach for the Aces' girls' program, said practicing hockey in the morning is unique. But the former Breck coach, who gets "a lot of questions" about what Achiever Academy is, said overall ice time is similar.
On the Sports Center's second floor, steps away from the rink, students sit at clusters of work stations on their laptops. A typical class day lasts four hours, and a 6-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio allows for individualized learning. Last week, one male student sat in the hallway outside as an instructor diagramed a math problem on a dry-erase white board. Another sat in the arena concourse, using a laptop with an instructor at his side, working on his studies over the hum of the ice resurfacing machine circling the rink.
"There are no laws regarding non-public school curriculum and how it's delivered," Forsythe said. "What's required is assessment and outcomes."
Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test results from 2012-13 were not immediately available from the past owners, Forsythe said. He said the school ranked above the state average.
Its students include Emily Antony, whose father, Rob, is the Minnesota Twins' vice president and assistant general manager. She started at Achiever Academy last fall after transferring from Rogers.
She said the "flexibility of working at your pace is my favorite part of it," said Antony, a junior. "I really want to play college hockey, so great schooling and hockey definitely sold it for me."
Ken Pauly, president of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, said he has "deep concerns whether it's a step in the right direction. It could really open the door to something destructive."
High school league executive director Dave Stead said all Achiever Academy student-athletes are currently eligible, based on the league's guidelines for participation. But showing a clear separation between Northern Educate and Achiever Academy is vital. While players can train for their sport in specialized camps and programs outside of the high school season, the league prohibits athletes from being trained year-round by their school coaches.
Gartner said both Northern Educate and Achiever Academy are backing off from the reputation as "a grind-it-out hockey academy." While advertising 480 hours of ice time for youth players at Northern Educate, Gartner estimated his son is using about 280 hours while also playing youth hockey outside the program.
"We're not really selling hockey," Gartner said. "If that was the perception around the old environment here, it will definitely not be the perception going forward."
Gartner and Forsythe, using a newly minted company called Ability Academic and Athletic LLC, bought the schools from Shawn Black, who had failed to purchase the troubled Vadnais Heights Sports Center. Gartner and Forsythe said they do not plan to purchase any rinks. They hope to grow enrollment to about 200 students next year.
"We're giving a lot of kids a dynamic new way to get their education and pursue their dreams at the same time," Forsythe said. "We're not promising anybody an NHL career. But hockey is an amazing vehicle to prepare kids for life."
'NEW ANIMAL' IN MINNESOTA HOCKEY
Northern Educate: Opened in 2011, boasting intense hockey skill instruction and online academic learning for all youth ages at facilities in Vadnais Heights and Eden Prairie. Includes up to 480 hours of ice time for youth hockey players during the school year.
Achiever Academy: High school-based program begun in 2012 for boys' hockey players and in 2013 for girls. Teams compete as independents in Class 1A under Minnesota State High School League rules. Achiever boys' record is 14-7-2 this season. The girls' team is 20-5-1.
Concerns raised: Some high school hockey observers question the validity of the online academic curriculum. Others cite fears of burnout for young athletes. The Minnesota State High School League is reviewing a challenge to the eligibility of two players on Achiever's girls' team.
New owners: Greg Gartner, a Stillwater-based business owner and youth hockey coach, and Tom Forsythe purchased Northern Educate and Achiever for an undisclosed amount in January, staving off what they said was "imminent closure" of the programs. They say they plan a renewed focus on academics.