John Paul II Elementary School dedicates SmartLab

Program to help broaden scope of student education

Jennifer Herrmann, SmartLab facilitator at John Paul II Elementary School, works with Lawson LeBrun and Jace Bechen, both sixth graders, Wednesday evening following the dedication of the new SmartLab learning program. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

A new era of learning is dawning at John Paul II Elementary School.

The private Catholic elementary school in Mitchell on Wednesday dedicated a new SmartLab, a learning initiative that brings workstations, materials and technology that will help broaden the scope of its students’ educational experience and give them a head start on the knowledge and skills they will need as they grow into adulthood.

The dedication was held during the school's annual fall festival.

"It feels amazing," Renee LeBrun, development director for the school, told the Mitchell Republic. "It's all about the kids and showing off how our school is able to excel and have these big dreams and to see them come to fruition is just amazing."

Dozens of school patrons, young and old, gathered in the parking lot to celebrate the achievement, which came about through the focused vision of school parents, the hard work of school officials and donors who gave of time and money to make the dream of the SmartLab a reality.


The SmartLab program involves an action-driven, repeatable process in which students explore technology without any preconceived notions, gather information and learn how technology works. It allows students to plan a projects and goals, as well as determine an outcome, gather information and learn how technology learns in general.

Students can do a project, document it and reflect on their progress, according to a synopsis on the company website.

Nathan Sparks, president of the school's education committee, said the new learning system will be a boon to students at the school for years to come.

Nathan Sparks, president of the John Paul II Elementary School education committee, speaks Wednesday evening during the dedication for the school's new SmartLab. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

"Research shows that students who have this unique learning experience show higher test scores on standardized testing. Besides our faith-based learning, this also is another way to distinguish John Paul II Elementary School students here in Mitchell," Sparks said. "Of course it takes many people to make a project like this happen, and we are so grateful for everyone who has been able to donate to this project."

Many parents and staffers at the school donated their time and efforts to the project, but monetary donations were crucial to making it happen. Mark and Chris Buche, of Mitchell, put up the cornerstone donation for the new SmartLab, which will bear their name.

Mark said they were on board from the first pitch.


"Wow, were we excited. It's such a great project and the things that it can do are absolutely amazing," Mark Buche said.

Mark Buche said they drew inspiration to help the cause from their own time in Catholic education in Mitchell, as well as from a favorite book and a quote from Mother Theresa - "I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things."

He also said that the donation is merely investing in the future of John Paul II Elementary School, its students and the education and life skills taught at the school. Together with the dedication of the faculty and school leaders, those students should benefit well into the future.

"Chris and I were looking to make an investment in our youth. Because of what you do, and your sacrifices, these children will have great rewards. We should never stop investing in our youth," Mark Buche said.

Chris and Mark Buche provided the cornerstone donation that made the new SmartLab at John Paul II Elementary School a reality. They spoke to the crowd at the Wednesday evening dedication. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

The idea to bring SmartLab learning to John Paul II Elementary School began as the result of a meeting among parents and school officials about the future vision for the school. As discussions were held, the concept of improved marketing for the school to draw new students was explored, but the idea of a SmartLab also drew serious interest.

With the school and patrons on board, it was time to focus on funding. The cost of the hardware, software and materials to launch the program would be considerable at about $140,000, but the school set a goal of $300,000 for additional funds that needed to be set aside for other costs, such as the first three years of full-time salary for a SmartLab facilitator. LeBrun said the school met that fundraising goal.


The new room for the lab is an unused former arts and sciences classroom.

Staff at the school wrote grants to go toward the project, pursued potential donors and held fundraisers for the SmartLab, and soon was within reach of the goal. The Buches provided the cornerstone donation to fund the project, which will be named after them.

John Paul II Elementary has an enrollment of 138, and all students will be taking part in the SmartLab program to some degree. Students will take part in SmartLab learning several times per week, with younger students seeing about 30 minutes in the lab per session and older students closer to 45 minutes per session.

Robin Cahoy, principal at John Paul II Elementary School, welcomes the crowd Wednesday evening to the dedication of the school's new SmartLab. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

Students will work through online modules that will be coordinated by the program facilitator. Between the online portion and the facilitator guidance, the young learners will take a number of different approaches to solving problems. Robotics, coding and electrical circuitry projects are all expected to be part of the program.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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