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Network of Rural Schools Shares 'Rethinking' Ideas

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DEERWOOD, MINN.--In Rothsay, a small town in western central Minnesota, high school students recently took over the operation of the local hardware store and lumberyard, and also own and run the town's grocery store, an enterprise that brought in some $300,000 in revenues last year.

Two hundred miles to the east in Proctor, a town near Duluth, the schools are establishing an intergenerational community center that will house a Head Start program, a gathering place for high school students, and activities for senior citizens, among other offerings.

And last year in Delevan, a town in southern Minnesota, community members established the Delevan Agri-Science Elementary School, which bills itself as the nation's first agricultural-science magnet school.

What these three disparate projects share in common is that they all are the fruits of a network of 19 rural Minnesota schools that are seeking to systematically redesign themselves into schools of the future.

Some 130 representatives of the schools met here late last month to evaluate the status of their joint restructuring effort. The conference was convened by the Center for School Change, the Minneapolis-based organization that oversees the network.

Housed at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, the center was created two years ago with a $2.3 million grant from the Blandin Foundation, a private foundation in Grand Rapids, Minn., that was established by a Minnesota entrepreneur in 1941.

With a mission to promote systemic change in rural Minnesota schools, the center has used most of the Blandin funds to start its own grant-making program. Each year, the center awards a total of some $150,000 to rural schools that are willing to undertake "a fundamental rethinking of the way learning, teaching, and schools should be organized,'' said the center's director, Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator.

Students Have Their Say

The two-day conference here, a lakeside resort town 115 miles north of Minneapolis, was one of three such workshops the center convenes for its network of grantees each year. A wide variety of topics was discussed this time, ranging from multiculturalism to assessment to high school graduation requirements.

What set this gathering apart from most other education conferences was that in addition to the usual coterie of administrators, teachers, union leaders, and policy experts, also present were members an obvious but often overlooked constituency: students.

Some 20 students from schools in the network participated in the same workshop sessions as adults from their schools, and also independently convened several "students-only'' meetings to clarify their distinct role in the restructuring effort.

During the first day of the conference, a student panel discussed what impact the systemic change process had had on their day-to-day experience at school.

Brian Ruark, a junior at Monticello (Minn.) High School and a panel member, said one marked change was his school's movement toward using more interdisciplinary projects--such as having students research the Democratic and Republican national party platforms and then share their findings with elementary school students--and its movement away from more traditional testing.

These reforms, he said, have "caused a lot of confusion and chaos, but that's normal whenever you have a change.''

Students at the workshop also generated a "wish list'' of the changes they would make if they were "superintendent for a day.'' Many of their proposals mirrored existing trends in education reform, such as promoting greater community involvement and smaller class sizes. But the list also included some more unconventional ideas, such as allowing students to have input in the evaluation of teachers.

The students' presence at the meeting highlighted a key tenet of the center's philosophy: that students themselves must have an active voice in education reform.

"We are real specific in our guidelines about the importance of young people as resources, how they can make a difference in the world today, not just five or ten years from now,'' said Mr. Nathan.

By the conference's end, in fact, many students had concluded that they were not playing a large enough role in the workshop itself. In a spontaneous meeting, they developed a plan for giving students a larger voice in future center activities, and then lobbied for time during the conference's final session to present their proposals.

Both student and adult participants said one of most valuable aspects of the workshop was that it provided them with an opportunity to compare notes about which reforms have and have not worked in their respective communities.

"You have the same obstacles to overcome and the same victories to celebrate,'' said Gary Zirbes, the principal of Rothsay High School.

Charlotte Hoerth, a 4th-grade teacher at the Delevan agri-science school, said this exchange of ideas made her feel more confident about her own school's work.

"It makes us feel like we're on the right track,'' she said.

Delevan's superintendent, Chris Voltz, concurred, and noted that the school's association with the center had given its reform project more credibility with the local community.

Small Grants Key

Mr. Nathan said he views the center's work with the network schools as a "calculated effort at education revolution.'' Each year, the center awards four to five $2,500 planning and a like number of $20,000 implementation grants to schools interested in systemic reform.

"We ask them to act as if they were going to create a new school from the ground up, how might they do it?'' Mr. Nathan said.

Unlike other private-sector efforts to create innovative schools, such as the òêò Nabisco Foundation's "Next Century Schools'' program, the center deliberately awards only relatively small grants to individual schools.

The first issue of the center's newsletter, Fine Print, noted that "innovations which depend on people who have been hired with federal or foundation funds often die after the outside funds are spent.''

In addition to the financial support, the center provides ongoing technical assistance to grantees. Along with the workshops, the center has hired three "outreach coordinators,'' all of whom are former public school teachers, to visit the schools regularly and to guide them to needed resources.

Earlier this year, the center received national recognition for its work, through its involvement in the Community Learning Centers of Minnesota project. It will receive $100,000 of a $997,000 grant awarded to the project in July by the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit effort to develop "break the mold schools.''

Citizenship a Focus

Mr. Nathan said he sees the center's work as similar to that of other networks of model schools such as Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools and Henry M. Levin's Accelerated Schools Project.

"I think we have a vision of needing to make a number of coordinated and fundamental changes in school in order for there to be true increases in student achievement and higher graduation rates,'' he said, "rather than picking off one thing at a time.''

A prime philosophical underpinning of the effort, Mr. Nathan said, is that its leaders "do not think the fundamental role of schools is to prepare students for the workforce.'' Instead, he suggested, the main focus should be on helping students play a constructive role as citizens in a democratic society.

"We think one of the central roles that schools have is to produce young people who believe that they can try to work for more justice in the world and that they should,'' he said.

While helping students develop job-related skills is a part of this process, he continued, it is also important to help students become informed consumers and informed voters, and to develop within them the confidence to challenge a system when it does not work.

In a keynote address at the meeting, Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, hailed both the center and the participating schools for being "courageous and innovative.''

As schools struggle with the process of systemic reform, Ms. Peterson warned of the importance of keeping focused on the objective of improving student achievement, rather than just changing for the sake of change.

"I think it's important that we know what we're restructuring for,'' she said. "We need to know why we want to improve.''

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