Beyond The Hype

By David Ruenzel — December 04, 2014 25 min read
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Set on the wind-swept Minnesota prairie just off a barren stretch of Interstate 94, Rothsay has a sad, even desolate feel. On its outskirts is a garish orange and brown 10-foot chicken bearing the message, “Rothsay, Home of the Prairie Chicken.” Fifty yards ahead is a faded sign assuring visitors that Rothsay is “A Friendly City.” Although there’s a truck stop, a trailer park, and a couple of Spartan white churches, much of everything else looks abandoned or in the process of being abandoned. There’s a closed cocktail lounge, a closed gas station, and a closed repair shop that is beginning to crumble. Kowalski Motor Co.--"Used Cars and Trucks"--is boarded up and crowned with pigeons. Over it all looms an enormous steely gray grain elevator.

But in the center of town, surrounded by modest houses, is a school--Rothsay Public School, a K-12 program of some 260 students, many of whom come from surrounding farms. More than 90 percent of the students go on to post-secondary education, and 82 percent graduate from college-- remarkable figures for a rural school. The fact that there’s any school at all, much less a good school, is somewhat of a small miracle. The entire town has a population of just 500; most are retired, and only 28 percent have school-age children. Furthermore, the Minnesota Department of Education wants to consolidate all schools with less than 1,200 K-12 students as a cost-saving measure.

The state, however, is unlikely to close the Rothsay school any time soon. It would be disastrous public relations. And the reasons have less to do with what’s going on in the school building itself than with what’s happening at two businesses just down the hill: Store Front, a lumberyard and hardware store, and Tiger Mart, a grocery store. Together, these two establishments have attracted educators and journalists from across the country.

To discover what has made these ordinary-appearing stores such a draw, you can walk to the far wall in Tiger Mart, where, above the coffee machine, a raft of newspaper and magazine articles are displayed.

“Students Save Town’’ and “Students Run Businesses’’ are typical headlines. The stories tell how local students took over and rejuvenated businesses that had gone bust. Thanks to these enterprising students, residents no longer had to make the 40mile round trip to Fergus Falls, the nearest city, to pick up a carton of milk or a box of nails. Collectively, the articles refer to innovation in education, the connection between school and the world of real work, and the wonders of teenage entrepreneurship.

The Wall Street Journal had been to Rothsay, as had Parade magazine. Last November, a camera crew from ABC’s World News Tonight spent three days in Rothsay interviewing students, school officials, and town residents. The correspondent, John McKenzie, concluded his on-air report by saying, “Thanks to this one program, high school students are getting experience in real life and giving a town a new lease on life.”

Hollywood is also interested in Rothsay. The school has sold the rights to its story to an independent producer who is negotiating with Disney and Hallmark.

News items like these have drawn new students to Rothsay, too. Thanks to the publicity and Minnesota’s openenrollment law--students may cross district lines to attend the school of their choice--Rothsay has gained 50 students during the past three years.

What I’d heard about Rothsay seemed dramatic, so dramatic that I decided to travel there in the dead of winter to check it out for myself. But what I came away with, to my surprise, was a story less about young entrepreneurs and school-business partnerships than one about how the ordinary virtues of a successful school are too often overlooked by educators and journalists fixated on innovation.

In 1986, the Rothsay lumberyard closed--destined, apparently, to follow the barber shop, drugstore, medical clinic, and a host of other town establishments into oblivion. Then, in 1988, a local real-estate agent, who had unsuccessfully been trying to move the property, walked into the office of Gary Zirbes, principal of the secondary program at Rothsay, and asked him if the school might be interested in purchasing it.

“We thought about it and said yes,” Zirbes told me. “We could put a class down there or use it as muchneeded storage space. So we purchased everything for $19,000, a song. We could always resell it; we’d get our money back in any case. Then, one day, one of our school board members came by and said, ‘Why don’t you run that lumberyard as a real business and eliminate the business simulation class?’ Then, we just started digging in.”

Students in the business simulation class, known as “Model Office,” had been running a fictitious business. That class would be replaced with a new course, appropriately entitled “Store Front,” open to seniors who had taken Accounting I.

“Make a mistake in Model Office, and it’s no big deal,” the principal said. “Make a mistake in a real business, and it can come back to haunt you. You can talk about public relations in a class, have the students write it down and spout back a definition on a test, but they’ll immediately forget all about it. Our kids practice public relations every day; these are real people they’re talking to down at the stores, and public relations takes on a whole new meaning.”

First, the school conducted a market study to ensure that the business could survive in Rothsay. This accomplished, it applied for a grant from the West Central Minnesota Initiative Fund, a project of the McKnight Foundation, detailing its plans for the educational business venture. In September 1988, Store Front was awarded $30,000 to purchase inventory; $20, 000 was invested in inventory with $10,000 held in reserve. The students, working alongside their instructor, spent several weeks cleaning, painting, and stocking the shelves in preparation for the October opening.

The store, with annual sales of about $90,000, has more than doubled its inventory to $42,000 by continually reinvesting its profits. But, as Zirbes acknowledged, Store Front has a number of advantages over privately owned businesses. Because the store is owned by the school, it pays no taxes; furthermore, it has the obvious advantage of free labor. Altogether, 19 seniors-- including eight from neighboring Barnesville--each work at the store an hour a day for academic credit. Additionally, three adults work at the store part time for minimum wage.

Of course, what one person calls free labor another may call an invaluable learning experience; it all depends on how one perceives the nature of the work. Few would question the value of work that helps a student acquire, as a genuine apprenticeship does, skills that will well serve his or her advancement in the “real world.” It’s quite a different matter, though, if the student is performing the kind of tasks associated with countless part-time jobs.

Zirbes said the students “do accounting, pay bills, handle mail, shovel sidewalks, mop floors, keep inventory.” This was but a partial list; the printed curriculum for “Store Front” enumerates 30 items students will be tested on, from cash-register and computer operation to invoice writing and customer courtesy.

I asked Zirbes if the students rotated so that they performed every job.

“Right, that’s the idea,” he said. “One week on computer, one on accounts receivable, one on inventory, one on customer service. But in some situations, just like in the classrooms where you have varying abilities, not all students can handle real intricate accounting skills, so they spend more time on till operation, that kind of thing.”

This, I thought, was a crucial issue, for if some students were shielded from the more complex tasks and spending a majority of time on, say, shelving or custodial work, then the value of some aspects of the program could be called into question. This was a kind of real-world tracking. But Zirbes had already moved on to a different subject.

“The kids,” he was saying, “have the most critical teacher of all, the public. The public watches what happens. As a result, students don’t want to make mistakes. They have more ownership. They want to learn right away what’s the right way to do it. ‘Show me now,’ they’ll say, ‘how to do it right.’ You talk about 80 percent mastery of outcome-based education; well, we have 100 percent because our kids have to satisfy the public, the bank, state and federal regulations. If they make a mistake they have to go back and fix it; auditors want accountability to the penny.”

Were the students really enthusiastic about this work, or did it merely provide an opportunity for them to get out of the school building?

“How many kids do you think would show up at the store on a school snow day? All of ours did, even on a day they could have had off. They feel ownership of the store. But don’t take my word for it. Go down to the store; talk to the kids.”

On a frigid January morning, the hardware store was void of customers but full of students. Two in the back office were sitting before computers, working on inventory and monthly reports. Two others were in the aisles with clipboards, noting items that were in low supply and needed to be reordered. Yet another two were milling about the counter, apparently with time on their hands.

“Grab a broom,” Randy Balkan, the instructor and store manager told them. Almost immediately, one was sweeping; the other vanished.

“I won’t lie,” the instructor said to me. “It’s not always easy to keep everyone busy.”

Balkan continually glanced about the store as he spoke with me, giving orders or answering questions. A burly man in his 40s, he had an authoritative yet congenial air, and it was apparent that his students liked him. They addressed him by his first name.

Having spent several years as a bookkeeper before he became a vocational instructor, Balkan told me he knew accounting inside out. “But I knew nothing about running a business,” he said. “The kids knew nothing either. So we began by doing a survey of the community to see what merchandise we should carry. In the beginning, we made some mistakes; we bought some merchandise we couldn’t get rid of.

“The community will support us if we’re competitive with Pelican, Breckenridge, all the neighboring towns. And now we are. We can’t be higher on anything, or we can’t sell it. We’ll meet advertised prices put out by competitors; the school board’s philosophy is to sell it.”

A student walked by, and Balkan nabbed him. “Give this man a tour,” he said, pointing to me.

The student hesitated; he was obviously very nervous, as if he had been asked to give an extemporaneous speech. “This will go a lot better if you ask me what you want to know,” he said.

I asked him to show me around the store, and we began walking down an aisle of assorted hardware and then toys. In the front window was a scooter that had been marked down twice, apparently one of the mistakes Balkan had spoken of. The senior told me that it took 21 people two weeks to count everything, to complete the physical inventory. “It’s not difficult work,” he explained, “but it takes a lot of time.” The store was immaculate, the merchandise spotless and neatly displayed. He said they mopped at least every other day.

I pressed him to tell me what the most important skill he had learned was. After an awkward lull, he said: “Working with people. That’s something I needed help with.” Then he added, as if an afterthought, “I’m going to use all this stuff I’ve learned.”

“You’re planning to go into business?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ll probably go back to the farm.”

The tour completed, I again sought out Balkan. He was paging through a thick Ace hardware manual, helping a pair of students find the Ace numbers for items that needed to be reordered. “Now, I want you to find 15 items in the next 30 minutes,” he told them.

I asked Balkan what he thought the students were learning at Store Front that they couldn’t learn, say, working at Wal-Mart.

“They would never be hired in the responsible positions they hold,” he said. “They wouldn’t be carrying money, doing computer, inventory work.”

Last year, Balkan told me, there had been a discrepancy between the store’s books and the city’s books. He sent a student over to clear up the matter. The student discovered that the city had made an accounting error. The point was that Balkan turns important responsibilities over to the students. ``If there’s a problem, and the kids can’t handle it, I’ll step in and help the best I can,’' Balkan said. ``But the kids try to solve problems the best they can.’'

I stepped into the business office and asked the students the same question I had just asked Balkan. Unequivocally, they assured me that Store Front gives them opportunities no other place of employment possibly could. In the case of these particular students, this was undoubtedly true. Working at the computers, they produce, along with other documents, the inventory and monthly income reports. But it was also apparent that not all students did such brain work.

The Rothsay students prepared to leave. A group of seven seniors from Barnesville arrived for their “Store Front” class. They didn’t know any accounting, Balkan told me. I asked him what they do then at the store.

“The Barnesville kids have all had two, three, even four years of shop; they know how to build things,” he said, pointing to a display case.

Zirbes had told me that, on account of so many media visits, Rothsay students had been interviewed extensively; they had delivered speeches, done scripting, and even made videos regarding the businesses. He said, somewhat in jest, that the school had “an event-driven curriculum.”

I discovered that this wasn’t far from the truth. I was speaking with another school administrator, Dennis Hanson, when I mentioned that I would like to talk to the students who “ran” Tiger Mart. Hanson wrote the names of several high school students on a slip of paper and handed it to the secretary. Ten minutes later, I was sitting around a table with four poised students. “They’re accustomed to publicity,” Hanson said. “They do it as part of their education.”

The grocery store, the students explained, is structured quite differently from the hardware store. Whereas Store Front is owned and operated by the school, TIGER Inc. (which stands for Teenage Innovative Group Entrepreneurs of Rothsay) is a nonprofit corporation that was formed in the spring of 1991 by students looking for an opportunity to expand the Store Front concept. Students in grades 7 through 12 paid a $5 membership fee to become part of the corporation. When the town’s last remaining grocery store closed that May, the students, with the assistance of adviser Tom Fosse, secured a key loan and other financial assistance and then purchased inventory, stocked the shelves, and reopened it just two months later as Tiger Mart.

While Tiger Mart is a much bigger business than Store Front, grossing almost $300,000 annually, it’s also a much more troubled business. In the fall of 1992, the store was in a financial bind and in serious danger of having to shut down.

“The financial crisis was a huge burden for us to carry on our shoulders,” said Shelly Teberg, chief executive officer of the student corporation. “We were always in a panic. It was something we thought about constantly, and we frequently had meetings to figure out what to do.”

A confluence of factors was responsible for Tiger Mart’s difficulties. For one thing, the students had hired an accountant who had fallen behind on the store’s bookkeeping. Uncertain as to where they stood financially, the students finally turned to the school, which in turn pressured the accountant. Furthermore, there were problems with some of the student employees, one of whom was fired for stealing from the till. Finally--this the biggest obstacle--the community was failing to give the business adequate support.

“The first year,” the corporation’s secretary, Nichole Aksamit, said, “there was a lot of hype and therefore a lot of business. The second year, business fell off. We had to cut back on purchases.”

“The major thing we did was back off on the raises we had given ourselves based on experience. [Students are paid only for the work they put in at the store outside of school hours.] Now, we’re back to minimum wage--the savings going back to the corporation. We also tried to up our sales with various promotions. We sent out letters and did a survey asking residents how many groceries they would buy in a week, what percentage would they buy at Tiger Mart, how could we improve service. We got a lot of good comments; the community, for the most part, just didn’t realize what kind of trouble we were in. But there were a couple of people who thought we should just give the business up. It was very disappointing.

“We talked about our options. We could sell out. Run it as a co-op. The other option was to make it work. Basically, everyone in the corporation wants to make it go. We have, in fact, a financial obligation to make it go. The store received a $15,000 grant we have to pay back if we don’t stay in business for five years.”

Having made the community aware of the store’s precariousness, the students reported that business improved dramatically in November and December. The enterprise, for the very near future anyhow, seems secure.

Visiting the immaculate store on a Saturday morning, I found it bustling with activity. Customers kibitzed as they stood in line with their purchases; at a table, four elderly women sipped coffee as they exchanged recipes.

Still, given the store’s difficulties, I couldn’t help wondering just who was benefiting from its continued operation. Clearly, the four students I had spoken with had learned a great deal from the travails, but beyond this small group, it was hard to say just who had gained what. The residents appreciated the convenience but still, I learned, drove to Fergus Falls to do their major shopping. One student was learning, under the tutelage of a retired butcher, how to order, prepare, and display meat, but this, it seemed, could have been learned in a private business. The student manager, who guided me through his tasks of ordering inventory and organizing work schedules, told me that, after six months, “I’ve learned all I can.” And while several other students worked at the store for school credit, their work--so I was told by one of the student board members--involved little more than stocking shelves and other similarly low-skill tasks.

Furthermore, to suggest, as the media have, that the stores are “student run” is an exaggeration. At Store Front, Balkan oversees the students’ bookkeeping, making corrections when necessary. And at Tiger Mart, which has struggled financially, student managers told me that they have learned to rely much more on adult supervision.

School officials, who developed a curriculum for the store, claim that Tiger Mart, along with Store Front, is of significant educational value. Not only are there classes in accounting, store management, and meat cutting, but there is also a whole interdisciplinary dimension that has to be considered. The English Department, I was told, works with students on handling media situations such as television and newspaper interviews. And the advanced consumer math class teaches cash-register checkout and inventory down at the store.

But the accounting and store management classes at Tiger Mart, which are teacherless (“You set guidelines for yourself,” one student told me), are taken by only a handful of students-- members of the store’s board. And, as I learned from one teacher, the interdisciplinary aspect does not exactly demand academic rigor.

This was the consumer math teacher, and she demurred when I asked if the students learned anything that could be construed as higher math.

“No,’' she said, “not even if someone tells you it is; it isn’t. I think we’re learning that we don’t want to go into business because it’s a lot of piddling work. Counting tuna cans is not exciting. Basically, it’s a very low-level task that shows kids you have to keep your inventory or you don’t run a business. For the kids, it’s a break, a chance to get out of the building.”

I asked her if she thought the business had educational value.

“I don’t know. It depends on what you view as education. One kid last year did gain a lot. But the drawback of both businesses, as far as I can see, is that if they go broke, so what? These are not businesspeople raising a family, worried about going belly up. I don’t think the kids understand this, that they could not keep the store open and raise a family.

“I think the school found out three or four years ago that you can’t have low-level kids do accounting or computer stuff. They thought they’d send vocational students--those who couldn’t handle elective English or calculus--down to the store, but then they learned that you had to have real smarts to work on the computer. So I don’t know what we’ve accomplished. We still have our divisions of students. We have people who put things on shelves, dust shelves, and we have the ones who are doing the advanced math, the computer work. It’s separated just like society. You have your workers on one hand, your top-level administrators on the other.”

During our conversation, the teacher seemed somewhat perturbed, as if she had lost patience with journalists asking questions. “I think the kids are getting tired of cameras and stuff; it’s hard to get anything done. Sometimes I wish they’d leave the publicity out. You don’t have to be in the paper for it to mean something. The whole thing gets blown out of proportion.

“I mean, it’s amazing to me that you have to have grants to keep a business afloat. It’s not that the kids don’t get anything out of it; they do. But I can’t believe it’s national news. I can’t believe no one has ever heard of keeping a store open. In salary, the school is spending $10, 000 a year to keep the store open; it’s not like it’s free.

“Yet, I think the state would have closed us if not for those businesses. Now I don’t think they can afford to because of the publicity. They can’t be in the position of saying we want to be innovative in Minnesota, but we’re going to close Rothsay. Because of the stores, I may be able to retire here.”

Other teachers I spoke with were highly supportive of the businesses, though most agreed with the math teacher that the enterprises just weren’t that big of a deal. As one teacher told me, “To a lot of us, the stores were just a logical development, and it didn’t seem like any big, major thing until we got reactions from the media.”

As I talked to more and more people, it began to seem as if the school had been a rather innocent beneficiary of a national quest for educational innovation that sometimes borders on becoming a craze. While the businesses have undoubtedly benefited residents who no longer have to drive 40 miles for a loaf of bread and a small cadre of students who have learned important skills, Tiger Mart and Store Front seemed, from my perspective, to be much less than a revolutionary educational development. But the school, which is struggling for survival, can hardly be blamed for accepting the innovative label that educators and reporters are only too eager to affix.

Dennis Hanson, principal of the school’s elementary program, told me that Rothsay was surrounded by four bigger school districts. “There have been meetings here,” he said, “about whether we should remain independent or allow ourselves to be absorbed by Fergus Falls. The state of Minnesota says they don’t see a reason why we should remain open. Yet, there’s a strong enough Scandinavian community here to want to do what it takes to stay open. So we began to ask, just what can we do to remain open?”

The answer, it was clear, was innovation--a word iterated time and time again by school officials. But it sometimes seemed as if the drive toward innovation was fueled less by an intrinsic desire for meaningful change than by a need for publicity and grant money that would help ensure the school’s survival.

A case in point was a faculty meeting I attended at which Hanson and school adviser Tom Fosse told elementary teachers of their plans to move grades 2-6 to the Rothsay Learning Center, a motel they were refurbishing and wanted to convert into a new kind of school. Just how this new kind of school would be structured and just what it would teach was unclear, though it would feature a technology center, an emphasis on global problems, and team teaching. The point was that they would have to do whatever it took to fulfill the requirements of a $200,000 grant they were seeking from the New American Schools Development Corp.

During the meeting, the teachers were generally quiet. They seemed confused as to how their roles would change should the plan be implemented. I was confused, too, and, after the meeting, I asked Hanson just what the plans entailed. He handed me a sheet on which there were three circles. The first circle was entitled the “Center of Academic Studies,” where the school curriculum would be taught; the second, “Center for Applied Skills,” focused on the kind of realworld problem solving one found at Tiger Mart and Store Front; the third, “Center for Global Studies/Social Issues,” dealt with such broad topics as poverty, crime, and violence. Students and teachers would apparently rotate from one circle to the next.

All of this seemed rather vague, as Hanson seemed to sense. “What makes it hard,” he said, “is that we’re doing this not only for ourselves but also to satisfy New American Schools for that $200,000 grant. Fourteen to 15 schools are going to be given a grant. If we’re going to be one of them, we’re going to have to break away from tradition, to do things differently; that’s their criteria.”

The Minnesota Center for School Change, a private foundation and a New American Schools partner, has already awarded Rothsay $20,000. Its director, Joe Nathan, told me that Rothsay was in the running for further grant monies.

Nathan is a well-known advocate of learning through apprenticeship and has written extensively on the subject. I called him to find out if what was going on in Rothsay couldn’t be construed as limited vocational training rather than a program demanding higher-order thinking skills.

“No,” he said. “It’s preparation for citizenship. Preparation for work in the very best sense. There’s a huge push for learning through apprenticeship, a huge national push. Young people need to understand not only working for other people but also to get a sense of what it’s like to create a business, to make your ideas work.”

Nathan said the Center for School Change, which has awarded a total of some $150,000 to rural schools willing to undertake fundamental change, believes in four basic principles. For one thing, all apprenticeships should be integrated with the classroom, that is, academic skills acquired in the classroom should be applied to solving problems of real work. Secondly, the school building is but a headquarters; some of the most vital learning takes place in the community. Thirdly, the building is a shared facility, open to community members as well as teachers and students. And lastly, the school should do what it can to promote racial diversity and multiculturalism.

While Rothsay generally meets these principles, it’s also true that it meets some of them in less than complete ways. Some students do, for instance, apply what they learn in accounting to their work at the stores; yet, as the math teacher pointed out, some of the applied skills demand little intellectual rigor. Furthermore, only 17 of the high school’s 135 students work at the businesses--and some of them only marginally. And while school officials claim the school is multicultural--they have recruited several foreign exchange students to create “a global-type atmosphere"--it is dubious that a handful of international students can do much to promote understanding between various cultures.

But the more time I spent at Rothsay Public School, the more I was impressed with it--that is, with all those aspects the media and visiting educators have ignored. The students were welldisciplined, respectful of authority, and obviously at ease in the school’s small, close-knit community. They do not suffer from the alienation that typifies so many students at large and anonymous American schools. I met with classes of middle school students and high school students; it was impossible not to be impressed with their fierce loyalty to the school. Dismayed and angered by the possibility that their school may someday close, they saw no advantage in being “absorbed” by a larger school system; they liked knowing their teachers and fellow students on a friendly one-to-one basis. No added electives or bigger sports teams would compensate for this loss of intimacy.

Furthermore, Rothsay students have been successful by almost any measure. The daily attendance rate is 96 percent; no one drops out. Rothsay students have tested in the top 5 percent of the state. The vast majority goes on to post-secondary education and graduates from college. The faculty-to-student ratio at the school is one to 14. Ninetyfour percent of the students participate in extracurricular school events.

There is, then, something extremely ironic about the publicity the school has received. For the things that make the school a success--its small size, cohesiveness, and unity of purpose-- are the very things that the press, in an eagerness to identify novel reforms, has overlooked. Indeed, the school’s small size-- an asset, most educational researchers would agree--is one of the very things that endangers its survival. And yet, when large schools are carved up into smaller ones, as is the case with the increasingly popular “schools within a school” concept, everyone praises the development as innovative.

This is, of course, no argument against innovation; one would be foolhardy to suggest that our schools do not need to change. But the media often pursue “innovation” so blindly that they bypass the more ordinary, unspectacular virtues that make schools good.

While I was in Rothsay, Zirbes told me of his vision for turning the school into a global trade center directed by students. Scandinavian countries, he told me, have a profound interest in American-Indian art, something readily available at nearby reservations. His plan is for the reservations to supply the art to Rothsay students, who would in turn market it to Scandinavia. “We would be,” Zirbes said, “the only high school running an international trade center.”

The idea may be a good and workable one. But it doesn’t seem right that a school like Rothsay should have to depend on ideas like this in order to survive.


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