A Community of Learners

A new kind of school in Minnesota sets out to create a local hub of learning for students, teachers, parents, and community members alike.

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You know you're getting close to LeSueur, Minn., when you see the Jolly Green Giant. A larger-than-life replica of the affable vegetable pitchman beckons from the hillside just before you reach the exit along Highway 169.

It's snowing steadily and bitterly cold--even by Minnesota standards--in this rural town once home to the Green Giant Company. But even the promise of a fresh February snowfall fails to distract the students at Minnesota New Country School this afternoon. They're caught up in last-minute preparations for their monthly "exhibition night" at the local shopping mall. And the rapidly accumulating flakes haven't deterred local residents either. By 6:30 P.M., the first of 50 parents, siblings, and neighbors have made the trek over to the Valley Green Square Mall to find out what students have been learning at their six-month-old charter school.

For the next hour or so, they listen to students read short stories and essays and watch them demonstrate self-made HyperCard stacks--computer programs that allow users to navigate collections of text, images, and sound. Afterward, the guests wander over to a series of booths, where students entertain questions about displays that run the gamut from a live ferret to a miniature guillotine to a demonstration of Newton's laws of motion. One young woman in a navy formal dress and tiara recounts her experience as a contestant in a local beauty pageant.

Later, the students and their guests navigate the slippery sidewalks to the school's main building down the street. There, they sip punch and munch on cookies while more students demonstrate technology projects, this time at a bank of Power Macintosh computers linked directly to the Internet. The evening's demonstrations finally wrap up around 9. Even though many of the teenagers have been at school for 12 hours, a few linger behind to talk to friends and teachers or tinker with the computers.

An Institutional Bypass

Though they already seem like a longstanding tradition, these exhibition nights are a new addition to life in LeSueur, a town of 3,000 an hour's drive south of Minneapolis. When the school opened its doors in September, its founders envisioned the exhibitions as a way for students to demonstrate publicly what they know and are able to do. At the same time, they hoped the forums would help forge a stronger link between the school and the surrounding community.

New Country is one of seven "Community Learning Centers," schools brought to life over the past three years with help from Public School Incentives, an umbrella nonprofit organization uniting several reform groups in the Twin Cities: the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota; the Urban Coalition; Designs for Learning, a for-profit consulting company; and Briggs and Morgan, a law firm that specializes in education. The P.S.I. design team is one of nine receiving funding from the New

American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit group founded in 1991 when President George Bush asked American business leaders to raise millions of dollars to create "break the mold" schools.

NASDC sponsored a design competition that attracted more than 700 entries, and it awarded one-year planning grants of $1 million to $2 million to each of 11 teams. Nine of the 11 design teams, including P.S.I., qualified for a second round of grants to implement their designs at pilot sites. NASDC is now negotiating with up to 11 jurisdictions nationwide to implement the reform blueprints and other proven school designs in at least 30 percent of their schools over the next five years.

The approach the design team adopted suggests that the best route to comprehensive education reform may be to relegate the existing system to the scrap heap. In its place, the designers argue, communities should create small, autonomous public schools that operate outside the regulatory constraints of school districts. It's not surprising that such an effort originated in Minnesota, the first state to enact legislation allowing the formation of charter schools, self-governing schools that are exempt from many state and district regulations in exchange for heightened accountability.

In its initial proposal to NASDC, the design team described its vision as "an institutional bypass to the present impasse preventing school change." The new schools would function almost like publicly funded independent schools, managed by local boards of parents, teachers, and community members.

The team is now working with nine schools across the state: four charter schools, two tribal schools, and three public schools that have negotiated special arrangements with their districts giving them greater control over budget and staffing decisions. It hopes to collaborate with a total of 20 schools by this fall and as many as 100 by the fall of 1996.

Oasis on Main Street

Minnesota New Country School is about as far from a traditional high school as you can get. There are no hallways filled with lockers, no students sitting in rows of desks listening to lectures. No 40-minute classes, no bells, no cafeteria, no auditorium, no athletic fields, no principal's office--no principal, period.

In fact, it's pretty easy to drive right by New Country, even if you're looking for it. Housed in two storefronts on Main Street, the school easily blends in with neighboring shops and businesses--the LeSueur News-Herald, Belle Mar Video, and Big River Pastries, a bakery shop missing the "i" in "pastries" on its sign out front.

The larger of the two school buildings doesn't even have a sign. The only tip-off that it's a school at all is a small mural of a student holding up a computer before a cityscape, superimposed on an outline of the state of Minnesota. Once a bar and grill, the building now welcomes about three-quarters of New Country's 73 students and three of its four teachers. The second building, a former bank at the other end of Main Street, is home to the remaining students and teacher.

The main facility has one large central room, a smaller adjoining classroom, a kitchen, and a quiet room where students can meet in small groups. The main room is fairly open, with counters and cubbyholes lining the perimeter and a cluster of computers in the middle.

"Our original intention was to have this be like a business atmosphere," says Kim Borwege, one of the school's four teachers and founders. "But then the kids started hanging stuff on the walls." Pictures of such entertainment personalities as David Letterman and Kurt Cobain adorn the walls, along with pithy teenisms like "If life were a movie, would you want to see it?"

"You can tell where they're coming from and how they feel," says Borwege of the decor. "It's really a statement about themselves."

The atmosphere is unconfined--even a little chaotic at times. Earlier that morning, a few students sat at their desks, chatting and flirting. Another group was busy organizing a classroom debate. The sounds of the neo-punk band Green Day could be heard from the radio at one girl's workspace nearby. Others, seemingly oblivious to the activity around them, concentrated intently on computer screens, scrambling to complete projects in time for that night's exhibitions.

No Typical Day

New Country's school day officially runs from 8:30 A.M. to 2:50 P.M. That's about when the bus drops off and picks up students. More than half of the students live outside of the LeSueur-Henderson school district, and a few come from as far away as Northfield, some 60 miles away.

Although the average day at New Country is anything but typical, most start off with meetings of the school's four advisory groups. Each teacher advises a group of about 20 students, offering personal support and monitoring individual performance.

The rest of the school day is free form. There are no formal classes, such as algebra or social studies. Instead, how and where students spend their time is unusually flexible, thanks to a curriculum that is both interdisciplinary and project-based. Students can come and go freely--they might leave to have lunch with a parent, work on a research project at the library, or to do some reading at home.

Traditional grade levels have been more or less abandoned; there is just Level I (roughly grades 7, 8, and 9) and Level II (grades 10, 11, and 12.) Each student has his or her own copy of the school's curriculum, which is based on the new performance-based graduation requirements the state is developing. The thick Level I packet, for example, explicitly spells out each of 1,300 tasks students must complete before advancing to Level II: converting fractions to decimals, explaining how political power is shared under the U.S. Constitution, and producing some 70 writing samples, just to name a few.

On a yearly basis, each student must accumulate more than 400 "validations," or certificates documenting that he or she has mastered the requisite skills. Students can earn these validations in traditional ways, such as passing a math test. But they can also tackle them outside the classroom through local internships or volunteer service. This semester, one student is shadowing a veterinarian, while an aspiring chef works at LeSueur's Palm Tree restaurant, and another teenager learns his trade-of-choice at an area auto body shop.

Timothy J. Nolte, a 16-year-old student at New Country, has taken advantage of this freedom to start a business selling school supplies and snacks to his classmates. He and a friend secured a $460 loan from Valley National Bank and invested $180 of their own money. They've even registered their business with the state department of revenue, which assigned it a tax-identification number.

At exhibition night, Tim proudly displays the business plan the loan officer required the two young entrepreneurs to develop. The detailed document includes spreadsheets with estimates of expenditures and profits. The young men project they can price their products 26 percent lower than local retailers because of their lower overhead costs.

It's this kind of flexibility that attracted students to New Country when it was still just a set of ideas on paper. Gifted and special-education students were among those willing to take a risk on this unknown commodity. But there were plenty of students from the spectrum in between, too. Despite their different backgrounds, New Country students all shared one trait: an intense frustration with their traditional schools.

Dan Bidwell, 15, says he used to get in trouble at his old school for talking or falling asleep in class. "I'd do anything to get out of there," he says. "I was just totally bored." At New Country, he enjoys being able to work at his own pace and having virtually unlimited access to computers. "There is no way they'll get me to go back as long as this school is open," he declares.

One of his classmates, 16-year-old Amber Johnson, brought home D's and F's from her former school. "I didn't get along with any of the teachers because I didn't understand what they were doing," she explains. "I got so far behind, I didn't want to go to school." Now, she's getting A's and spending about three hours a day on homework. "I can do it on my own now," she says, "and I'm not afraid to go and ask for help."

However, for some students, the lack of structure at New Country has proved problematic. "I guess what we were thinking was kids were going to grasp the concept sooner than we anticipated," admits Borwege. But the younger students, in particular, wanted someone to tell them what to do.

In response, the staff decided to create "mini-courses," a more structured framework for introducing students to topics ranging from German to chemistry. Borwege also asks her advisees to keep daily journals documenting what they accomplish and listing goals for the next day.

But when things just aren't working out, the staff has allowed students to switch advisers or even classrooms. Dan said he decided to move from the larger to the smaller building, where he found teacher Nancy Miller had established more formal guidelines about what work students should be doing each week. "I needed more structure, and I get that here," he explains. "Over here, the teacher has more time to spend with the kids. It's more chaotic over there, and you had to come up with your own projects. I'm not good at keeping myself on task."

But not every student has such a mature outlook, leaving some still frustrated with the lack of self-discipline among their peers. Timothy, the student who started his own business, thought New Country would feel more like a corporate office but instead found it noisy and cluttered. "One thing I hoped to get away from is the immaturity of some students," he says. "People are kind of inconsiderate about talking when you're trying to work."

Nevertheless, Timothy seems willing to make concessions for the independence the school has afforded him. "There's so much I've been able to do that I would not have been able to at the high school," he adds. Like other students, he also likes being able to earn credit for his activities outside of school, such as serving as the president of his church youth group and singing in the choir.

Community as School

Conversely, local residents are starting to tap students' skills during their in-school time. Julie Boyland, the president of the local chamber of commerce, recently enlisted two students to conduct a survey of businesses in LeSueur. The town's economy--with the recent departure of the Green Giant headquarters and canning factory and the arrival of a handful of high-tech companies--is in a state of flux. The students, Ryan Fisher and Branden Rademacher, plan to compile a computer database listing information on each of the town's 208 businesses, including its location, the service or product it provides, and how many people it employs.

Community residents, especially parents, are also giving back. A mother, who happens to be a full-time student herself, teaches ceramics at her home. A local farmer has volunteered to lead discussions on the works of great Western philosophers. And this month, for the first time, students will emcee exhibition night, thanks to lessons from a mother who is a member of Toastmasters International, an organization of people interested in public speaking.

Other Community Learning Center sites have interpreted the call to draw on community resources in an even broader fashion.

Cedar Riverside Community School in Minneapolis, for example, has cultivated a community that extends beyond the geographic area surrounding the school. Like New Country, it is a small charter school, a K-12 school with 99 students and multi-age classrooms. Cedar Riverside capitalizes on the resources of its immediate neighborhood, which includes the University of Minnesota campus. But the school also tries to draw on the cultural heritage of its students, 40 percent of whom are American Indians.

One group of students, for example, is studying a battle that took place at Sugar Point near the Leech Lake Reservation a few hours north of Minneapolis. Although undocumented in most historical accounts of the period, the battle was purportedly the last confrontation between the cavalry and American Indians. To learn more, the students have planned a visit to a museum near the battle site in Walker, Minn., to examine records of the event and interview members of the Chippewa Tribe.

The elastic schedules and open campuses of charter schools have also allowed students to advance to postsecondary work while still in high school. At New Country, a half-dozen students are taking classes at Gustavus Adolphus College in nearby St. Peter. Among them is Hope Grover, a 15-year-old taking second-semester English and first-semester psychology. "Here, I can go at my own pace and get a lot more done," says Hope, who is dressed in shorts despite temperatures in the teens. At her old high school, she wouldn't have been able to take postsecondary courses until next year, her junior year.

Hope's mom agrees. "I see that Hope has flexibility here," says Dee Thomas, who's come to exhibition night to gauge her daughter's progress. Sitting with her mother at a Macintosh, Hope shows off her HyperCard stack on the solar system. By clicking on Earth, she can view a graphic representation of the planet's surface when it was first formed or take a peek at what scientists think it may look like 50 million years in the future.

New Country's computers are linked directly to the Internet, so students and teachers can make their way onto the information highway any time of day. Community members can also access the Internet on their home computers using modems hooked up to the school connection.

Although the technology component has been a dream come true for New Country, it has seemed likea nightmare at times for Cedar Riverside Community School.

In its ambitious reform blueprint, the design team weaves a vision of schools with computers on every teacher's desk for keeping records, writing reports, and communicating with colleagues. What's more, each student would have a laptop computer to take notes, complete assignments, and use on-line resources, both at school and at home via a modem linkup.

New Country is well on its way to realizing this vision. But at Cedar Riverside, computer use is limited largely to word processing and educational software. Plans to use computers to track students' academic progress, communicate by e-mail, and take advantage of other more sophisticated applications remain unrealized. Computers ordered in the summer of 1993 still weren't in place by the following March. The school also bought two $8,000 I.B.M. file servers to network its individual computer terminals. Today, one of the file servers is still sitting unused, and plans to link the school's three buildings electronically are in limbo.

Trudie Jones, who teaches 3rd through 5th grade and is also Cedar Riverside's personnel director, thinks the equipment the school received was overpriced and outdated and the technical support, nonexistent. Given what she knows now, she would have spent more money on software and training and far less on hardware.

"Being promised the moon as part of the NASDC program, we felt they really let us down," Jones says. "We were not getting the support we expected." But she praises Designs for Learning "for taking the bull by the horns" when it became clear the school felt shortchanged in putting its technology vision in place.

Wayne B. Jennings, the president of Designs for Learning, thinks Cedar Riverside's problems stemmed from the fact that its staff had virtually no experience with technology. The design team advised all of the sites to allocate part of their $200,000 technology budgets for training and service contracts, Jennings says, but Cedar Riverside "just didn't get around to it" with all the other tasks involved in starting a new school.

As a result of some of the schools' problems with technology, Designs for Learning recently hired a full-time computer expert to advise each of the sites.

Not Just for Charter Schools

Although New Country School may represent one of the more dramatic examples of a break-the-mold school of the future, the design team is also working with traditional public schools that remain a part of their local districts.

Among them are the two schools that make up the St. Paul Community Learning Center: Expo I, an elementary school, and Expo II, a middle school, both of which draw heavily on the work of Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner has identified at least seven types of intelligence: linguistic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Most schools, he believes, tend to emphasize the first two at the expense of the rest.

In an effort to create a climate more conducive to Gardner's vision of learning, Expo I and Expo II have established multi-age classrooms and emphasize thematic, interdisciplinary instruction. Teachers group students in "families" and help them develop "personal learning plans" that set goals in each of the seven intelligence categories.

Scott Sands, the chair of the school's site-based management team, was excited about enrolling his two sons at Expo I. "I liked the idea that we were going to use the latest research in education," he says.

This interdisciplinary approach carries over to Expo II. Unlike most junior high students who move from class to class, Expo II students remain with the same teacher for half the day. Mitch McDonald, a teacher at Expo II, says this allows him to get to know his students better and be a more effective instructor. "We're allowed to get close to that group of kids and know them and their families," he says. "If they're having a bad day, you have an opportunity to find out what's going on."

One of the design team's first orders of business was to persuade the St. Paul school district to give the Expo schools greater authority over their budgets. But before any agreement could be hammered out, it took 15 meetings with district finance administrators to figure out the two schools' expenses and revenues. "That's a level of granularity that the district isn't used to thinking of," says David J. Alley, the vice president of Designs for Learning.

Jennings says the design team has found substantial differences between working with charter and traditional schools. And although he admits that it's not the only option, Jennings believesthe charter approach is both the most viable and the easiest way to catalyze reform. "It's a whole range of things that charter schools are given freedom from," he says. Charter school teachers and parents, for example, don't have to work around as many barriers, whether it be state regulations, school district policies, or union contracts that spell out what people can do and what hours they work.

Nevertheless, Jennings thinks the blueprint for the Community Learning Centers can help redesign both charter schools and their more traditional counterparts. In these ideal schools, he says, teachers would know their students well and view them as resources rather than empty vessels to be filled with facts and formulas. And parents would be frequent visitors in classrooms, bringing with them their diverse skills and talents. So, too, students would stream in and out of the building, leaving to work as apprentices or volunteers at community agencies. Staff development would be a hands-on experience that takes place at least 20 to 30 days a year. These schools would be active, engaging kinds of places, Jennings explains, "where the teacher is less the sage on the stage and more a guide on the side."

Jennings and his colleagues say they already see signs of progress toward these goals at the state's Community Learning Center pilot schools. Parents recently asked the St. Paul board of education to start a high school modeled after Expo I and II. Scores on the California Achievement Tests are up for the students at Expo II, and responses to parent surveys have been positive. At New Country, students who were once bored with school are now excited about learning.

The design team itself receives good marks from Tom Glennan, the senior adviser for education policy at the RAND Corporation, who is directing a study of all the NASDC projects. Teachers at the Community Learning Center sites, he says, generally praise the team for the relevance and timeliness of its assistance. In part, Glennan traces that praise to the fact that the team's four leaders have worked together for a long time. "You have a sense when you talk with them of their understanding one another and sharing something," he says. "They weren't just put together, as many of the teams were. That has its good sides, and that has its bad sides, obviously. But there's a cohesiveness that I find kind of unique and attractive."

Glennan also points to the "open design" of the Community Learning Center sites as another plus. While other NASDC design teams have more specific guidelines about instructional materials, pedagogy, or use of technology, the Community Learning Centers' design principles allow for broader intrepretations. On the other hand, he adds, the weakness of an open design is that participating schools are less likely to be successful if they are not already unified around particular reform strategies. It may prove more difficult for schools that are less cohesive and less explicit about what they hope to accomplish. "It works in some places," he says, "and it doesn't in others."

John L. Anderson, NASDC's chairman, was impressed by what he saw when he visited several Community Learning Center sites last month. In particular, he cites the enthusiasm and commitment that teachers, parents, and students exhibited. He attributes this to the fact "that people felt responsible, and they had the wherewithal to act; they didn't have to ask anyone, they didn't have to check regulations. There's a real feeling of freedom associated with that."

It remains a question in Anderson's mind, however, whether the caps some states set on the number of charter schools that can be established will limit the impact of the Community Learning Centers. A recent report issued by the research department of the Minnesota House of Representatives pointed to other problems, including the difficulty charter schools have raising the start-up funds needed for facilities and basic classroom materials. Unlike school districts, charter schools cannot issue bonds or levy taxes to supplement basic state aid.

"Will enough be allowed to allow you to change the system," he wonders. "Or will they be kept as a niche, as some kind of experiment?"

But Anderson remains optimistic about the role of Community Learning Centers in the broader reform movement to create smaller schools. "It won't just be charters alone," he says. Under NASDC's phase III plan, it will help up to 11 jurisdictions design at least 30 percent of their schools using the blueprints that a variety of design teams have crafted.

"If a jurisdiction makes a commitment to create a lot of new schools, those new schools will require autonomy and waivers and freedom from some form of regulations," Anderson says. "Then you begin to build a culture of change. Some may be Roots and Wings schools, some Audrey Cohen schools, some charter schools. But once you have these schools as the norm, then you're not operating on a waiver any more."

Vol. 14, Issue 25, Pages 22-26

Published in Print: March 15, 1995, as A Community of Learners
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