By Claire Moses
It’s next to impossible to know at first glance if any kind of learning is going on in the Minnesota New Country School. The one-room charter in Henderson, Minn., population 900, is typically abuzz with the chatter and laughter of its 125 sixth- through twelfth-graders, all mixed together in a school that has a look and a sound all its own.
First-time visitors may need some coaxing to recognize that students are — no, not socializing, but — working in teams on involved, long-term projects, such as quilting or community service projects. Other kids are negotiating credit points with their advisers and plotting their next round of individual study. All students are encouraged to delve beyond the surface facts into deep knowledge about their chosen subjects.
Founder Dee Thomas calls her 15-year experiment “organized chaos.” Others, including wealthy philanthropists, consider this school one of the most imaginative examples of the charter movement’s original purpose: fostering innovative teaching.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bought into the idea in 2001, when it pledged $4.3 million to create more schools just like it around the nation to non profit organization EdVisions, a non-profit headed by Thomas’ husband Doug. The non-profit runs New Country and many schools similar to it. In 2003 the Gates Foundation donated another $4.5 million for a second round of replications. There are now 40 “grantee” schools in 13 states, said Doug Thomas. Edvisions has worked with 20 more schools, who have not received part of the grant money, to model those after the New Country School as well. Two schools similar to the New Country model, one in Arizona and one in California, are opening this fall.
In an age when school uniforms, standardized tests and data-driven curriculum rule the education reform agenda, this iconoclastic school with no teachers, no classrooms and no grades seems like a hard sell.
The biggest opponents are local unions in the states where Edvisions tries to start new project based schools. In many states the charter school laws are strict and people do not see the need for programs that are different than traditional public schools, said Doug Thomas. Since New Country opened in 1994 more than 90 percent of the graduates went on to a post secondary education and 69 percent graduated in time, he said also.
“This is a place for kids who want to excel academically,” insisted Dee Thomas, sitting at her cluttered desk, decorated with joke quotes from former President George W. Bush. Among them: “You teach a child to read and he or her will pass a literacy test.”
NOT FOR EVERYONE
This rural school-as-no-school is not for everyone. Students at New Country need to be self-motivated to complete their work and succeed. Before a project is approved, a student must draft a detailed proposal, describe a time frame and learning outcomes, and negotiate for credit points. Credit points are New Country’s answer to the traditional letter grading system. Some projects take a couple of months, while others can span the entire school year.
Craig Peters, 18, a graduating senior who plans to attend college to study welding, said he used geometry “sorta, kinda” to build this working smokehouse. He tried first to build the structure without the math, and it didn’t fit.
Other projects from the past school year include a PowerPoint presentation about Greek mythology, a project using art as therapy, and designing hemp jewelry.
Students need to earn 10 credits per year in order to move on to the next grade. They have to argue for credit points with their advisor based on time spent and lessons learned. “For some students the skill is also to fight for what they deserve,” said teacher Anthony Sonnek after finishing a negotiation with a student for credit on her sowing project.
Students become skilled negotiators, Thomas said, but that may cause them to lose respect for hard deadlines.
True project based learning is hard to balance with teaching individual disciplines, explained Dee Thomas. The teachers at New Country have to give up their own personal discipline areas in order to free up time for student project work. The school won an innovative waiver from the Minnesota State Legislature.
ONLY THE UNCONVENTIONAL NEED APPLY
One advantage of this non-traditional learning environment is that it fits the needs of children who would be labeled as special education in regular public schools. Thirty-five percent of New Country’s students–an unusually high percentage compared to other traditional and charter public schools–qualifies as special needs, ranging from learning disabilities to autism. At New Country it is difficult to tell which child is labeled what, Thomas said, because all the students are blended into one student body, rather than divided into classes. Rather the students are divided into advisories, which are small groups of students. There the advisr
Sixteen-year-old Margerita Whalan said she struggled in the traditional public school in nearby Le Suer. “After years of being passed up by younger kids than me, eventually I got ashamed,” she said, dressed in black clothes that match her black hair. “But this school has helped me at least get some credit to my name.” Still, Whalan said school — any school — is not for her. She said she is planning on dropping out, getting her GED and going to cosmetolegy school.
NEW STRATEGIES FOR NEW TIMES
Rapid technological developments have created a different generation of kids, said Dee Thomas, who taught for 31 years in traditional public schools before founding New Country.
“We can’t teach them the same way we taught 30 years ago,” Dee Thomas said, “or we’re going to lose them.”
Some students may lament missing choir or sports teams, or the popularity that comes with athletic talent. Thomas’s own son, she said, probably couldn’t imagine missing out on the fame and glory that came with his football prowess when he attended public school in Le Suer.
And while the school may not have a choir, it has a recording studio where students can learn how to sing. Other unique features include a greenhouse, and a kitchen where children can prepare food. Students of all ages interact in one room, meaning older ones can serve as examples of younger ones.
“I’m 16 and one of my bestest friends is 14,” said Kyle Wendroth. “and it’s cool.”
In fact, what’s cool, the ultimate high school reward, is reinvented here.
Allison Lashley, who has a wide smile and bleached blond hair said it wasn’t right to hang out with little kids in her previous school. She recently transferred to New Country a few months earlier. “Here it doesn’t matter at all.”
About the Author: