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These hybrid schools are blowing up the public education model

Without Classrooms or Grades, Students Rule This School

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.

At the Minnesota New Country School, students of all ages sit together in one room. All the students have their own desks and personal computers.

At the Minnesota New Country School, students of all ages sit together in one room. All the students have their own desks and personal computers. PHOTO: CLAIRE MOSES/NEWS21

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.”


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.


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.


Allison Lashley and her sculpture project. Lashley, 16, recently transferred to Minnesota New Country. PHOTO: CLAIRE MOSES/NEWS21


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.”

Filed Under: Tapestry of SchoolsTwin Cities


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  3. Jeff says:

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  6. allison lashley says:

    wicked cool! school is going great this year as well! for anyone who is an unconventional learner give us a call we’ll be happy to have you be apart of our school family… we don’t care what you look like … what your age is…. or how you act, we don’t discriminate! =]i was harassed and laughed at and very much a loner at my old school. here i belong. that’s a great feeling! MNCS is a place where you can apply what ever your good at to anything and everything you do academically. our school helps us to think independently which is a great skill if you are planning on going to college.

  7. Colleen Reed says:

    Could this work for GT Middle Schoolers? Has anyone experimented with this concept on Middle School students? I think it sounds fabulous! GT students would love it!

  8. Siobhan Lange says:

    Amazing! I love how this was done. & the thing that Dee said about her son and how MNCS reacts to that kind of stuff.. well it’s true! I like it how there’s equality in that school and how nobody is seen above another. Anyone can waltz up to another person and ask any old question about whatever project there doing. Lickity split. No funny looks, no rude comments. I came to this school because I was ridiculed in other schools and I just couldn’t stand it. It really helped me out. My social skills are much better now because of all the open communication and the way the Advisers act like friends kind of. As the “mummified chicken” video has implied; they’re not talking AT you, they’re talking WITH you, and they’re good at encouraging too. I thought MNCS was amazing.

  9. Mariia Locura says:

    I sorta DEMAND… that my name be changed from “Margerita Whalan,” to “Mariia Locura.” Lol. Haha… I love how you commented on my black hair and clothes. Um…. yeah. So my GED thing is going great! I wouldn’t have been able to di it with out the courage and inspiration of some of the MNCS staff! Don’t get me wrong… I don’t want to be classified as another Drop Out. I’ve seen kids blossom from D average students to top of the class! It was just simply too late for me. I’m not another statistic. Yeah…. Love MNCS, end of story. <3

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