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Introduction

Day in the Life
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Student-Advisor
Interviews

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“It’s not being smart but self-motivated that gets you some place in this school.” — Chelsey

“MNCS gives you a safe place to stand on your own—and fail. Success here is trial and error. You might try one project and it doesn’t work. You try another, and it does. It’s like life. You learn from your mistakes. But here you get to learn with a safety net.” — Tim

n rural Henderson, Minnesota (pop. 910), miles separate neighbors, winters arrive early and stay late, and residents prize community and individualism alike. It should come as no surprise that a public charter school here would aim to raise self-reliant learners. In its eighth year, the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) does just that, mixing the intimacy of a one-room schoolhouse with 21st century technology.

Students of all abilities and interests find their place here, with teacher-advisors, each responsible for a group of fifteen to eighteen students, serving as generalists first and specialists second. The school combines freedom with responsibility, structure with flexibility, and book learning with practical experiences like working at the corner drugstore. In helping students negotiate these dualities and gain the skills they need, MNCS overturns many conventions of teaching and learning.

MNCS at a Glance

Unconventional in almost every regard, MNCS is a teacher-owned, public charter school, part of a Minnesota-based education collaborative called EdVisions. Approximately 110 students, grades 7 - 12, travel as many as 100 miles roundtrip to attend this modern, one-room, 17,000-square-foot “schoolhouse.”

School runs throughout the year, in five- to seven-week blocks. Following each block, staff have a planning week in which they document student achievement, work with individual students, write grants, and address the business concerns of owning and operating a school.

Though students create their own academic programs built around projects, the daily schedule includes required periods of quiet reading and math. Students keep a daily log of how they spend their time and complete detailed self-assessment rubrics. They also clean the school every day.

Most MNCS graduates attend four-year colleges, many earning full scholarships.

At most schools, it is the faculty (complying with district and state regulations) that defines the course sequence for students, sets the syllabi, picks the texts, assigns the work, creates deadlines, measures progress, and awards credit. At MNCS, by and large, this is the work of students. The school gives students an armful of planning tools—along with clear rules—then asks them to set and follow their own curriculum, casting their work in the form of projects. For each, they must incorporate the state standards (Profiles of Learning, MNCS transcript), locate community experts to help them, defend before a faculty team what they have learned, and negotiate project credit, the currency of MNCS.

Whatever the activity—singing in the church choir or studying economics—students must complete in advance a project proposal form that specifies what they will do and the credit they seek. A parent/guardian, the advisor, and two other staff members must approve the proposal, a transaction that takes place at regular project review meetings. The form’s requirements demand detail, among them the following:

  • List at least three basic information/fact questions you would like to answer concerning your project.
  • How does your project apply to life outside of school? What makes this project important to the community/world around you?
  • Create a timeline describing the tasks/activities needed to complete the project and the date you intend to complete them by.
  • List a minimum of three different types of resources you will use, with at least one being a primary source.
  • List the Minnesota State Profiles of Learning that will be validated after project completion.

    As they reach the end of their self-prescribed “unit,” students take up another tool, a performance rubric. Here they gauge their work in three categories: project skills (such as task completion or ownership), critical thinking skills (comprehension, context), and performance skills (leadership, organization, or innovation). With their project results, time logs, and completed performance rubric in hand, students return to the same project review team that approved their project, this time showing what they have done and learned, and negotiating credit.

  • School website

    See also: Passion for Learning: How a Project-Based System Meets the Needs of High School Students in the 21st Century by Ronald Newell (Scarecrow Press, 2002)

    EdVisions is a professional educator cooperative that oversees nine public charter schools in Minnesota; its non-profit arm provides startup and new school replication grants and technical assistance nationwide with funding from the Gates Foundation.

    To these planning and documentation tools, MNCS adds clear statements of expectations and rules. The Policy of Academic Progression defines academic expectations like: “It is recommended that the student work to develop time management skills by completing a weekly or daily planner.” Guidelines also spell out the expected yearly pace of ten credits per year and 60 credits by graduation.

    Still in a trial phase, a new system of learner levels sets out expectations in three areas—respect, academic achievement, and engagement—and assigns levels to each, from probationary/negative (level one) to contributing (level four). Privileges ascend with each level. For level one learners, for example, computer and Internet access are supervised and their individual work stations (staff and student work stations spread out from the school’s center) do not include a computer; level four learners have their own personal computers with Internet access and e-mail anytime.

    The scaffolding that supports learning in this one-room schoolhouse is complex. But its yield is clear: a school where students, staff, and community experts mix freely, where learning is palpable and purposeful, where respect and trust are taught and practiced daily, and where self-reliance reigns.

    “There is a myth that Minnesota New Country is for gifted students,” says advisor and school founder Dee Thomas. Though she disagrees with that perception, “what is true,” she notes, “is that every student leaves here with the gift of knowing how to learn.”

    The sections below provide a close-in look at student learning at MNCS.
    Day in the Life
    of MNCS

    Student-Advisor
    Interviews

    Student Work
    Samples

    MNCS Forms & Reports
     
    Home
     


    whatkidscando.org
    Student learning in small schools: an online portfolio 2003
    Funding for this project generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation