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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, School Stories

Not all charter schools are silos

[Note: This is a guest post from Jamie Steckart, director of Minnesota’s Northwest Passage High School, an experiential learning dropout prevention and recovery program.]

Northwest Passage High School is a small progressive public charter school located in Coon Rapids, MN. For the past 12 years, NWPHS has been educating students who have not thrived in traditional public schools. The average age of a student entering the school is 17.5 and their Northwest Evaluation Assessment Measure of Academic Progress RIT score place them in the 6th and 7th grade math and reading levels. But there is hope; sixty percent of graduates from NWPHS attend college after completion, which is 6% higher than the state average. (See our related blog post, Fostering Hope).

Our vision: Students enrolled at Northwest Passage High School develop self-confidence and academic skills through participation in a small learning community, where instructors are lifelong learners who model integrity, responsibility and respect. Varied projects, field studies and inquiry-based methods give students the opportunity to develop a greater sense of the world by engaging in challenging academics, structured work experience, and service learning. Students take responsibility for their own educational plans, and graduate with the tools to make informed decisions about their future.

Mission: Rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, while building our community.

Charter Schools, isolated silos or educational collaborators?

Recently I heard Brian Sweeny from Charter School Partners give testimony regarding the current state of charter schools. There were significant parts of his testimony that I had issue with, but perhaps the greatest issue was his assertion that charter schools rarely collaborated with traditional public schools or even with their peers in other charter schools. In essence we were educational silos.

If Mr. Sweeny knew more about NWPHS, he’d find we’re not an educational silo, but a educational collaborator as learning lab, mentor, contributor to the betterment of the community.

In 2004, I assumed the Director position at Northwest Passage High School. As director, I refocused our energies into three areas: Mission, Capacity, and External Support. Mission work consisted of narrowing down and focusing our efforts to define what we were. Capacity work consisted of day-to-day operations to fulfill the mission, i.e. number and types of teachers, program design, and technology. You get the picture.

The last area of focus is external support. This area is everything we do as an organization to help cross the traditional barriers of schooling that typically ended at the schoolhouse door. What are the ways that our school contributes to the larger educational community? How do we collaborate with traditional and charter schoolteachers, administrators, community members and state officials?

NWPHS as Lab School

NWPHS serves as a lab school for schools that want to watch in action a school that is based on experiential, project based learning, mobile technology and advisory run classrooms. Traditional and charter school teaching teams continue to visit our school on a monthly basis. Last Friday, members of Spring Lake Park Area Learning Center spent one of their professional development days at our school learning from staff and students. We have had numerous teams from across the nation; Minnesota and Wisconsin visit our school. In addition, each staff member at our school is required to present a workshop at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs yearly conference.

NWPHS also serves as a lab to teacher education students and interns from the University of Bethel, and Northland College.

This year NWPHS is sponsoring the Midwest Project Based Learning Un-conference on July 26-28. The Un-conference is a get together of progressive educators who are interested in learning on how to use Project Based Learning in their classroom

NWPHS as Mentor

We help mentor new charter school directors and give advice and collaborate with seasoned veterans. We have helped teachers from Minneapolis Schools design site based learning schools, traditional schools that supposedly charter schools see as the enemy.

In addition to site visits, NWPHS staff sits and continue to participate in North Central Accreditation visits to other schools. We are founding members of the Minnesota Green Schools Chapter, which is charged with helping all schools in Minnesota go green. Charter school directors in Minnesota sat on the Conference Committee for the National Green School Conference held in Minneapolis this year. In addition, we have sat on a number of review teams for grants being made by Minnesota’s Department of education.

We have volunteered to serve on the Twin City Teaching Collaborative committees, which is charged by the Bush Foundation to redesign teacher education. In addition, we have collaborated with the University of St. Thomas’s Charter Leadership Institute in the development of directors of charter schools.

Staff and students collaborate to spread our ideas through the use of our blog: In addition, we contribute other educational blogs, here is an example of a recent submission:

NWPHS as Community Contributor

Finally perhaps the best way that we contribute is through the innovative program design of our school. Our students spend a considerable amount of time engaged with the community, from teaching environmental education to elementary school students, conducting social justice puppet theaters, to teaching literacy with new immigrants, to making presentations to middle school students, to monthly food bank work. Our students have become the “change they want to see.”

We take our mission seriously, especially the phrase “while building community.” The community is any place that puts kids before political, social or financial considerations. We do this because it is the right thing to do. We do most of it free of charge, because by bringing others up we all benefit. There are no silos at NWPHS, Mr. Sweeny.

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8 thoughts on “Not all charter schools are silos

  1. Nice work Jamie. You’re living proof there’s more to school than taking tests!

    Posted by Doug Thomas | February 2, 2011, 10:44 am
  2. Hey Jamie, I just got off the phone with one of my favorite school leaders, Sarah Miller who is principal of Phoenix Charter Academy, in Boston, MA.
    Although PCA’s population and geography is a little different from NWPHS, the mission sounds very similar: to make the completion of high school relevant and meaningful to kids who are profoundly disengaged from conventional public schooling. Most of the kids at PCA enter at least 3 grades behind, are over-age and under-credited, and in urban Boston, have mostly been left by the wayside of the public school system. (Kids like this are bad for making AYP.) At PCA they work on this inexplicably complex mission–personalization and deep caring, and holding students to high academic standards at the same time, with a very young staff.

    All this is just to day I am sending Sarah your way as a school model, as she searches for other collaborators and models, and in a larger sense, to applaud you for the work you are doing as a breakthrough school. Many of the charter schools I work with simply REPLICATE the culture of public school, with tiny tweeks, whereas it sounds like you have taken the mission of chartering to heart–to serve as incubators of real innovation in the sector.

    As Doug says above, there is so much more to school than taking tests. You are showing others how to do it.



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 3, 2011, 11:41 am
  3. Kirsten,

    Thanks for the comment. I am reading Wounded by School, an amazing book. I tell staff that is takes our staff 6-9 months to build our kids up to trust themselves and their wonderful ideas that have been suppressed for so long. We love to collaborate. I would love for you to come out for the Project Base Learning Un-conference at our school July 26-28th. We need a serious dialog on a holistic school re-design learning from the great brain based research and motivational research that has come out in the last 5 years. Dan Pink’s RSA video :, show us that human are motivated by autonomy and self-mastery, yet when we look at school design these qualities are glaringly missing from schools. Is is a wonder that our students report that they are bored and disengaged? We are losing too many kids to keep our head in the sand. More of the same will not work.

    Tell Sarah we would love to share ideas. She can reach me at the school.


    Posted by Jamie Steckart | February 3, 2011, 2:53 pm
  4. Thanks for Sharing your story. I believe school of innovation should do more to tell their stories and show that for one not all charters are the same and two they are a not against public schools, but are public schools. I had the pleasure of meeting Peter at the Goddard Rez last week, and excited to meet you all in July at the Charter Conference at Goddard.

    Thanks for your openness and I hope this is this is the first of many posts!


    Posted by David Loitz | February 3, 2011, 3:40 pm
  5. It’s amazing to me how many educators view charter schools with an asterisk beside all successes and an exclamation point beside all failures. When I talk to students in charter-like schools – charters, magnets, schools-within-schools, they invariably talk about staff the way you do – ” instructors are lifelong learners who model integrity, responsibility and respect.” Wouldn’t it be great if ALL kids felt that way about their teachers?

    Posted by beckyfisher73 | February 6, 2011, 10:27 am
  6. Jamie,

    I noticed the link from the school’s blog didn’t get on to this one. Just sharing our previous ‘blog conversation.’

    Being an Outward Bound grad, I am aware of Northwest Passage and the great program you have and your great collaborative outreach with many communities and groups.

    However, in a vast majority of charters, we do find, unfortunately, that there is not a good relationship with a district and that, again unfortunately, many schools do operate in a silo, with not only little interaction with the district or district schools but not even much interaction with other charters.

    But this is changing in many areas as we are seeing with MPS’ Compact in which charters and the district are working closer together.

    Keep up your great work.


    Brian Sweeney
    Charter School Partners

    Posted by: Brian Sweeney | 02/03/2011 at 08:17 AM


    Thanks for the comment. My concern is when we speak in generalities to legislators about the quality of charter schools; it fans the flame of misconceptions. Good evaluation of programs requires multiple measures and a serious commitment for a holistic approach to program quality. Test scores are just one aspect, and in my opinion are given too much weight for one discrete variable.

    In addition, I would be interested in the research behind the assertion that charter schools are silos. I would argue that the silo aspect of schooling is not endemic to charters, but also an element of traditional schools. Traditional schools historically are resistant to change despite overwhelming recent evidence that their design does not promote brain based learning models and the need for children to develop autonomy and self-mastery. (See Daniel Pink’s

    Outward Bound and the tradition of Kurt Hahn relied on the idea that youth were highly capable of doing real work, yet high school design is more custodial in nature. Mr. Hahn would be distressed with the current state of traditional schools.

    In an era of open source technology, a serious discussion (beyond the increase of time and school year) of school redesign needs to take place, yet the obsession with test prep and test scores prevent this from occurring, it is a red herring.

    We know that there is very little evidence between ACT/SAT scores and college success, and more a factor of socio-economic status. Recently top-notch universities are rethinking even asking for these exams for college admission. Harvard just came out with a recent report questioning the push for college for all (See Pathways to Prosperity,

    What we need is a serious discussion of school design where students are learning 21st century skills, not how to take a test. While our test scores lag behind those in the state, 60% of our student graduates in the last six years have gone to college. Yet this statistic is never discussed in the public dialog. As my momma says, “The proof’s in the pudding, “ not in the individual ingredients.


    Posted by: Jamie | 02/03/2011 at 10:41 AM

    Thanks Jamie,

    My wife and I also founded St. Croix Montessori, a pre-k through Grade 6 program in the East metro area. I was director for four years and stayed on the board for many more years. Kids are now older and I have moved on from the board.

    Despite our holistic model, I had a fun jocular back and forth with our teachers about taking standardized tests. My argument was that basic tests are pretty darn basic and that this was a PRACTICAL LIFE lesson. Let’s have fun with this. I said to teachers ‘bet our program will test two years ahead of the local district school’. We were. It became a very non-Montessorian sense of pride with our teachers.

    We also veered from some basic Montessori materials when we felt it didn’t quite meet the needs of our students, particularly as it related to some early reading programs (Maria Montessori developed an extensive reading program in Italian but not in English).

    Great link to Dan Pink. Thanks.


    Posted by Brian Sweeeney | February 17, 2011, 10:31 am


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