[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: http://fieldnotes.nwphs.org. In addition, we contribute other educational blogs, here is an example of a recent submission: http://peterpappas.blogs.com/copy_paste/2010/11/how-does-a-school-foster-hope.html
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.