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Learning at its Best

Rural School Districts, Design Flaws, and the Need for Change:

As a child of the late 60’s, I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie.  The idea of a small one-room classroom where all ages of children learned appealed to me then and now.  I happen to live in a small community on the South Shore of Lake Superior.  Some of you may have heard of the names of the towns, all located in Northern Wisconsin: Herbster, Port Wing, Bayfield, Cornucopia, Washburn, and Ashland. What some of you may not know is that this area of Wisconsin is the location of the highest percentages of home-schooled children.  Between 10-20% of all school age children are home-schooled.[1] My wife, and I home-school our three children and made this decision before we moved up here.

Some people often scratch their heads when we tell others of our home-schooling decisions.  The conversation goes something like this, “But you are both licensed teachers.  You both spent years in the public school system teaching kids.  Jamie is the Director of a public charter high school.[2] If public schools aren’t good enough for your own children, why do you work there?”

I realize that for a lot of parents home schooling is a challenging choice.  There are economic aspects, ability issues, fear, and family issues to name few.  I do not advocate that we should abolish the public school system, BUT the current design of school systems is exactly why I choose to home-school my own kids.

As a school administrator of a small charter school in Minnesota, we have carefully considered how our school is designed to meet the needs of children and adolescents.  Taking the amazing research from Paulo Freire, Alfie Kohn, Deb Meier, Daniel Pink, Wayne Jennings, Jon Holt, William Glasser, Kurt Hahn and Tony Wagner.  We designed a school that gives students real choice, which meets their individual needs.  My wife always says, “Northwest Passage is a home-schoolers’ paradise.” In fact we have enrolled many home-schoolers whose parents educated them until 8th grade and for what ever reason have decided that they want their kids to get a high school diploma.  You see I believe that students should be encouraged to move from one learning experience to another without penalty.  Maybe they home school for awhile this year, next year they take a 5 month service learning expedition with their peers or family.  As they get older maybe part of learning happens in an internship. Their learning and growth occurs with the concept that content is “just in time” delivered versus “just in case” delivered.[3]

How does this relate to Little House on the Prairie?  Where is the rural connection; the need for change?  Let us go back two years.  My son was having a great time at his Harry Potter Birthday party.  I dressed up as Hagrid and sorted the kids into houses for the scavenger hunt my wife and I set out on the property.  20-25 kids ran around the property searching for prizes.  While the chaos commenced, I had a conversation with a parent, about schooling.  I told him I ran a charter school. He asked if it would be possible for one to start a charter school up here.

That began the journey of organizing parents who were looking for a different choice for their kid’s education.  I had an advantage.  I have been designing innovative schools and programs for 20 years.  In essence, I knew the system.

So fast-forward to today.  We wanted to start a field study school,  (See our Facebook Page, also you can download our concept handout.)  In January, the local school board held a community meeting, to discuss the possibility of a charter school being started.  I was at that meeting. During the discussion two things stuck in my mind.  I was asked, “Why don’t you want to work with the school district and does this school have to be separate?”  I was told, “We are doing a lot of things you have in your proposal at the school.”  There is a design flaw in schools that answers both of those questions.

First, it is not that I don’t want to work with the school district.  It is that the school district does not have ability to make a holistic change.  They deliver their schooling in an age-segregated, course driven, content silo fashion.  I see and hear them play homage to standardized test scores as the way of judging quality.  They use grades, honor rolls, and competition to reward and punish students.  It is a teacher driven model.

I will admit that there are teachers in the school district that are trying to do things differently.  Yet the design of the school prevents and hinders these creative forces from truly being free.  This answers the second question.   WAKE UP people! Times have changed. We are still using legacy systems to educate our kids for future!  (See my recent post on  Lessons Learned from MAAP 2011)

I want people to know there are caring people on the South Shore.  Every one at that meeting cares about kids, even the people I disagree with. Last week the ad hoc committee decided to recommend to the school board that they vote no on our proposal for a charter school.

This is a tragic and ironic vote.  Members of the committee loved the concept of the charter school, yet voted against it due to monetary reasons.  That makes sense, right?  Wrong!  To fully appreciate the irony, you have to understand what is going on with school funding in Northern Wisconsin.  South Shore School district claims 214 kids are enrolled, and they generate $17,000 per kid through a variety of funding streams (taxes, special education, state aid  (See WIDPI Link for independent verification).

The school district is proposing to increase our school taxes to even high levels this spring, without the addition of a charter school. “You must be joking, Jamie!”  In Wisconsin, the average per pupil cost is around $12,500.  South Shore spends over 17K per kid and still can’t make it on that amount.  They have said to the community, “If the levy fails, we will have to close our doors in two years.” Which would result in children of the South Shore being shipped to other school districts.  My response is BS!  What is tragic and in my opinion unconscionable is that this does not need to occur.

Remember, when I told you I am the director of a small charter school?  Well we educated 200 students and our total budget is $2,060,000 around 10K a kid.  Our student to licensed teacher ration is 1:15 (Pretty good for a high school). 27% of students enrolled are special education students. Did I mention the school offers 35-45 expeditions a year that cost the student and families nothing? (See our blog: Did I mention that 60% of graduates go on to college?  That 30% of our graduating seniors this year attended college while enrolled in high school.

Why do I say all this?  Do I do it to make the people at the school district feel bad? No. I do it because I know in my heart that the South Shore School District could thrive and prosper on 15K per kid, because I do it for 5 grand less.  Through a comprehensive school re-design not only will the school district survive, and I think it is VITAL for public schools to exist, but also will be able to transform how kids are taught. Our multi-age, project based learning, advisory driven, and field intensive proposal could be implemented for 10K a student. How do I know we could do this?  Because Minnesota has examples of these schools that have been sustained for over ten years.[4] This kind of redesign could set the example for rural communities to flourish.

[1] Nationwide the average is 2-3%.  This number is hard to obtain, because a lot of home school families choose not to report their activities to the government due to their fear of reprisals from government officials.  Fortunately, Wisconsin has one of the best Home-schooling laws in the nation, due to the incredible work of the Wisconsin Parent Association, for a history of Home-schooling in Wisconsin click the following link.

[2] For the past 11 years I have run a small progressive public school in Coon Rapids, Minnesota (Northwest Passage High School:  Ironically, Minnesota has the best charter school law, but their  home school law leaves much to be desired.

[3] For example we are going to learn the concept of a Pythagorean’s theory because we will be using this when we build a house to check for square versus learning it for the test.

About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


3 thoughts on “Rural School Districts, Design Flaws, and the Need for Change:

  1. Hi Jamie,

    Your piece is very complex, and I had to read it more than once to sort through some of my reactions. And then I realized that the complexity of your post resonated with the complexity of the whole schooling enterprising.

    You are wearing many hats here: a teacher, an administrator, a parent, a home-schooler, a charter school advocate and, in a real sense, a political participant.

    I share some of those roles with you, so I’m not sure through which lens I want to react. If I lived a true life of integrity, I wouldn’t have this dilemma!

    I guess the one major question that I take away from this has to do with access to alternative models of schooling in rural settings. I know that within the urban and suburban districts in my area, there are publicly funded alternatives: IB, arts-based, technical, french immersion (we’re in Canada), gifted programs, as well as publicly-funded Catholic schools. In our rural areas, however, these same options do not exist, raising the questions of equitable access.

    Further to that is the omni-present issue of the way our schools are designed.

    I’ll look forward to reading other comments on this.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 5, 2011, 12:45 am
  2. If public school boards can’t fund fiscally responsible and innovative schools that communities want and can support, than it’s time to take some philanthropic capital and open up competing tuition free schools for all learners struggling with a teacher-centric system.

    The competition is coming; public schools can prepare portfolios against it or fall prey to better marketed schools that don’t do anything substantively different than traditional public schools do.

    Where else can your team take the school?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 5, 2011, 12:28 pm

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