In many rural communities, population declines, sagging local economies, and business closures make it difficult for schools to serve their students well. Rather than give up the school, growing numbers of educators and community people are rethinking traditional ways of schooling.
This paper focuses on alternative ways of organizing schools. These non-traditional schools offer educators and communities opportunities to create better learning experiences for their students. While some options presented are fairly new, others have been evolving for over 20 years. Positive reports from many suggest these alternatives are worth exploring.
We will review lessons about the process of school improvement from the video, Seeds of Change: Positive Directions for Schools and Communities and describe innovative alternatives being considered and implemented in Minnesota. A resource list provides additional readings and contacts.
Alternatives to traditional schools have existed in Minnesota for some time. In the late 1960s, the St. Paul school system developed an alternative program for students with difficulties in traditionally-organized high schools. Over the last 20 years, the state has increasingly supported development of new kinds of schools at elementary and secondary levels, from the early magnet schools to the more recent charter school.
Reorganization of all or part of a school to offer students a distinctive program is a feature of all school alternatives presented in this paper. Often this is accomplished through greater community involvement. Unlike consolidation, which may only lead to a larger, traditionally-organized school, the options considered here represent new ways of teaching, managing, and structuring classrooms and schools.
Development of an alternative program takes time and collaboration among teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, students, community members, and sometimes, people from outside the local community, including educators working on other alternative programs. School programs which are community-based can be developed with agreement among teachers and administrators within the school. Other programs, such as a charter school, require formal approval from the state Department of Education and a local board of education. All can benefit from community involvement and support.
In the video, Seeds of Change: Positive Directions for Schools and Communities, six lessons are gathered from the experiences of four Minnesota schools creating alternatives to their traditional programs. These practical lessons developed by Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, offer insights to the challenges of making change and advice on being successful.
The alternatives presented below emphasize schools that are reorganizing in non-traditional ways. Although this list does not include all options available to schools, all of those introduced are being practiced or seriously considered in Minnesota schools. Some put management of the school in the hands of teachers and most broaden leadership through greater parent and community involvement. Several offer alternative learning environments and traditional classrooms in the same school. The community is a focus of study in some, turning local lessons into a more global understanding of the forces of history, nature, and the economy. In one, the school calendar is changed completely. Many of the schools combine several alternative strategies to use all their resources and talents more fully. Brief definitions and examples, when available, are provided.
Six Lessons on Creating Alternatives
State legislation passed in 1991 allows creation of charter schools that operate as independent public schools managed by certified teachers. Authority must be granted by a local school board and the state Board of Education. Financed with regular public education money for each student who chooses to enroll, an elected board of directors of teachers, parents, and community members develops the school curriculum, manages the budget, and is accountable for results. The charter gives educators and communities the authority to design and implement a structure, teaching methods, and curriculum that improve student learning. As a new option, there are no operating examples to cite. However, information is available from the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Charter Schools Network which are listed in the resources.
Community-based schools draw on the local environment as a way to make abstract concepts and textbooks lessons more meaningful to students. History, the natural environment, and the economy are some of the more common areas of focus in programs created in both elementary and high schools. Developed by school and community people, these programs can combine census data with interviews; historical documents and current newspapers; and biology books and local water samples. In all, local resources and experience outside the classroom make learning more relevant to students. Many programs include apprenticeships in business and community organizations to teach citizenship as well as basic and higher-order skills.
Example: Fulda, Minnesota
At Fulda High School, administrators, educators, city officials, the Minnesota Extension Service, and the local state university are working together to develop a curriculum using area history to help students understand the present and create the future. Census data, diaries, newspapers, interviews, and historical sites are used to learn about the economic, political, and social forces shaping the area's history. Students translate the past into the present using computers, data analysis, writing, and presentation skills in projects with the local historical society, service organizations, and the local paper.
Example: Western Minnesota
In western Minnesota, an environmental laboratory is being created through a collaboration between the Morris School District, the Cyrus Math, Science, and Technology Magnet, and the Stevens County Historical Society. Used by schools and the community, the natural and historic environments are being explored at the 15-acre outdoor lab centrally located between the two schools. A hands-on curriculum is being developed with activities to include archeological digs of pioneer dug-outs, identification and tracking of plants and wildlife, and possible relocation of a log cabin to the site. Subject areas will be combined to encourage students' understanding of the relationships between concepts, such as history and scientific development.
(See the Delavan Agri-Science Magnet Elementary School in the Magnet School section for another example of the community-based approach.)
A magnet school features academic programs with a distinctive focus based on the strengths, resources, interests, and talents of school personnel and often, the local community. Once decided upon, program focus is integrated throughout curricula and school activities, creating an overall school theme and offering students choices between traditional and alternative programs. Originally designed to support urban desegregation, magnet schools in Minnesota have been used in both rural and urban areas, attracting students across districts under Minnesota's open enrollment legislation. Existing Minnesota programs are organized around the arts, agriculture, environment, math, and the sciences.
Example: Cyrus, Minnesota
Sending their high school students to a neighboring district pushed Cyrus, Minnesota residents to think about how to best serve their remaining elementary school students. The result is the Cyrus Math, Science, and Technology Magnet for students in grades K-6. The staff of teachers and a part-time superintendent manage the program for 110 enrolled students, approximately one-third of whom come from outside the district. Extensive and sophisticated use of computers, video, and other technologies helps build students' understanding and skills in writing, math, science, and other areas. Organized primarily by grade levels, the school also draws on older students' abilities in multi-aged classes for part of the school day. During and after school, the school provides community day-care in which 5th and 6th graders assist.
Example: Delavan, Minnesota
Another kind of magnet school exists in Delavan, Minnesota where educators and community members have used the predominantly agricultural economy as a focus in their Agri-Science Elementary Magnet for 100-plus Kindergarten through sixth-grade students. Partnerships between school, businesses, and community support a coherent array of courses taught by individuals and teams of teachers as well as activities in the school and in the community. Multi-aged activities and interdisciplinary coursework include visits to farms and local companies to understand agri-business, growing crops in class to study science and nutrition, and a student-run mini-mall in the school to foster an understanding of economics and job creation among students.
An alternative to the grades organized by age, the multi-aged classroom brings together students of several ages, grouped by developmental stages. The arrangement also offers students the chance to stay with the same teacher or group of teachers for more than one year. Like the one-room schoolhouse, a class is often divided into small group and individual activities, with advanced or more mature students helping younger or less skilled students while teachers rotate among them, giving individualized attention. Research has found that language and social skills of all students improve more rapidly and discipline problems diminish as each student is given more responsibility for his or her learning and for helping others. In many classrooms, individual learning plans are developed by students with their teachers and parents to give students goals and the responsibility to work toward them, based on their own learning style and abilities.
Example: Blackduck, Minnesota
Blackduck's Curiosity Castle offers a multi-aged classroom option to sixty-six 6 to 9-year-olds, including special education students at the community's elementary school. Organized as an alternative to other traditional age-graded programs in the school, the Curiosity Castle provides younger elementary students an opportunity to stay with the same teachers for up to three years, learning at their own pace with teachers who know them well. An individualized learning plan is developed by the student, a teacher, and parent that reflects the student's strengths and learning styles. The hands-on, interdisciplinary curriculum is taught by a team of four teachers who rotate leadership of their units with class and school-wide activities that students organize. The program actively encourages parent involvement through its policy-making parent council and in-class parent volunteers.
(See the James Madison Elementary School in the School-Within-A-School section for another example of the multi-aged approach.)
The school-within-a-school offers students and their families choices alongside the traditional age-graded, subject-focused classroom within a single school. The school-within-a-school can be distinguished from the traditional classroom by curriculum focus, teaching methods, or the way the classroom is organized. This type of school often uses alternatives mentioned in this paper such as the multi-aged classroom or a magnet school focus in science or the arts. The availability of the school-within-a-school option gives students and their families a chance to match learning styles and needs more closely.
Example: Virginia, Minnesota
James Madison Elementary School in Virginia, Minnesota is the site of Primary OPTIONS, a school-within-a-school option for students ages 5 to 8. The program offers a two-year opportunity for multi-aged, ungraded curriculum, organized around cooperative learning, whole language, and a thematic curriculum. Instead of grades, students demonstrate their learning progress through portfolios of their work, displays, and self-assessment with the guidance and review of teachers and parents. Students often work individually and in small groups at tables instead of desks.
School/community economic development is a specific type of community-based school where the local economy is the focus of coursework. It has a dual purpose of benefiting students' learning and strengthening the local economy. Options for collaboration between school and community include shared facilities, school-business partnerships, school-based businesses, school-incubated businesses, and the entrepreneurial curriculum which is a type of magnet school. Student activities may include work with municipal planners, research into the structure and spending patterns of the local economy, and start-up of school and student businesses. These options are detailed in The Community and School as an Economic Development Team, which follows.
Example: Rothsay, Minnesota
Rothsay Minnesota's high school is creating new opportunities for students and community and getting nation-wide attention for their innovative school/community development program. Between the school-owned hardware store and student-owned and -operated grocery store, school and community people are learning about working together for mutual benefit. Start-up funds, for instance, came from the school district as well as the city, the Lion's Club, area churches, local and regional development funds, and the area power company. Instead of business simulations, students deal firsthand with the problems and successes of business operation. Customer service, accounting, inventory, bill-paying, and personnel issues are their responsibility. Community professionals, retirees, and teachers work with students to teach the skills students need to run the businesses and gain insight into economics while the community gets services that would not otherwise exist locally.
Site-Based Management refers to increasing the decision-making power of people closest to the delivery of services at the school site. In a site-base managed school, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members make decisions about budgets, hiring, and curriculum, although the extent of such decisions varies by district. Principals gain expanded authority and responsibilities as leaders and managers of the school, while teachers have increased influence on program and service decisions affecting their students. Studies suggest accountability and autonomy of the school are increased under site-based management programs as the school attends more closely to the direct needs of its students and community. Research also indicates that site-based management programs are more common and more easily implemented in smaller districts.
Instead of the traditional September to June calendar and three-month summer vacation, the year-round school has continuous schooling with frequent, shorter breaks. Developed to use crowded facilities more efficiently without constructing new buildings and to minimize students' "summer learning loss," more than 800 schools across the country have rearranged their calendars into a variety of year-round forms.
Schedules vary in year-round schools. Some operate 45 days in school (with weekends off) followed by a 15-day break. Others run 60 days in school with 20 days off, and still others use a semester-like calendar with two 90-day sessions with 30-day breaks. There are even more possibilities. The breaks are used by many schools to offer intensive, specialized courses to students and community people. They may also be used to provide remedial support to students needing additional help.
Schools with year-round programs exist at various levels in Kindergarten through twelfth grade education, although most are at the elementary grades. Although no year-round schools are currently operating in the state, this option is being considered in both urban and rural Minnesota. Research on some of these schools shows improved student performance; less costly; less vandalism due to more frequent building use; better student and teacher attendance; and new learning opportunities during break times.
This paper outlines a number of new and not-so-new options created by schools and communities to better serve students and their communities. With time, well-focused funding, and community support, these new schools, their students, and their teachers can be at the front of educational excellence in Minnesota.
Is it time to create some alternatives in your school? Keep this checklist in mind as you work toward better learning and improved schools in your community.
A School at the Center: Community-Based Education and Rural Redevelopment.1992. ($3.85 including postage) Center for Rural Affairs, 101 South Tallman, P.O. Box 406, Walthill, NE, 68067, 402/846-5428.
Shared Facilities: Schools and Communities Working Together. 1991. Jessica Clarke and Joe Nathan ($5.00) Students as Entrepreneurs: Building Academic Skills and Strengthening Local Economies. 1992. Lisa Hinz ($3.00) Fine Print, bi-monthly newsletter on school improvement. Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, 301 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455, 612/626-1834.
Schools as Entrepreneurs: Helping Small Towns Survive. 1988. Milan Wall and Vicki Luther ($5.00 including postage) Heartland Center for Leadership Development, 941 O Street, Suite 920, Lincoln, NE 68508, 402/474-7667.
Minnesota Charter Schools Network, P.O. Box 2131, Inver Grove Heights, MN, 55076, 612/942-1322.
Clustering: Working Together for Better Schools. 1990. Paul Nachtigal and Sylvia Parker (Free) Redesigning Rural Education Ideas for Action (Free) Rural Education: In Search of a Better Way. Paul Nachtigal, editor ($12.50 postage additional) Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) 4709 Belleview Avenue, 2nd Floor, Kansas City, MO 64112, 816/756-2401.
Minnesota Department of Education, Enrollment Options, 927 Capitol Square Building, 550 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN, 55101, 612/297-2241 or toll-free, 800/652-9747.
National Association for Year-Round Education, P.O. Box 711386, San Diego, CA, 92171-1386, 619/276-5296.
Publications on service learning. National Youth Leadership Council, 1910 West County Road B, Roseville, MN, 55113, 612/631-3672.
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL), 1900 Spring Road, Suite 300, Oak Brook, IL 60521-1480, 708/571-4700.
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