Students are using the Discourse System in the Discourse room.
A student is working on a computers inside a desk.
The Saturn School of Tomorrow, a magnet middle school, occupies a former YMCA building on the waterfront of downtown St. Paul. The site features a variety of technology-supported learning spaces used for different purposes (e.g., cooperative learning areas, computer labs, classrooms with tiered seating and Discourse Systems, an integrated learning system (ILS) lab, an independent study area, a video production studio). Every classroom is equipped with a telephone and a teaching station that includes a Macintosh linked to the school network and a video monitor to display in-school broadcasts, VCR, or videodisk presentations. The building is simple on the outside, but inside is modern, attractive, and neat, but with an unusual lack of student artwork or other wall displays (except at student exhibition events). Saturn's downtown location has enabled the school to offer a variety of off-site learning opportunities. Courses have been conducted at the science museum, the historical center, the state museum of art, and local cable-access studios. Saturn serves 170 students in grades 4-8; 80% are eligible for free or reduced lunch; 8-9% receive special education services. Fifty percent of the students are Caucasian, Non-Hispanic; 30% are African American; 11% are Asian/Pacific Islander; and 9% are Hispanic. There are 9 certified teachers on the faculty. Approximately 20% of the students have computers at home.
Built from the ground up as a "fundamental redesign of the way we deliver educational services," the Saturn School was conceptualized as a "high tech, high teach, high touch" program in which students would engage in a combination of computer-supported, teacher-led, and collaborative project-based learning activities. Stimulated by a speech by Al Shanker noting the failure of traditional education, Tom King, a district administrator, organized a collaborative effort involving a series of local partnerships including the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, St. Thomas University, an AI software developer, and a number of hardware and software vendors. Saturn opened in the fall of 1989 with grades 4 through 6 (grades 7 and 8 were added in 1990 and 1991, respectively) and one of the most ethnically diverse student populations within the district. Over 65% of the students were male, however, an unintended outcome attributed by various observers to a differential interest in technology or to the fact that the school was viewed as an alternative for students having academic or behavioral difficulties in more traditional programs. A unique (but ultimately divisive) aspect of the school was a two-tier staff structure. A lead teacher and three associate teachers held year-round, higher-salaried positions and had responsibility for developing the school's curriculum. Other teachers were designated as "generalists," and had regular nine-month appointments, lower salaries, and less input into school decisions and curricula. At the close of the 1992-93 school year, the school district discontinued the year-round positions, and the three remaining members of the original lead staff transferred out. By the spring of 1994, Saturn was having trouble maintaining an enrollment, and some informants blamed the district for using the school as a "dumping ground" for students who had failed to fit into other schools.
Saturn was built on a philosophy of individualized instruction with student responsibility for their own learning. Other than required time working on basic skills in the Integrated Learning System (ILS) lab, students were to design their own educational program ("Personal Growth Plans") in consultation with their advisors and parents. The concept called for doing away with textbooks and developing courses around the particular interests of students. Use of out-of-school resources such as museums, science centers, and internships at work sites, was another important component of the design. Students were organized into "advisories" that stayed together during their Saturn careers; most courses were open to the full age range of students (9-14).
Technology has played multiple roles at Saturn. A Discourse System, designed to collect and tabulate student responses to teacher close-ended questions, has been adapted for use in brainstorming sessions. The initial reliance on the ILS lab as "insurance" that students would acquire basic reading and mathematics skills has given way to a perception that laboratory and regular classroom activities need to be more closely linked. The most successful and enduring use of technology at Saturn has been as a tool to support student projects and investigations. For research projects on topics such as sea turtles or an Indian tribe's protests against spent fuel rods on their land, students might make copies of written material to highlight for later reference, gather information on CD-ROM, conduct a telephone interview with an informant, use the Macintosh Writing Lab to prepare text portions of their presentations, or use the scanner, the interactive videodisk, or HyperCard in the Multipurpose Mac Lab or the Media Lab to incorporate graphics, sound, or animation. This high level of self-selected access to such a wide array of equipment results in what one Saturn teacher described as "technology-hungry" students who are skilled and comfortable in using technology in their work as a matter of course. Saturn's use of technology has been part of what brought it national publicity and has led to increased opportunities for the Saturn staff to participate in extra-district professional activities, including many national education reform activities and conference presentations (along with several students).
The ILS and Discourse System technologies initially selected by the leadership team before the school opened did not match the instructional philosophy of teachers hired subsequently. Most of the teachers came with little knowledge of technology. In the third-year evaluation report, teachers reported lack of time as the critical factor in preventing them from becoming more familiar with the technology and software.
The school has not excelled in terms of traditional education indicators. Standardized test scores, especially in mathematics, showed declining performance relative to national norms over Saturn's first 2 years. An independent evaluation revealed that performance--at least in math--increased relative to national norms for lower-performing students while dropping slightly for above-average students. Given the lack of match between the Saturn's curriculum and approach and the tests, the positive effects for lower-performing students are encouraging. In addition, the staff and the district have taken steps to try to strengthen areas in which their program was not providing adequate instruction for all students. The staff have moved also toward getting portfolio assessments in place and made a persuasive presentation of their work to the school board, which was receptive to arguments about the mismatch between the school's goals and standardized tests, and willing to consider giving Saturn a waiver on the mandated testing. Many parents, however, had become nervous about the amount of freedom given to students and the failure to include certain elements in a required program. Many students and teachers left during the first few years. Despite the fact that initially there were 500 applicants for some 160 openings, Saturn now has to actively recruit students (after negative local press about lowered standardized test scores). What the overall statistics do not show, however, is the set of students and parents for whom the nontraditional approach taken at Saturn has been very motivating and successful.
65 E. Kellogg Boulevard
St. Paul, MN 55101
Contact: Gloria Coltrain
T: (612) 290-8354
F: (612) 290-8357