Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Minnesota New Country School (MNCS)
Henderson, Minn.


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1994, local district
Grades and Enrollment 7–12 and 118
Student Ethnicity 2% African-American
0% Asian American
5% Hispanic
94% white
Special Education 24%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 25%
Graduation Rate 83%
Annual Cost per Student $9,100

Source: School records data from 2005–06

An hour outside Minnesota's twin cities, in the middle of rural farm country, lies Henderson, a small town of just over 900 people, in which one of the more prominent buildings is the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS)—one of the least typical high schools likely to be found. It looks like a modern version of a one-room schoolhouse: one large, central open space, a few adjacent rooms, such as a science lab, a library, art and recording studios, and a shop room. Students each have their own workstation with a computer, and in the center of the building is a stage, a dual-purpose conference and classroom made from a grain silo, and common tables for group work, lunch, and meeting space. Class banners like the one that asserts, "The world always steps aside for people who know where they are going," decorate the walls, affirming the school's spirit of independence.

Even more unusual than the building is the fact that MNCS's teachers own and operate the school. In the early 1990s, a small group of teachers, aspiring administrators, and community members (including a brick layer and a meat cutter), each frustrated with traditional school models, started planning for an innovative high school. Sponsored by the Le Sueur-Henderson public school district, MNCS opened in 1994 with 65 students, the seventh charter school in Minnesota and one of the first 100 charter schools in the United States.

Its formal mission statement says "MNCS is a learning community committed to quality personalized project-based learning with demonstrated achievement." But Dee Grover Thomas, who, as lead teacher in a school that operates without a principal, handles many administrative duties in addition to teaching, explains that the school vision is much larger. The vision is to cultivate motivated students who have the skills and confidence to solve real-world problems. MNCS is not interested in the number of minutes or hours a student spends at a desk or works on a particular course. "I want students to know they can do postsecondary studies and be successful, whether that's technical training after high school, college, or other pursuits," says Thomas.

School Operations and Educational Program

MNCS provides two innovative elements—a teacher-owned cooperative and student-driven project-based learning. Serving 118 students in grades 7–12, MNCS offers a highly personalized learning program shaped around student interests. Virtually the entire school curriculum is project-based. This means that teachers serve as coaches and facilitators rather than conductors of formal classes. Pursuing particular interests, students develop proposals with their adviser, which are signed off by a parent and their proposal team (i.e., the student's adviser and other teachers). Projects are evaluated by a team of school staff and others who determine whether the student has demonstrated mastery of state standards and earned academic credit. The number of credits for each project depends on its scope and quality.

"We eliminated courses as a way of dividing and framing the curriculum," explains Thomas, which means "we no longer needed bells, hallway passing, lavatory passes, class schedules, study halls, and all the other things that came along with a more rigid, time-based system." The underlying premise is that students learn best when they are motivated by what interests them and work at their own pace. As students' curiosity motivates them to learn, they will cultivate responsibility and develop skills they need in problem solving, reading, writing, math, technology, communication, and management.

To graduate, students are required to earn 60 credits, demonstrate they have met the state standards, pass the Minnesota Basic Skills Tests, and complete a senior project. In one learning project, a student researched the Victorian era and sewed 18th-century clothes. For another project, a student studied chemicals in fast food and intends to develop a nutrition seminar for his peers. Some students complete work-based internships for their projects. One student worked at an auto mechanic shop and then created a four-wheeler dune buggy.

Students are required to develop one quality public presentation and exhibition per grade level, not necessarily as part of the same project. The senior project, the largest in scale, requires students to complete at least 300 hours of work that is multidisciplinary, incorporates technology, provides a service to others, and culminates in a 30-minute presentation to the community. Through the process of polishing their presentations, students gain experience in public speaking. Students keep track of their project progress by completing daily logs and journaling on the computer in Project Foundry, a database that allows teachers, students and parents to log in and see project updates and related communications.

Staff found that 80 percent of students enter MNCS two years or more below grade level in reading. In order for students to reach grade level, teachers develop a reading plan, require students to engage in daily sustained silent reading, and have students read with partners. The Northwest Evaluation Association provides longitudinal testing data for each MNCS student to measure growth in reading and writing, and teachers use that data to monitor progress over the year. In 2003–04, students that had been at the school for three or more years gained 15.3 percentiles in reading and 13 percentiles in Math.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

Parent involvement at MNCS includes attending student presentation nights, volunteering to share information and perspectives about their career field, chaperoning field trips, serving meals during fund-raisers, communicating regularly with advisers, and supporting student projects.

Parents communicate regularly with teachers by e-mail. The school holds conferences with parents four times a year, before the school year begins in order to set goals, again in October and February to ascertain student progress, and at the end of the year. At least seven times a year, the school formally updates parents on student achievement through progress reports and report cards. Parents sign off on all student projects.

The school's main partnership is with EdVisions, Inc., which received a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant for replication and state dissemination of the MNCS model. The model includes student-directed, project-based learning, and school governance by teacher cooperatives.

MNCS has also developed partnerships with local universities. Minnesota State University (MSU) at Mankato, where several members of the current staff did their student teaching, has sent other student teachers to MNCS. The school's teachers also take classes toward master's degree credits at MSU, and the teacher co-op provides $10,000 in scholarships for teachers to take graduate-level courses. In another school-university partnership, students can enroll in Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), taking college courses for credit paid by the state. Typically students study foreign languages, science, and advanced math. Some students, spending three days a week in the college program, find that because of their project-based learning they have better task management and time management skills than other students at the university.

Governing for Accountability

At MNCS the teachers are owners rather than employees of the school and operate a distributive, teacher-leader model of daily governance. Teachers make all school decisions through consensus. As part of their professional responsibilities, all teachers serve on site-based management teams in topical areas such as personnel, student discipline, curriculum, community involvement, special education, transportation-building-grounds, technology, finance, marketing, and senior presentation.

The teachers are organized as a small professional cooperative, rather than a large union, and they have control over school resources. At one point when money was tight staff decided to take a $2,500 cut in pay so they would not lose an aide position. The lead teacher ensures compliance with state paperwork, handles public relations, and manages legal issues and administrative duties. The current lead teacher considers her role the "keeper of the culture, making sure they are maintaining the integrity of the program." The charter school has a board consisting of four teachers and three parents and they contract with the teacher cooperative for services. The seven-member board also oversees the fiscal management of the school, which spends 86 percent of its funds on instruction, more than any other district in Minnesota.

Teacher evaluation at MNCS is done through 360-degree evaluations, which consist of surveys by peers, parents, and students. Lead teacher Thomas explains that the whole staff recommendation process is time-consuming, harrowing, transparent, and difficult. As one founding teacher and board member says, "The real evaluative question is do you know your kids, community, and parents, and can you work with them on a personal basis?"

In lieu of teacher prep periods, the last Friday of each block is devoted to professional development meetings, as are three days of spring annual retreat and five days before school starts. Staff meetings are held every Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon. EdVisions also sponsors institutes for teachers, such as two days when teachers from all the EdVisions schools come together and work as a professional learning community. Teachers also are encouraged to participate in observation exchanges with other schools. Comparing working at MNCS to traditional public schools, MNCS teachers comment that they have to be able to give up control to the students. That is, the goal is to transfer learning responsibility from the teacher to the student. In seventh grade when students enter MNCS, the teacher still has 98 percent of the responsibility for ensuring that learning happens. By ninth grade, the responsibility is shared 50-50. By senior year, the students are able to take on the bulk of responsibility for their learning.

Parents express a high level of satisfaction with the school. One father of both a current student and a graduate chose to send his children to MNCS because the local high school had a reputation for student fights and drug use, and he felt the MNCS would be a better environment. Students consistently praise the school's learning style and social setting. "I was doing pretty bad at my other school," says one, "plus I was always being picked on. As soon as I got here I did better. My parents noticed the difference right away." Another student explains he did not feel challenged at his traditional school. "I didn't feel like I was really getting anything important out of it, and I was sick of the social setting. But here I can challenge myself, and I have friends of different ages."

Each year more students are going on to college after graduating from MNCS. MNCS students are scoring two points above the state average on the ACT for acceptance to midwestern colleges. For the 15 seniors in the class of 2005, 90 percent took the ACT, and 100 percent applied and were accepted to college. Twenty percent of the seniors received merit-based scholarships for college. Eighty percent are in attendance at two- and four-year colleges and 20 percent of the seniors have made the decision to work for a year prior to enrollment or have gone directly into the workforce. This is an increase over prior years. That is, in 2003, out of eleven seniors, 25 percent were accepted by and chose to attend four-year colleges and 55 percent attended two-year colleges.

These college attendance statistics may not fully capture the impact of project-based learning on MNCS graduates. As a junior, one student entered MNCS reading at a second-grade level. He asked to learn to read for his project, and with 688 hours of work, he learned to read working with a reading assistant three hours a week, passing the Minnesota Basic Skills Test with a score of 94 out of 100. Another student, while not attending college, started his own Internet advertising business after graduating, a plan launched from his senior project experience. As lead teacher Thomas says, "We want students to be internally motivated—to do things because they are passionate about it. We want them to be lifelong learners."

MNCS: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

Twelve percent of the students at the local high school district, Lesueur Henderson Secondary School (LHSS), qualify for special education services as compared to 24 percent of the students at Minnesota New Country School. Yet even with an alternative academic program, students at MNCS are on par with or outperforming their peers at LHSS.

In 2005, MNCS tenth-graders scored 80 percent proficiency in math compared with 73 percent of LHSS students.

MCNCS students' average ACT scores in 2005 were 23.3 compared with a national average of 20.9.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009