A Choice to Charter
Thomas, Doug, Borwege, Kim, Phi Delta Kappan
Supported by its local school board and unimpeded by the kinds of rules and regulations that usually block innovation, the Minnesota New Country Charter School launched a program that has attracted national attention. Mr. Thomas and Ms. Borwege describe the features that have distinguished the school, including a course-free structure, individualized learning, and an emphasis on technology.
When most school boards in the U.S. think about creating a new school, they envision bricks and mortar, phone an architect, and start to make plans to pass a bond referendum. Not so for members of the board in the LeSueur-Henderson (Minnesota) school district. In 1994 they approved one of the first and most innovative secondary school charter plans in the nation. The decision had little to do with bricks and mortar and lots to do with results, competition, and the public's desire for innovation. The Minnesota New Country Charter School, located in three formerly empty storefronts in downtown LeSueur, is now in its third year. Serving students in grades 6-12 from nine different districts, the school currently has an enrollment of 95 and a lengthy waiting list. It is thriving on a competency-based approach with much of the learning taking place in the community and an emphasis on technology. The New Country School is a true effort to redesign education and reallocate resources.
Why would a consolidated school district serving approximately 1,400 K-12 students in communities of 750 and 3,500 want two kinds of high schools? The need became apparent through a series of events in 1993. In the spring of that year, a group of area educators and parents came to the LeSueur-Henderson school board with a request to charter the New Country School. The board denied permission but encouraged the group to continue its efforts and invited the members to participate in a districtwide planning weekend that was to take place in September of that year. The charter group went back to work to refine its proposal further and to wait for an opportunity to ask again.
In September a group of 50 people - including teachers, administrators, parents, students, business and government leaders, and school board members - came together for a weekend of dreaming, planning, and prioritizing for the future of the school district. Many of the participants in the planning process echoed the desire for the type of competencies recommended in the Department of Labor's SCANS (Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) report of 1992. In addition, they wanted expanded opportunities for innovation and parent involvement; an integrated system of child, adult, and family services; and the chance to access other resources. As a result of the planning meetings, a call was issued for a new kind of secondary school program that featured greater use of technology and an emphasis on individualization.
Two months later, in November, the charter group reapproached the board. This time the board found that the proposal included the features called for in the strategic plan and saw in it a model of what might be possible throughout the district and in many knew many of the planners and felt confident that they could create a successful school along the lines proposed. This time the proposal was unanimously approved, and the charter group was sent on to the state board of education for its stamp of approval.
The second reason for approving the charter had to do with the notion of choice and competition. Over the past decade, Minnesota has been the nation's leading state in offering opportunities for school choice. With postsecondary options, open enrollment between districts, charter schools, and other opportunities, Minnesotans have gotten used to the idea that students and parents can pick from a variety of different types of schools.
Moreover, choice in Minnesota is not just an urban phenomenon. LeSueur-Henderson is a rural district 60 miles from Minneapolis-St. …