Wave of innovation in Owatonna schools more important than referendum loss


As Owatonna high-schooler Jarrod Neuharth described his project designing parachutes from scratch _  learning how to sew from his grandmother, rustling up help from a local shoe-repair shop, linking up to a NASA project _ I got the sense that we might be seeing both a creative new entrepreneur for our state economy AND an exciting new shape for tomorrow’s public schools.

Neuharth was a star performer in a  presentation at the U of M this week by an articulate and passionate Owatonna Public Schools team that has built an “Owatonna Options” program over the last few years, funded in large part by federal recovery funds.   The initiative, still under construction, is based on project learning and includes an imaginative blend of interdisciplinary workshops, a flexible schedule, mentorships, teacher guides,  a heavy emphasis on science and technology, and strong emphasis on the principles of “leadership and inquiry.”

The opening passage of the options handbook for students describes the program as a “personalized and innovative learning environment.”   Its beneficiaries include both gifted high-achieving students, like Neuharth,  and those who are struggling with traditional school instruction delivery models.    Neuharth said after his presentation that one of the most valuable members of  his project team was a friend who was not doing well academically. 

“Owatonna might be delivering the 21st Century model for public schools,” observed Steve Kelley, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.   Kelley organized  a roundtable session that included presentations from school innovators from  Itasca County and the Blandin Foundation, where citizens and school officials are working on a comprehensive strategy  to improve student success, and with which Growth & Justice has partnered (see  blogposts from June 26 to July 1, on learning about the “Strive” model in Cincinnati).    A third presenter at the meeting was the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative, a partnership with the Bush Foundation.

Owatonna schools were in the news this week because of a very narrow school levy referendum loss (mostly for buying a new building and other facilities needs, unrelated to the reform initiative).   But that loss,  by just 10 votes the night before the presentation, seemed to actually enthuse the Owatonna team about its commitment to press forward with “Owatonna Options.”

Although “Options” is initially focused on some 120 students in grades 9 through 12, plans call for expansion.   And K-8 is undergoing an innovation transformation too, with new emphasis on developing themes of leadership and inquiry and the principles of  Steven Coveys’ well known “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Influenced  by a wave of recent ground-breaking books and research (including “Disrupting Class,” co-authored  by Minnesota public policy leader  Curt Johnson)  and advocacy on the need to disrupt and challenge the so-called “factory model” of public education, Supt. Tom Tapper and his team of teachers and administrators of set out several years ago to develop a new model.   Tapper elaborates on the philosophy and shaping of the initiative in letters on the district’s website.  

The prologue to a thick document, “A New School Structure:  Owatonna Public Schools’ Journey to the 21st Century” declares that:  “Providing children with skills of the 21st Century such as collaboration, visioning and invention will be the foundation of all our schools.   This will be accomplished by purposefully instilling skills of leadership and inquiry.  Providing `choice’ to parents so that students will have the opportunity to learn within the context of their unique learning styles will add to the effectiveness of our instruction and enhance the possibility that every student attending Owatonna Public Schools wil be ‘inspired to succeed’ as our mission requires us to do.”