Stillwater, Minn. — Stillwater Junior High School, in the heart of this Midwest state's oldest town, is not the kind of school whose strength and vitality jump out at the visitor. At first glance, a banner identifying the school as one nationally recognized for excellence might not be believed. Like objects emerging slowly after we enter a darkened theater, the elements of Stillwater's success -- innovation, responsibility, caring, community -- require a little more observation. But they are strengths that figure regularly both in professionals' lists of what a good school for the early adolescent should embody and in the comments of Stillwater's teachers and students.
The school stands as proof that the 75-year-old public education institution called junior high is not necessarily the failure many educators say it is.
Serving a fairly well-to-do and homogeneous bedroom community to the nearby Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Stillwater Junior High does not face some of the problems of other junior highs, where widely varied economic and ethnic groups are often coming together for the first time.
But the school's physical plant -- two red-brick, factory-like buildings, dated 1922 and 1938, separated by a street and connected by an underground tunnel -- could present operational and discipline problems if students' sense of ownership weren't encouraged, and if imagination weren't used to keep class sizes relatively small.
Hemmed in by streets, a church converted to condominiums, and a lofty old courthouse, the school provides scant room for physical activity; physical education classes are bused to a playing field more than a mile away. The name ``Stillwater High School'' on the masonry of the older building testifies to an American preference for new high schools when budgets allow for building.
A banner in the school's first-floor display case identifies Stillwater as one of the 88 schools recognized for excellence last year by the federal Department of Education. As one speaks with school principal Don Hovland the reasons for that recognition begin to emerge. An inkling of the philosophy that keeps Stillwater going shines through his matter-of-fact, Midwestern style.
``In this school, the great differences in kids at this age span [12-15] have to be accommodated,'' says Mr. Hovland. ``We have kids who intellectually are able to hold their own with high school students, but are maybe in the sixth grade physically. And of course we have the opposite situation, too.'' Calling himself a Jeffersonian, he adds, ``We emphasize the good in kids. We want them to learn they're worth something, and capable of a lot.''
A native of North Dakota, and a former teacher and secondary school administrator in Great Falls, Mont., Don Hovland has been principal here for 13 years. Over that time, he has passed numerous experiments in early adolescent education through the sieve of experience, fashioning a school that responds to the needs and desires of parents and students.
Among the school's successful elements are these:
Parent participation. This begins with a two-hour workshop each fall with first-time junior-high parents. ``We impress upon them that they may have to begin changing their expectations of their children,'' says Hovland. ``At the same time we're cautioning our people here: `Don't lower your expectations.' '' The participation continues with open house, parent-teacher conferences, and a four-session ``chemical awareness'' program addressing problems of alcohol and drug use. ``By mid-November we've seen 98 percent of the parents in the school,'' says Hovland.
An accessible counseling staff. This school of just under 900 students has three counselors -- a rare luxury in a time of tight budgets. ``A hallmark of this school is that we all strive to work with kids on an individual basis,'' says counselor Lowell Tuft. A recent innovation from the counseling staff is KIDS -- Kids in Divorce and Separation -- a one-hour-a-week discussion group for students with families in upheaval. ``At such times, it's especially important for us to help build self-image,'' says counselor Elaine Prebonich.
Strong student government. Patterned after the federal government, Stillwater student government includes an executive and a legislative branch, complete with a senate, a house of representatives, and committees. At any one time about 150 students are directly involved, and an operating budget of almost $10,000 is common (the students own and operate the school's numerous vending machines).
``Too often kids go through school without becoming involved in anything,'' says school president Chris Systa. ``But here I've really seen the amount of involvement make a difference. . . . It helps make the school a pretty close community.'' The students are now proposing to build an $11,000 park at the school. ``Going on their past record,'' says Hovland, ``I'd be surprised if they don't make it.''
Discipline. An ``early intervention'' plan encourages teachers first -- those closest to the students -- and then counselors to work with students and parents as discipline problems develop. In many cases of minor gravity, the principal or vice-principal are aware but not directly involved. According to Hovland, another important factor in the school's good discipline is vice-principal Steven Studer, who ``knows each student by name and cares about each one.''
And a strong, well-liked principal. ``Mr. Hovland's the core of the school,'' says ninth-grader Dan Spencer, co-chairman of the schools facilities improvement committee. ``He's there when we need help, but he also lets us know that the school is ours and depends on us [for it] to run right.''
Remarkably, the student's sentiments are closely echoed by members of the Stillwater staff. ``It's a good building and there's one big reason for that -- the principal,'' says industrial arts teacher Tom Soller. With previous experience in four other schools, Mr. Soler says, ``He's a man who leaves you alone, yet is behind you 100 percent.''
As for Don Hovland -- selected principal of the year by the state branch of the National Association of Secondary School Principals -- he points to a core of strong teachers who care about the special needs of the junior high student. ``The good teacher for this age group is strongly grounded in the subject matter, but student-oriented in his approach,'' he says. ``He's flexible enough to pick up on the great ranges we see here and to vary his approach from class to class, and from child to child.''
Emphasizing staff development, Hovland says recent attention has been given to integrating computers into the curriculum, mainstreaming special education for slow learners and the handicapped, and improving opportunities for gifted students.
As for the argument that junior highs -- schools, like Stillwater, that often group seventh, eighth, and ninth graders -- have generally failed the age group they serve, Hovland's response is quick.
``I don't know that the structure is the way you tackle serving the age group,'' he says, adding that the way a school sees its students is more important than its grade configuration.
Hovland personally favors the grades 7 through 9 school because ``it tends to keep the ninth graders a little younger,'' and because he believes the maturing, responsible ninth graders serve as positive role models to their classmates.
But the key, he says, is the school's philosophy. ``We believe,'' says Don Hovland, ``that kids are basically good.'' --