What a town will do for a school


To visit the Southwest Star Concept School is to experience an odd type of disconnect.

The World War I-vintage building - seated cozily across the street from a little church and within a stone's throw of a cornfield - speaks of a less-complex America, one in which rural schools doled out to the children of farmers the rudiments of a traditional, no-nonsense education.

But step inside the door, and what's evident is a very cutting-edge educational philosophy that has helped this tiny Minnesota school jump ahead of many of its more cosmopolitan siblings.

"We totally changed our focus," says Jackie Baumgard, a veteran math teacher at the 240-student school. "We used to compare ourselves to the little towns around us. We suddenly began to look at what's going on nationally."

What brought an educational revolution to little Okabena? This is the story of how a tiny agricultural hamlet of 100 households, tucked away in a rural corner of southwestern Minnesota, turned a bad deal into a new style that benefited everyone.

It also stands out as dramatic proof that school reform is reaching out to all parts of the United States, and that its best practitioners are not necessarily located in large cities. Propelled by the threat of consolidation, a number of rural schools in different parts of the country are in the process of rethinking what they teach and how they teach it. Few, however, have taken as brave a leap as this one.

Like so many of America's small rural towns, Okabena, hit hard by the farm crisis, has watched its school-age population shrink over the past few decades. In 1978, with only 120 children in the old school, the town decided to merge its school system with that of slightly larger Heron Lake (population 750) next door.

But between 1978 and 1988, the consolidated Heron Lake-Okabena school system lost 120 more students and began sending its high school students to Lakefield, a bigger town in the area.

The arrangement was less than ideal, but endured until the spring of 1997 when Lakefield announced its intention of merging with a larger, more distant school system.

For Okabena and Heron Lake students, the merger would have meant an even longer bus ride. For their parents and the town's other residents, it meant a growing sense of detachment from the town's youth and their daily life.

To many residents, it also seemed more evidence of numbered days for these small towns.

"If you don't have a school and you want the kids to come back, that's one less reason to do so," says Dennis Daberkow, a local farmer and parent of two school-age boys. "The town will dry up without it."

Head for the drawing board

So in an effort to keep kids in the town, the two communities joined together and drew up a plan to create a new school.

The elementary school for the two towns, they reasoned, could be left where it was in Heron Lake.

But the old Okabena school building - then serving as home to a handful of seventh- and eighth-graders - could be expanded to house a new facility for Grades 7 to 12.

That's when the entrepreneurial spirit really took over. The planners were firm in their determination to break the mold as they designed the new school.

"If we simply created another traditional high school, within three years we'd lose so many more kids we'd shut down," says Jim Schneider, community-education director and the business and social-studies teacher at the high school.

What they decided instead was to create and market a school so unique that kids from other districts would opt to enroll, bringing with them the $3,550 in funding the state allots to each child.

Faculty, parents, and other residents of the two towns came together and began researching their "dream" school. More than 100 community members organized themselves into five committees and began delving into school reform.

Through the help of the Internet and the Annenberg Rural Challenge (the $50-million arm of the Annenberg Foundation in St. Davids, Pa., set up to inspire school reform in rural areas), the planning committees gleaned a cluster of new ideas.

What emerged was a "concept" school - one organized around a central theme and dedicated to offering students a more hands-on style of learning. It would also be more focused on using the resources of the community. In a gesture meant to be symbolic, the quasar - a cluster of stars - was picked as a mascot for the new school.

A roster of changes

When Southwest Star opened its doors as the reconceived high school in September 1997, classes were lengthened to 85-minute blocks to allow more project-oriented field work. Grade-level distinctions blurred and in most areas students were allowed to register for electives as college students might. The 18 faculty members were encouraged to dream up innovative course offerings and to require the students to work more independently and assume more responsibility for their own learning.

The result is that most students now participate in small multi-age classes, chosen from a menu that includes offerings like "The Persuasive Power of Speech" and "Twentieth-Century Music History."

In addition, Southwest Star focuses on getting kids outside the four walls of the school. A field-biology class is taught at a local creek. An applied-math class visits a local Toro factory and calculates the number of machines produced in an hour. A history class does research on an old covered bridge that once stood nearby.

Instructors today rarely find themselves in front of the room lecturing. "The kids teach themselves," explains Wayne Heisinger, a business teacher and coach who's been at the school for 30 years. "I've learned to facilitate."

The response of the students to the new teaching style was immediate.

"You can't depend on other people to do things for you," says Michelle Bartosh, a junior at the school. "And that makes you feel more confident about yourself."

The smaller size of the school is also great, says Stacy Oelke, a senior. "You're not just a number. You get more one-on-one help."

The response of area parents was immediate as well. The new school hoped to attract 35 out-of-district students. Instead, 79 enrolled that first year.

Young and old join in

In order to expand and modernize the school, the town passed a $3.9 million bond issue, with a surprising 69 percent approval from voters - even those without a direct stake in the school.

Pat Sontag and her husband, Warren, live in Heron Lake and have no children or grandchildren in town, but both voted yes on the bond issue and enthusiastically participated in school planning. "These young people are our future," Mrs. Sontag says.

Construction is expected to be completed by this spring. Test scores show that the school - always ahead of the state average on standardized tests - has maintained its edge. School officials say they hope to see scores climb even higher under the new system.

But the school's existence is still far from secure. "We are in a constant financial crunch all the time," says Mr. Schneider. The need to attract new students is a continual pressure. Schneider and other school officials are acutely conscious that enrollment at the elementary school dropped by 13 this year.

A Minnesota natural

On the plus side, the school has drawn statewide and even national attention. The changes in Okabena are part of a broader phenomenon, says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

And in some ways, Minnesota is a natural setting for such innovation. "Don't forget this was the first state to have public school choice and public charter schools."

But the real lesson Dr. Nathan hopes other communities will learn from Okabena is "the value of hope, optimism, and persistence." This, Nathan says, "is the spirit of America."

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