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Thomas, co-founder, Minnesota New Country School
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
July 1, 2011
Verne Johnson (chair), Dave Broden, Janis Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland
(phone), Sallie Kemper, Sara Kemper, Curt Johnson, Dan Loritz, Tim
McDonald (phone), Wayne Popham (phone), Clarence Shallbetter
Summary of meeting:
Seventeen years ago Doug Thomas co-founded the Minnesota New Country
School, a successful charter high school that incorporates self-directed
project-based learning, autonomous school management, teacher "ownership"
and democratic governance in an innovative small-school setting. He
describes what makes the school different from traditional
"command/control" public schools, and how this radically changes the
experience for teachers and students. He describes the process of helping
to replicate the school model and explains that while this school is
perhaps unconventional at present, the principles that underlie its design
are sound and far more compatible with both teacher and student needs than
the more common traditional school models.
Welcome and introductions
Thomas is Executive Director of EdVisions Schools (http://www.edvisions.com),
Henderson, Minnesota. A former teacher and business owner, he was a
founder in 1994 of the Minnesota New Country School, now a nationally
recognized innovative charter school located in Henderson, and was
founding president of EdVisions Cooperative, the affiliated teacher
professional practice (http://tinyurl.com/3rss5mw )
cooperative. Since 2000, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
awarded EdVisions a school replication grant, Thomas has led the effort to
create new small secondary schools across the country based on the New
Country model. He also was a four-term board member of Le Sueur-Henderson
Public Schools and worked for ten years as the Southern Minnesota
representative for the Center For School Change at the University of
Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Thomas earned a B.S. n Secondary
Education from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in
Educational Leadership from Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he
taught a graduate course in educational reform and leadership for ten
- "I started out as a frustrated young teacher, in Springfield and St.
Peter, Minnesota," Thomas began, and described trying to change and
improve curriculum for his classes. That was not easy to accomplish and
certainly not encouraged. Much of the job was incompatible with his
beliefs about education, so he left and went into the construction
business, which suited him for some years, until he began taking courses
at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
"In 1987 I took John
Brandl and Ted Kolderie's seminar, 'Public Service Redesign', and
After that experience
Thomas went to work for ten years at the Center for School Change, then at
the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota. His tasks there
included traveling around the state to identify and stir up potential
innovation in schools.
Thomas soon was
elected to the school board of his local public school district, Le
Sueur-Henderson. Something stood out to him there-a piece of data that he
"Seventy percent of
the students said in a survey that their high school was not a good place
to be," Thomas remarked. "This was otherwise known as a good, Lake Wobegon
type of high school, in a good Lake Wobegon sort of town. So there was
something about that disturbing survey information, and the more obvious
failings of the educational process, that led us to believe something had
Thomas and his
colleagues on the district board appreciated and encouraged students'
taking advantage of the school choice legislation that the Legislature and
Governor Perpich enacted in the late 1980's, including post-secondary
enrollment options and open enrollment.
When the chartering
law was passed in 1991, a new opportunity opened up for those interested
in creating different forms of schools. A steering committee was formed,
and work on what became the Minnesota New Country School began.
"Our primary purpose
in creating the school was to give students two kinds of educational
experiences-both the basic 'core content' and the experience of doing
things, engaging in projects and benefitting from all the motivation that
comes along with that."
model of a teachers' working professional partnership is practicable.
The founding group of
teachers consulted with a lot of people early on, read many books, and
laid out their guiding principle that less is more. Thomas said their
greatest concern as teachers was the lack of engagement of students. Even
the best of teachers could only truly engage about one-third of their
students in the traditional school model, he said, and then those students
tended to be only those that happened to be energized and doing well
within the traditional constraints.
"We spoke with Ted
Kolderie, and he kept asking us to pursue this notion of teachers in
professional practice-teachers operating their school as cohorts much as
partners practice in a law or accounting or investment firm." Thomas
commented that this kind of approach to the teaching profession appealed
intuitively to him when he began early in his career. But soon that notion
of professionalism was dissipated and he had to ask himself "why teaching
did not seem much different than working at a glass plant?"
"The whole notion of
professionals serving at the will of administrators didn't make sense to
me from the beginning."
"I was working at the
Center for School Change at the time we founded New Country School, so I
was a mentor to our teachers there in the beginning. A group of us got
together to form a professional association, by means of a cooperative."
The teachers at the school were members of the co-op, and were being paid
through the co-op. "There were others who were members of the co-op,
helping with the school, but not paid. There were lots of us in the
community that were involved, both because the school is central to the
community experience and because the learning done there was very much of
an 'experiential' nature."
Kids learn through
involvement, a participant observed, to which Thomas agreed. "If you can
get away from the time schedule of traditional schools it opens up all
kinds of possibilities for learning."
To accomplish this
non-traditional approach to learning, New Country School is organized
around 'advisories' instead of classrooms. The school's learning space is
open, with each advisory comprised of an advisor (teacher) with a desk,
surrounded by 10-15 students, each with their own workstations including
desk and computer. The students are treated like adults in that they are
given responsibility for self-directed, project-based learning. This type
of learning is driven by a 'constructivist' pedagogy, which emphasizes
student needs and interests incorporated in a personalized learning plan,
and is aided by the extensive use of technology.
Two advisories are put
together in an open area, with an additional teaching assistant. This
enables teachers to work with students from both advisories, with mixed
grades and no static concept of schedule. One teacher can lead a group
outside of the school for example, while the other stays back to oversee
the remaining group. There are, for the most part, no strict bounds of
time or physical space.
The only static,
defined times of the day are for math and quiet reading, Thomas said.
EdVisions has worked to ensure that in all the schools they work with they
hire at least 2 or 3 people certified in higher-level math. After the time
set aside for math instruction, everyone in the school, including all
staff, engages in quiet reading time. This all-school quiet reading
requirement, Thomas noted, both helps to define the culture of the school
and significantly improves reading scores.
responsibility the students have is tending an orchard. "I think they'll
have a bumper crop this year," Thomas said, "so they will have about 500
bushels of apples to harvest and sell. That will be fun but also a good
learning experience." They have acquired an apple press, so that the
students will produce fresh apple cider to sell as well. This type of
project learning involves biology, horticulture, meteorology, business
planning, marketing and all the tangential elements of raising, processing
and selling a crop.
Teachers find and apply the technology they need.
As students began
using more technology outside of school, the teachers decided early on
that they needed a way to bring it into school instead of discouraging or
prohibiting it. They searched and found a group from Milwaukee of former
young offenders called Homeboys Interactive. This group designed a
computer-based program they called Project Foundry. It provides a protocol
for the work done in a project-based environment, walking students through
a process of proposing and refining projects with questions such as "how
will this make me better in 5 years?" and "what learning standards
does this meet?"
"By using this type of
tool," Thomas said, "the students can be shaped toward more positive,
productive thinking. Parents need to sign off on projects that students
do, as must a teacher-advisor for the project, so families are involved
all through the process of the students' experiences." Further, each year
seniors are required to do a minimum 400-hour project, and present it at a
public forum at the end of the year. In addition to their individual
project work students are required to do two group projects per year.
"If you're a small
district and you haven't already moved to some form of blended learning
with an online-learning block, you're behind the 8-ball." A district
called Thomas recently complaining that they lost a quarter of enrollment
to a nearby district that offered the opportunity to obtain associate
degrees online from colleges. I asked why don't you just meet the
competition and offer the same opportunity as well? It's basic business
"You need a couple of
people on the staff that are really technically savvy and can go out and
find the necessary technological tools from outside the school walls," he
said, "because that is where it is."
learn as you go when starting an innovative school.
When the founders
opened the school in 1994 approximately 65 students enrolled from the
river valley, and half of those came from the district. "The first years
were absolute chaos," Thomas said. "Nobody had done this before and we
were working our way through both the startup of a school and the
implementation of a new model."
There was no real
standards system in place at the start, he said, only validations for
state standards. "There were something like 400 standard validations, and
students were finding ways to fit almost anything they did to a
validation." Going to a movie for example might meet a particular
"We had teacher
meetings almost every day. The teachers were crying, saying we can't do
this." As with many school startups, they built the school gradually,
piece by piece, finding ways to create the best structure, processes, and
environment for effective learning and interaction. Today the school
operates with unusual efficiency, directing more money directly to student
learning than almost any school in the state, and maintaining a productive
environment that-though in an open room with over 125 students-operates at
decides to replicate the new model.
In the early 2000's
Tom Vander Ark from the Gates Foundation and Tony Wagner from Harvard
visited Henderson, and were immediately impressed by the school. That
same day they told Thomas and his colleagues that they would provide money
for the group to work to replicate the school model elsewhere.
As the founding team
had moved toward creating New Country School, they had formalized their
organization in legal terms as a cooperative instead of the typical
501(c)3 non-profit. They found this in keeping with the
teacher-professional partnership model for management, and it enabled both
the non-teachers and teachers involved in the school's founding to serve
in the cooperative-with the teachers being the only paid members, Thomas
said. That cooperative came to be known as EdVisions.
When the offer came to
replicate, the cooperative asked the teachers of New Country whether they
would like to keep the effort based in Henderson, or house it in
established non-profits such as the Center for Policy Studies or the
Center for School Change. "They said they wanted to keep it in Henderson,"
Thomas said, "so I left the Center for School Change and started EdVisions
Schools, Inc., the nonprofit organization."
management organizations (CMO's) like KIPP or Green Dot, Thomas noted that
EdVisions is not a management company and never will be. "Instead we help
show through professional development how teachers can structure a school
around project-based learning, and then how they can manage it themselves,
as professionals hiring administrative staff."
Meanwhile the co-op
provides benefits to the teachers so they are not left alone to purchase
insurance and invest in retirement. "We all belong to the co-op," Thomas
said-not only the teachers. Some of the other EdVisions schools belong to
the co-op as well, and others do not. Not all states allow for the
With the Gates
Foundation money EdVisions helped to create 12 schools in Minnesota, and
more across the country. "It doesn't matter for the model whether we're
urban or rural," Thomas said. The student- and teacher-centered learning
and management model appeal to and succeed with people of all backgrounds
"It really is a
counseling model in a sense," as every student has his or her own advisor,
and his or her own customized learning plan.
"This kind of model is
more sustainable than it used to be. If you think back to schools like
this that tried to start in the 60's, most of them aren't around anymore.
Now there is a system in place that provides for funding. Now there is to
a certain extent in the chartering sector a parallel system to the
traditional district schools, and this parallel system can function as the
research and development arm of the district or state.
Does the system need
competition to improve? "You need options that allow for experimentation,"
Thomas said. 'We don't see it as competition with the district schools.
However, if you don't have an on-going R&D program then where's the
pressure to innovate going to come from?"
"In our EdVisions
schools, we're seeing a lot of students graduating," Thomas said, "and
we're seeing a lot of students going on to college. We do the standard
testing and we're doing well on the testing, but we really shine on other
measures not covered by the standardized tests, such as that of the Hope
EdVision is also
trying to use the same charter authorizer for their new schools. The new
law in Minnesota allows a single-purpose non-profit authorizer. "The new
authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools (IQS), has given us a favorable
response to an initial inquiry," Thomas commented.
essentials are outlined.
developed certain essentials for teacher-run, project-based schools in
order for them to function effectively. The design essentials include:
1. Small learning
communities of less than 150 students to assure highly personalized
project-based learning supported by a technology-infused environment.
assessment to assure that intended results are achieved; enabled by
multiple adult advisors for each student, electronic standards tracking,
community involvement, ongoing life skills measurement as well as
and democratic governance of the learning community, with autonomous
control over budget and staffing, and full accountability for financial
and academic success.
While this is the
ideal for all EdVision schools, Thomas remarked that only about a third of
the schools within the EdVisions sphere really adhere to all the
design essentials. Another third do a pretty good job, and the staff
understand them, but there is still that pull back to the traditional
school model. Then another third have not managed to align with the design
much at all-just sticking to the traditional model of schools but trying
to be more student friendly.
Difficulties working with the state education agency are outlined.
A participant asked
Thomas to describe some of the difficulties the school, as an educational
innovator has faced with the state Department of Education.
said, the particular assessment requirements of the state and federal
governments don't line up with New Country's model. The school is not
built to be measured by assessments tailored to standardized programs. The
students take them and do well, but the EdVisions schools do not pay so
much attention to them. Instead the progress made by students can be best
measured other ways.
He cited graduation as
an example of the school's performance, with 92 percent of the students
going on to some form of post-secondary education. Their surveys of alums
indicate that around 70 percent are completing a post-secondary program.
"I think they're
sympathetic," Thomas said of state department officials, "but they're so
bound by the structure they operate in. Until we read Clayton Christensen
we didn't know how we fit in public education. When we read his work we
understood we were the "disruptive innovation" in the system."
The school has run
into challenges with the treatment of authorizers. The LeSueur-Henderson
school district authorized the new school until the authorizer law was
changed by the Legislature in 2009 as it sought to strengthen the
oversight of charter schools. Authorizers have since been required to
reapply for official status, but the process for approving their
applications has been slow. Because of the length of the application and
the complexity of its requirements LeSueur-Henderson district chose not to
re-apply, so New Country School has been seeking alternate authorizers.
The agency has been
saying in recent weeks that they are using the process to reexamine
schools, which leaves those that do not fit traditional mold, including
New Country, unsure of who will be judging them, and on what grounds.
They were recently approved to transfer authorization to Novation
Educational Opportunities, a Minneapolis non-profit single purpose
authorizer and have a new three-year contract.
In addition, "There is
a group of people in the community of Henderson that are pretty irritated
by the department," Thomas observed. "We've been trying to get an
elementary charter enacted for three years now and haven't been able to
get the state department to sign off."
Why does the
department care, a participant asked? "We don't know-we can't get a
straight answer to be honest. The reasons seem to be pretty innocuous."
You would think the
state should be celebrating you, a participant wondered. "Yet," Thomas
asked rhetorically, "if EdVisions were applying for a charter today, would
it get one? I don't know. Unfortunately I think right now we have a
department that is also pushing back, because of a lack of resources and
concern over some charter schools that have not done well. There are some
people at the department that would love to work with a school like ours
but are lacking sufficient resources."
personalized school can be run for less than traditional schools.
The New Country School
has run a surplus for many years after spending around $9,000 per year per
student, Thomas said, and was able to cover the state's 30 percent
holdback of revenue with its cash reserves alone.
But does the state
save any money, a participant asked? Thompson replied no, because New
Country is still receiving the same money per student as other
schools-they just get more for it, in part because students are involved
much more in contributing to the net 'labor' at work in the school. "The
course-and-class model is the most inefficient model for small high
schools," he said.
While the school
serves an unusual number of special education students, Thomas said, most
observers-and students-would have a hard time pointing out who qualifies.
"If you'd ask any kid at new country how many are special education,
they'd probably say 6-when the reality is 36." In a school model like New
Country," he said, "every student, not just those in special education,
has an individualized education plan (IEP). I've always believed that
special education to a certain extent is driven because a student can be
labeled as requiring "special education" because he or she might lack in
the particular area of intelligence being measured-yet may be proficient
or even excel in others."
When asked who their
typical student is, Thomas said they get pretty much anyone but they tend
not to get the students who want to focus on athletics. He said he was
speaking recently to a community member that likes the New Country School
concept but sent his child to the traditional high school so he could play
football. "A lot of people still say, 'well, they don't have football.
They don't have basketball.' And this sometimes becomes a deciding
factor." There are some New Country students that participate in athletics
programs through an arrangement with the LeSueur-Henderson district, but
when he talks with families that are interested in the school Thomas said
many don't choose it because it is just too much of a hassle to get a New
Country student involved in other schools' athletic programs.
There is an element of
self-selection in choosing schools. "I don't want to cast aspersions, but
the reality is lot of those traditional high school kids tend to work, act
and dress the same. We tend to get the kids that want to be a bit
different, who might tend to be more creative."
Teachers manage their own compensation.
The school is governed
by a board, and purchases services from the cooperative. When it comes to
management teachers make all the decisions and hire administrative staff
and contract for services to assist them.
A participant asked
how the teachers, as the school's management, go about figuring
compensation. The teachers select their personnel committee (which changes
on a regular basis), Thomas replied, and the committee sets compensation.
To aid this the personnel committee does a "360" evaluation of teachers
including parent and student surveys, as well as use of the "Hope Survey"
http://www.hopesurvey.org, which evaluates student motivation. "If
your hope survey is low you're really in trouble," Thomas said about
teachers, because learning is about motivation.
committee negotiates with the coop for a lump sum for compensation, which
they include in their budget. At one point the school was paying teachers
around $4,000 above the state average, Thomas said, but now are about at
New Country's cost for
personnel last year was only 63 percent of total budget, Thomas said.
That's far less than most districts. In the ratio of dollars sent to the
classroom, New Country was tops in the state in a 2001 study by Education
Evolving (86%) and five of the top ten schools on this measure in
Minnesota were EdVisions schools, and some were the smallest schools in
the state. "That whole notion of needing to be bigger to be more efficient
just doesn't stand up."
control and decentralizing authority increases accountability.
There is a fundamental
sharing of responsibility at schools like EdVision's, Thomas
argued-students bear the requirement to work in order to make progress;
parents must sign off on the projects their children do; and teachers,
through the advisory model, are put into positions that compel them to be
engaging and involved and not just lecture from the front of a classroom.
A participant asked
whether this model could also provide a way to decentralize districts.
"The state has tried a lot of stuff to localize control," Thomas observed
- "site-management, the 2009 site-governed schools law-we have tried
things inside the system. Some districts actually do now divide money up
by the school site but most principals don't see that."
Thomas argued the lack
of results, and his own experience dealing with the regulatory agency,
shows this isn't enough. "I think what we're going to have to do is have a
parallel system," he followed, where there are two systems operating-one
is an R&D system, which is separate from the older institutionalized
system. This is what Clayton Christensen has found to be necessary in
other business, organizations and industries as well."
"We have to keep
asking the question: Why are we assessing a school like this in the
same ways we're testing students in traditional schools? We're trying
to do something very different at New Country - and there are many other
schools doing things differently, and there will be more.
"I think that the
community of Henderson is supportive of the school," Thomas observed. When
they started to build their current building the City contributed tax
increment financing and 13 Main street businesses and individuals added
$150,000 for a down payment. A federal USDA Loan Guarantee program backed
$750,000 in loans.
At-risk students served well by the model.
A participant asked
whether this model could work with student populations that are "at-risk".
"Absolutely," Thomas said-one of the schools with the most impressive
performance in graduation rates is the High School for Recording Arts,
which runs a similar model in St. Paul. They have taken a student
population with almost no high school completion and increased it
"Hope and aspiration
are higher where students want to come to school," Thomas said. And these
students do want to come and do well so they will be able to get the
"access passes" allowing them to use the recording technology available at
Recording Arts. "I'll take that over a high test score any day," he
Teacher development is key.
What are the teachers
at New Country doing to develop themselves professionally?
They use a
professional improvement plan every year, Thomas said, which he thinks is
an important motivator. Each year they need to tackle new things that
serve to keep energizing the students and energizing themselves. They like
each advisor to show two new professionally enriching accomplishments each
year that are spelled out in their improvement plan. Some examples are:
the organic orchard project started ten years ago; the earthquake
monitoring project with the US Geologic Survey contractor; and the new
sophomore and junior projects added recently leading up to the capstone
senior project requiring 400 hours of research and activity and including
a major public presentation before graduating.
The teachers have
regular Tuesday morning meetings that deal with the operations of the
school, then on Thursday afternoon they deal with professional aspects of
the school, and do professional improvement work. "I'd say it's one of the
hardest things to maintain. It is very difficult to find the time and
energy, and to really feel it's important enough, to continue pursuing
professional development. But if you don't do it you'll slide backward
find teachers that really do slide back in their performance and you need
to intervene. However, the turnover at the school is so low I think
actually they might benefit from some turnover. After 17 years, New
Country has already become an institution itself."
New Country has had
good luck with involvement from teacher training programs. In particular,
Mankato State University has a highly regarded experiential education
department that has worked successfully with the school, Thomas said. "The
urban colleges, with the traditional teacher prep programs, don't seem too
interested in sending their student teachers to us."
"We're not driving the
best people to teaching. The teacher training programs are beginning to
see that and are changing slowly. We need to make teaching a better job
and we're trying to do that at EdVisions Schools."
To close the chair
asked Thomas what he sees to be the key to really moving this new
education model into the district system?
"Gates gave us the
strategy for replication in 2000," Thomas said. That money is gone now but
their strategy was basically to scatter seeds. "We're trying to be a bit
more strategic than that. We recently announced a 'ten high school
initiative' in Minnesota called the North Star Schools Project, and are
looking for bridge funding. We believe that if you have one school like
ours within a 50 miles or so, it will provide the options that students,
families, and teachers are looking for," and may begin to tip the scales
in favor of the innovations we have developed and tested over the past 17