Honoring a remarkable man


This column originally was published by ECM Publications

Honoring a remarkable educator

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Almost 200 people gathered on April 9 to celebrate the work of a marvelous man, 85-year-old Dr. Wayne Jennings.

After building houses and canoes and serving in the Army, Jennings has for more than 60 years inspired, encouraged and promoted research-based improvements in public schools. A modest, understated person, Jennings mostly smiled and quietly thanked people for coming. But he has attracted national attention. The ceremony featured former students, from a playwright to a University of Chicago professor, who flew to Minnesota just to honor Jennings.

With the encouragement of Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed April 9 “Wayne Jennings Day” in Minnesota, in recognition of his amazing array of accomplishments. The statement noted that Jennings had been an award-winning teacher and principal, Mounds View School Board president, and chair or president of 14 other state or national groups.

Wayne Jennings (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Wayne Jennings (Photo by Joe Nathan)

One of his proudest achievements was serving as founding principal of the St. Paul Open School, a K-12 option that opened in fall 1971. He and I met and worked together that fall. The U.S. Department of Education named Open School a “carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication.” More than 10,000 people from around the world have visited the school. Now called Open World Learning Community, it still operates in the St. Paul Public Schools District, serving grades six through 12, 45 years after it opened. Information about the school is available at http://open.spps.org/.

The Open World school demonstrates several ideas that Jennings thinks are most important, including:

–An adviser-advisee system, in which every student is known well by at least one adult in the building. The advisers help each student develop plans to meet school and state requirements and accomplish goals they set for themselves.

–Experiential, “hands-on” learning. The Open School featured a wood shop, where even elementary students could build things to help them understand practical applications of math and reading. It featured classes where students studied current local, state and national problems, discussed ways to deal with them and then took constructive action. Jennings was, and remains, a huge advocate of what he calls “learning by doing.”

–Helping all students find success. Jennings believes, “We need to help each youngster identify her/his special talents/gifts, and then help develop them.” While principal at Open School, Jennings taught a class on magic – one of his many interests. He told me, “Magic helped some youngsters see the value of reading and hard work.”

Jennings has helped start, directed or chaired the boards of several district and charter public school options. He told me: “There’s no single best school for all students. I’m especially interested in creating options for those students who aren’t or won’t be successful in traditional schools.”

Wayne Jennings and his wife, Joan Sorenson. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Wayne Jennings and his wife, Joan Sorenson. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Jennings models active learning. Some of what he learned came from construction, and some from serving as a “gandy dancer” during World War II, helping construct and maintain railroad ties. He’s been married for 46 years to another outstanding educator, Joan Sorenson.

Jennings had completed a year of law school when he was drafted into the Army in 1952. Sent to Fort Riley in Kansas, he was told that he would be teaching “basic circuits of telephone operation” to other soldiers. “I liked teaching. It was so gratifying when students understood something we studied,” he explained.

So he became an educator. In 2006, the University of Minnesota named him one of its 100 “most distinguished” alumni. Jennings remains an active member of several boards and writes regularly about learning, teaching and schools. A charter school, now 17 years old, is named for him: http://www.jenningsclc.org/.

He strongly encourages young people to consider education as a career. He urges people “to visit unconventional schools where educators help students become lifelong learners and active, responsible citizens.” Those are not just ideas for Wayne Jennings. He models them every day.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

12 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Honoring a remarkable educator

  1. Tony Gardner says:

    Wayne was my advisor at Open school when it opened. I remember him teaching us magic in his office, and encouraging us to open a comic book store in the lobby of 1885 University (our first home after first starting the first few weeks of school meeting at Saint Paul Technical College because 1885 wasn’t ready yet).

    I was in a meeting with a school board and administration a few months ago, and they talked about doing some of the same things Wayne and Joan pioneered back in 1971 at Open School! Competencies, open learning, world focus, cultural competency, community based education – all things we did back in the early 70s! Wayne and Joan touched a lot of lives over the years!

  2. Holly Hart says:

    A well deserved tribute to a very special man and great educator. Sorry I could not make the celebration.

  3. Michael Bourdaghs says:

    Thanks for this tribute. It was a wonderful event honoring a remarkable man.

  4. Everett Arnold says:

    One of the most impactful people, in a very unassuming way, I have met! Congrats on this well deserved honor!

  5. Dr. Tom King says:

    The finest school reformer I ever met. He brought a quiet, well-planned enthusiasm to all he did in experiential K12 school programs.

    Wayne Jennings was a servant leader who looked for and elicited the best in others.

    He was a major helper in our starting the St. Paul Saturn School of Tomorrow back in 1989, a school recognized by President George H. W. Bush for its unique program with a Personal Learning Plan for each and every student. I am indebted to him to this day.

    He changed the lives of thousands of students and educators for the better.

    Thanks, Wayne, for all you did for kids and learning!

  6. I have had the honor to meet Wayne on several occasions as an educator at Open World Learning Community (formerly Saint Paul Open School) and he has impressed every time. A thoughtful and diligent leader, he still casts a shadow that weighs heavily on the school as we try to pilot his vision through the difficult waters of the current educational climate.

  7. Great story, I hope to meet and listen to this man some day. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Howard Fuller says:

    Thanks for all that you have done to improve the lives of young people.
    Your dedication, commitment and hard work has made a difference.

  9. Very inspiring to see extraordinary accomplishments and extreme humility together. I think every educator feels like his or her most important legacy has to do with the lives of the students they have been privileged to know and work with. I’d say Wayne Jennings is a very rich man in that regard!

  10. Joan Arbisi Little says:

    Dear Wayne, Your dedication to “learning by doing” has led me through hardships and unexpected obstacles with tenacity and an openness to the lessons rather than the loss. I am just one of the many people who have been forever changed by your “magic.” Now a school principal myself, I am continuing your work helping young people identify and develop their special talents and gifts. I can not thank you and Joan enough for your dedication to education and the well being of youth.

  11. Paul C, an award winning Minnesota public school teacher currently in India, asked me to post this for him:
    On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 7:16 AM, wrote:
    Tried posting a comment to the Wayne Jennings article, but it wouldn’t let me.
    Here was my comment:
    I’ve had the honor of meeting Wayne Jennings a couple times and am looking forward to reconnecting in 2016. During my pursuit of a Master’s Degree, I interviewed Wayne for a research paper and learned about his work founding alternative schools in Minnesota. Building off the interview, I invited Wayne to Gordon Parks High School to meet our staff. Everyone was excited to finally meet THE Wayne Jennings…the guy whose name we would see all the time in publications about alternative schools.
    One of Wayne’s most powerful message to us was “know the Minnesota law regarding alternative schools… you are mandated to provide a truly alternative curriculum to students.” That message was and still is important for our school, helps us understand our role within the SPPS ecosystem, and creates a point of leverage when we get influenced to be more traditional.
    I tip my hat to Wayne Jennings!

  12. I’m really sad that I couldn’t make it in for the ceremony. Wayne was the principal when I started at Open School midway through the 1973-74 school year and I vividly remember my few encounters with him from those first years as he welcomed me into the Open School community and made it clear that he knew who all of his students were, no matter how new. I graduated Open in 1985 and went on to get a theater degree at the U of M. Open instilled in me the drive to reach for my dreams and gave me the tools I needed to achieve them. It also taught me how important it is to give back the community I live in.

    Since I am an Open Schooler to the bone, let me express that in more concrete and hands on terms. Last night I was sworn in for my 4th term as a county board supervisor here in Wisconsin. I serve as an elected official because Open School taught me that the answer to the question “If not me, who?” Is almost always me. And, today, after I submit this post I will get back to finishing up what will be my 13th published novel, a middle grade book under contract with Feiwel and Friends/ Macmillan and slated for release next summer. The setting of this book and its sequel should feel familiar to anyone involved in the Open School. The following is the first paragraph of the author’s note.

    “The Free School of Saint Paul as depicted in this book is not the Saint Paul Open School. Though my time at the latter certainly informs my creation of the former, all of the characters and situations in this volume are fictitious and creations of my imagination rather than reconstructions from memory. That said, my eleven years at the Open School are fundamental to my life and to my work as an artist, and I would be a very different person without them. I owe so very much to the school, its teachers, founders, and my fellow students. Thank you all. The me that I am today wouldn’t be possible without you.”

    In that spirit: Thank you, Wayne Jennings. The work you have done matters deeply to so many of us.