This column originally was published by ECM Publications
Honoring a remarkable educator
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.