Open School Experience “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Open School Experience: “If you can dream it, you can do it”


Joan Arbisi Little

In High School

Today with Career Pathways students

Prompt: Something that happened to you, or that you did, at Open School, that had an impact on your later life ….

I have organized my response around my high school experience, the impact of diversity, and what if we created a 1970s Open School today.

What was your High School Experience?

I am a public charter school director working less than two miles from our 1885 University Avenue location where Open School began. I often tell the story of how my high school experience shaped my life.  As a part of my work I welcome parents, students, and potential staff by telling them that I was taught at an early age to question, and ask, “why not?”’… I tell them that I went to an experimental school created by parents and St. Paul Public School leaders, many who later went on to create public charter schools.  I tell families that Open School was based on a model from England where the learning environment was setup with areas of interest.  I know now that it was a lot like a K-12 Montessori environment.  The spaces were created and led by teachers as guides, and most remarkably for me as a current public school leader, at first the school did not require daily attendance.  The focus of the school was experiential learning and assurance of mastery.  That wasn’t what we called it then, but if you are an educator like me, that is what we would call it today.  Essentially it was a school that told me as a student: Experience opportunities and show us what your learned.  Now I see that the teachers worked very hard to create a variety of learning experiences for our diverse interests and needs.  I can also see that the policy makers and the parents were not only active, but went from rebels to soldiers as they created and then protected our new kind of school.

Experiences that were highlights for me included an exchange trip to Mexico, opportunities to participate in city policy making conversations, and access to other schools or universities for classes that I was interested in taking (including a German class at my neighborhood school, printmaking at Hamline University, athletics at the U of M, dance classes at the Nancy Hauser Dance School, access to downtown learning centers New City School and Film in the Cities.) These experiences provided me the framework I needed to take on the rest of my life.


The impact of diversity

The 1970s were a time of neighborhood schools and forced integration. The creation of a school that welcomed students from all over the city to one location, by choice, was for me an opportunity to meet and learn with people my age who were more like me than different.

We all came from different backgrounds and we all brought with us our own, what I call now, “backpacks.” Those “backpacks” did not limit us, they defined us and embellished who we were and who we were meant to become.  Our backpacks were filled with culture, home languages, social economic class identification, or more simply, our backpacks were about our race, community, and sometimes trauma. The diversity I experienced in my teachers and friends at St. Paul Open School taught me about others and allowed me the opportunity to reflect on and understand my origins.  The diversity taught me about both empathy and pride.

Influenced by an environment that highly valued experiential learning and diversity I was free to dream about new opportunities and not be discouraged by challenges.  I was given permission to ask, “why not?” whenever I met a challenge.  After graduation from Open School I went on to college at the University of Minnesota, worked in small business and then went back to school to become a teacher.  I saw each day as an opportunity to learn something new.  It wasn’t always easy and things didn’t always go the way I had hoped, but those early years that valued each new experience as a success, have guided me throughout my personal and professional life.

Why can’t we have a 1970s style Open School today?

Policy limitations – I believe public policy is the obstacle.  We could re-create the 1970s Open School if we decided to go private, but that would undermine my perception of Open School’s core value of equity.  Current laws about funding, accountability and liability substantially limit what can be done. Fortunately, there are many good public charter and district schools that build on what is possible and have created environments that encourage students and staff to ask, “why not?”

As a secondary school leader (grades 6-12), I strive to create a school environment that values experiential learning while offering opportunities for our students to learn about others and how we all have a place and a purpose in our community. My experience as a student at St. Paul Open School taught me that if you can dream it, you can do it.  You just need to figure out how.

Today I am a state licensed K-6 teacher, K-12 administrator, public charter school director, and adjunct professor in St. Paul.  I have been an educator since 1990 and have worked in public charter, district, and private K-12 schools. I graduated with the class of 1976 from St. Paul Open School and in 2012 from The University of St. Thomas with a doctorate in educational leadership.