Wayne Jennings: The founding of St. Paul Open School

Open School’s Beginnings

By Wayne Jennings *



A group of St Paul parents visited the Mankato University K-12  lab school in 1970. They liked the program and decided that there should be a similar school in St. Paul. They approached the St. Paul Public Schools administration with the request that the District establish an open school. They were turned down.

The parents, mostly mothers, pledged one year of their time to start a school. They formed a nonprofit organization, Alternatives Inc. The “Open School Mothers”  launched a campaign to interest parents and assembled a 1,000 name list.

The breakthrough came when they asked the School District if they could seek grant money from the US Office of Education’s innovative schools’ program. The school district approved and assigned Wayne Jennings to assist the parents. The team wrote and submitted a proposal for $100,000 a year for three years. Because of deadlines, parents and Jennings prepared the proposal in one weekend.

While waiting for news on their proposal, parents went to the then Hill Family Foundation in St. Paul to ask if the foundation would match the grant if awarded. The Foundation agreed. The US Office Of Education grant came through, and the parent group now approached the St. Paul Board of Education with $200,000 per year for three years.

The School Board couldn’t turn down that amount of money and in June 1971 approved the establishment of the school. District administrators said the parents should work with school officials to plan the school during the coming year. Parents were concerned that if the school was put off for one year, they might lose the school altogether, and said they wanted the school to begin in September 1971.

A principal was sought, and Wayne Jennings was selected. He began the job July 15, 1971, with the task of starting the school for September 1971. He advertised for teachers. He, two parents and two students interviewed 100 applicants in five days–an almost impossible schedule but necessary because time was so short for the school opening. The committee selected elementary and secondary teachers, a total of 17 (what the District allowed) for the projected enrollment of 500.

Meanwhile, there was no facility for the school and none available in the District. Finally, parents identified a light warehouse at 1885 University Ave. The School Board approved a five-year lease at 7 PM, one week before the beginning of school.

By 9 PM that same evening, 30 parents and students descended on the building to prepare it for the beginning of the year. They worked almost around-the-clock cleaning and painting. Most, unfortunately, the parent fell from a scaffold and died. Then, the School District finally put its own workmen on the job—something the District should have done from the beginning.

The new staff came together for the first time to prepare a K-12 curriculum just two weeks before school started, an impossible task, yet done by working long hours.

Remodeling the building was not completed before the start of school, so students and staff assembled in the auditorium of St. Paul College (TVI). Enthusiastic cheers came with the introduction of each staff member. Staff knew something different was afoot.

Students, staff and parents met on the lawn, divided into groups, and set out on various learning activities. Jennings took a group on a walking tour of downtown. The school repeated various activities for the remainder of the week. We entered the refurbished building the following week.

Students were divided into advisory groups and then developed personal schedules for the day. Each advisory group of students from age 5 to 18 and developed a close relationship and a mutually supportive group.  Staff listed activities hour by hour on a huge wall in the entryway of the school.

Daily scheduling continued for two weeks. Then, staff decided a daily schedule was extremely taxing and went to a weekly schedule, later a two-week schedule, and later a trimester schedule.

One of few innovative schools, 10,000 visitors over the next ten years from around the world came to see the school. Generally, they were enthusiastic, but opinions varied. Jennings said one visitor described the school as a zoo, another, an hour later, was so moved by the enthusiasm of students she had tears of joy in her eyes.

Swamped with visitors, the school requested a federal grant. The US Office of Education declared the school innovative and worthy of replication and thus should provide for visitation. The grant paid for a visitor guide. The school hired Cynthia Gardner, and a room was set up for orientation. These steps took the load off staff of meeting with visitors. People came from Germany, Japan and all over the world. One person stayed for a week to better absorb the program.

Thomas Armstrong, a national consultant, recalls from 40-years earlier, “Back in the early 1970s when I was just starting my career in education as a student at the University of Massachusetts School of Education, I visited the St. Paul Open School, where the principal was Wayne B. Jennings. My guide through the school, I remember was a little boy, perhaps first grade, who had a piece of paper pinned to his shirt that included his learning schedule for that particular day. What I remember most vividly from that visit was that every student I saw in the school was doing real things….”

For years, staff ran into people who remember visiting the school with, vivid memories of the innovative school. The school pioneered practices that 40-years later, other schools are just getting around to replicating. Innovative practices included:

  1. Advisor-advisee program
  2. Personal learning plans
  3. Student-directed learning
  4. Teachers and other staff as facilitators of learning
  5. Graduation based on competencies documented with a portfolio
  6. Extensive use of community for learning
  7. Field trips to distant places
  8. No required textbooks, no report card grades, no required subjects
  9. Parent, advisor, student conferences
  • Abolished grade levels and their restrictions
  • Use of parent talents
  • Service learning requirement
  • School-business partnerships: internships, shadow studies, work experience
  • School advisory council of parents, staff with students in a majority
  • Evaluation of staff by staff, parents, and students
  • Differentiated staffing: a greater mix of paraprofessionals
  • Students earning university credits
  • Open school as an alternative and a choice.
  • K-12 enrollment.
  • Prizing and striving for students with a diversity of races and cultures.

(Editor’s note): Wayne Jennings, PhD, was the founding principal at St Paul Open School. Jennings had been designated by the St. Paul Public Schools to work with the parent/community group to help develop the original proposal and an implementation plan. Jennings had worked for a number of years on innovative projects in the district.  After the proposal was accepted by the St .Paul Board of Education, he was designated to be the school’s principal.