More Personalized, Active Learning Needed Now

This column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, such as the Morrison County Record.

More personalized, active learning needed now

Tim, Meg, Ross, Jillian, David and J.J. found – years ago – what many parents say they want now for their children: more personalized, hands-on learning. This is especially true as youngsters return to school this fall. Fortunately, a remarkable St. Paul district public school, celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, is available for people to visit and learn from.

For 50 years, the St. Paul Public School District’s Open World Learning Community school (formerly Open School) has held individual family/student/educator goal-setting conferences every August. Part of what students study is what most interests them. Families are asked about their priorities. Many students carry out hands-on projects. Some combine classroom work and community service. The “three R’s” are included in the school’s curriculum. Graduation is based not just on credits, but demonstration of skill and knowledge. That includes developing individual career plans, now required under state law.

For example:

— Tim Lynch, who became a police commander in St. Paul, was fascinated by diving. The school introduced him to a scuba instructor. He wrote: “This lit a fire in me to pursue diving. I signed up for lessons and became a certified diver before age 18.” Lynch has been diving all over the world for 40 years.

Tim and Mary Lynch (Photo courtesy of Tim Lynch

— J.J., who lives in Stillwater, wrote: “I was an angry kid with a chip on my shoulder, using physical aggression to express my innermost deep depression about what was going on in my home life. … The school saved my life and kept me from going down a dark path that could have led to a life behind bars, or in an institution, or worse, death.” J.J. became the first in his family to graduate from college. For more than 36 years he’s been “helping children and adults with behavioral and mental health barriers.”

JJ and son (photo courtesy of JJ)


— On a cross-country trip the school arranged, Ross had an opportunity to “snip the sutures” after a doctor sewed up a wound on his friend. Ross recalled, “I was hooked on the emergency room.” He’s spent 34 years practicing emergency medicine.

Photos courtesy of Ross Huelster



— Jillian wrote that in previous schools: “I was bored and alienated at most every turn. It wasn’t that the coursework was difficult for me. It wasn’t. … I felt invisible, unencouraged and just another number. … However, Open School’s pedagogy changed my life! What a wonderful and remarkable experience it was.”

Photo courtesy of Jillian Holiday


— Meg studied controversies over a Mississippi River area where herons nested and coal barges docked. She wrote the school “exposed us to so many new ideas and taught me to look at things from a variety of points of view.” She spent 30-plus years as an urban planner.

Photos courtesy of Meg McMonigal


About 30 of these and other students’ brief stories are here.

Whether students are talented, troubled, or both, Open World Learning Community listens.

A new national survey of 1,005 parents and 495 educators shows that what the school does is what many recommend. For example, about 60% of parents want more one-on-one interactions with teachers and their students, and 61% of educators recommend hands-on activities. (The study, conducted by a nonprofit group called Understood and a group named UnidosUS, is here. )

As I review state and some local plans spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help youngsters recover from challenges of COVID-19, I see huge amounts for more social workers, counselors and tutoring. Each of them can be valuable.

What I don’t see are plans to ask students and parents what’s important to them. What I don’t find are blueprints to create more active, hands-on, active learning. I don’t read about efforts to give students more opportunities to make a positive difference in their community. This despite the fact that service-learning programs can have an enormous positive impact on academic skills and how students feel about themselves and their community.

Years ago, when I worked there, the U.S. Department of Education named Open School a “carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication.” (More information is here.)


Every school doesn’t have to individualize or provide active, service-learning opportunities exactly like Open World.

David TC Ellis (Photo courtesy of David Ellis

But these principles can, as David wrote, “teach me to use my passion to help others.”

oe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at