Minnesota wisely encouraging students’ creativity, energy & insight

The following column appeared originally in a number of APG of East Central Mn newspapers during August, 2023, including the Morrison County RecordABC (Anoka/Blaine/Coon Rapids) papers, and several others.


Minnesota wisely encouraging students’ creativity, energy and insight


“Got a problem? Call a Kid.” That was the name of an article written years ago by award-winning education journalist Karen Branan. She described school classes that combined academic study and community service, called “service-learning.”

This year Minnesota wisely decided to encourage and expand use of service-learning, both for K-12 students and for people preparing to be teachers in the state.

Here are a few examples:

— Monticello students researched and wrote a major history of their community.

— St. Paul students helped solve consumer problems that adults referred to them.

Cover of a Flyer that St Paul Students used to gather

consumer cases from adults that students worked on and in many cases, solved

— At the request of their local chamber of commerce, Grand Rapids students researched iron mines in the area available for visits and produced a brochure for potential visitors. Delighted with students’ work, the chamber published and distributed thousands of copies.

— Bloomington, Blaine, Minneapolis and St. Paul students led an effort that produced $30 million in “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” to high school students laid off from their jobs during the pandemic.

Walter Cortina and Cole Stevens, two of the high school students who successfully challenged

the state of Minnesota, winning $30+ million for Mn high school students who were laid off due to the pandemic


— Delavan, Minnesota, first graders improved their reading skills as they put on a play for senior citizens and preschool children.

— Students in several communities, including Anoka and Coon Rapids, learned construction skills as they built homes, in some cases for low-income families.

Students at GAP School in St Paul have learned construction skills

as they built homes for low income families

— Forest Lake Area High School students built a concession stand for the local athletic association.

— Also in Forest Lake, North Lakes Academy students organized horseback riding therapy lessons.

A key feature of these programs is that they combine classroom research and study with some form of service to the community.

University of Minnesota professor Andrew Furco has studied service-learning for decades. His one-page summary of this research finds that not all service-learning programs are equally effective. However, he found that programs including key features produced “improved subject matter learning and academic performance, greater academic engagement, increased motivation for learning, improved student attendance and grades, and engagement in higher order thinking.”

Researchers led by the Minnesota-based National Youth Leadership Council found that the most effective service-learning programs, among other things, give students opportunities to help define the problem, develop potential solutions, include classroom study to help students expand their academic skills and knowledge, and provide opportunities for students to evaluate, and when appropriate, revise their efforts. More information here.

Recognizing all this, two Minnesota groups decided this year to encourage and expand use of service-learning. The Minnesota Legislature allocated $1 million to help public schools create service-learning programs in cooperation with community partners. The legislation envisions about 32 grants, up to $50,000 each, distributed around Minnesota. Sally Reynolds, director of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Career and College Success Division, told me that she hopes the “request for proposals” for this money will be published by October. Meanwhile, details of what legislators want to see in these proposals can be found here.

Minnesota legislators also made school districts, charters and intermediate districts eligible to apply for up to $100,000 from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to create or expand programs in which students learn construction skills as they build homes for low-income people. That request for proposals will be out in the first quarter of 2024.

Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board also adopted a new regulation this year. The board is requiring all prospective teachers to learn the rationale for and implementation of service-learning. Details are available here.

These actions build on terrific work happening in many schools. They recognize, as Monticello Public School District Superintendent Eric Olson told me, “Kids are great!” Unquestionably some have problems. But one of the best ways to help youngsters deal with problems, as well as to gain vital academic, citizenship and social skills is to give them opportunities to help others.

Minnesota policymakers recognize this. That’s good news for students and good news for the state.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is co-director of the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org