Can’t Imagine Myself without St Paul Open School

I couldn’t imagine myself without Saint Paul Open School. I was a K-12 student of Saint Paul Open School. If you count the years of semi-paused schooling due to homelessness and wanderings, I was there for about 15 years.

Michael Sawyer

I started in 1978, after the “anything goes” early years of Open School, but a lot of magical things were still happening. My kindergarten year was the last year Open was at the Mechanic Arts building. I vividly remember 11th and 12th graders taking fondness to me right away and coming down after breakfast to hang out with me and play silly games. They really liked to see me pretend to be the Incredible Hulk, and they felt like my big brothers. They also would tell me scary ghost stories at lunchtime. I looked forward to my time with them.

I was lucky enough to be there when Open Classroom still ran all morning in grade school. This was a block of time loosely centered around reading, writing and math. All grades K-6 would help each other, and many tangents and rabbit holes were explored. There were no grades. Teachers assessed how you were progressing based on your individual needs. I am very thankful for this. I know I have/had undiagnosed learning disabilities.

In second grade I was doing the 7th grade reading book and the 6th grade math book, but could barely write or spell. My homeroom teacher/advisor Don was able to spend extra time with me on my writing, and I needed every minute.

As a young adult I went on to edit and publish poetry zines, which would have never been possible without all of that extra time.

In my high school years I was a rebellious youth. After Open School encouraged me to go out into the world, I barely found my way back to its doors. In 7th grade it started with volunteering shifts for the Democratic Party that would last from the moment I got off the school bus until 9 or 10pm. As I became more disillusioned with society, my volunteeringchanged to social activism. I was office manager at an anti-nukes clearinghouse (Northern Sun Alliance), organizer at the Youth Against Militarism Project, and took over abandoned houses for Up and Out of Poverty (which led to Minneapolis creating its first shelter dedicated to homeless youth). During these years, classes in the school couldn’t contain me. I was fully immersed in the world and stopped being interested in what I thought were uninteresting classes back at school.

This led to me getting kicked out of school for a period. This was when there was still the validation system that was the basis for graduating. It was common knowledge that my immersion in my community more than satisfied most of my graduation requirements. The school knew this, reached out to me and came up with a plan for getting me back in and on the path to graduation. My advisor, Lennie, never gave up hope in me and when I graduated it was noted that mine was one of the best graduation packets the school had, as I was fully living the school’s foundational principles of community engagement and lifelong learning.

My twin sons also went to Open World Learning for middle school. Although not totally the same school, I felt like it was just the spot for them. In other schools, the more rigid the system, the worse they did.

I begrudgingly let my ex move them to Highland Park High in 9th grade. I was very worried they would get lost in a regular school, they are too much like their father. My fears were confirmed as their grades and their social life went downhill.

I eventually got them back into Open World Learning. Their moods and their grades picked up considerably and they graduated from OWL.

I have not gone on to do great things or change the world, but I do know I have an endless curiosity about life and the way things work. I was a grocery store worker for a couple decades while my kids were growing up; I preserve and teach Upper Midwest traditional music; I am a band leader; I am a street musician; I am a printmaker. I have had successes, failures and everything in between, just as we all have.

Open School taught me to question everything — my beliefs, behaviors, and how I look at and relate with the world. To be an independent thinker is a value I hold dear. I have Open School to thank for that.


Michael Sawyer

St Paul Open School Graduate in the 1990’s