Walking into Minnesota New Country School in Henderson for the first time can be a surprising experience. The high school largely consists of a single-room, open concept layout, which means almost all 140 high school students are immediately within view. There are no desks, no blackboards, no walls that divide classes — technically, there aren’t even classes.
Instead, students in grades 7-12 sit at their own desks, organized into teacher-led advisory groups that are separated from other groups by low cubicle-like barriers. Their teachers don’t lecture. They help the students work on their projects. There is noise, a certain amount of disarray — but there is also enthusiasm.
One group of students huddles around sophomore Donovan Austin, who just finished developing a board game, Circuits, after weeks of research and design.
Some would call the arrangement chaotic, others might call it disorganized. MNCS social studies teacher Paul Jaeger defines it as taking a gamble on authentic learning.
“The main thing we hang our hat on is that we’re a project-based school, so students design their work around the state standards they need to meet, but also around things they really care about,” Jaeger said.
The public charter school, which was started in 1993 by a group of educators and administrators largely from Le Sueur, is centered around project-based learning. Without lectures, traditional assignments and multiple-choice exams, students demonstrate their proficiency at school subjects through a series of ongoing projects in all different disciplines.
“I restored a 16-foot Starcraft boat. It’s what I do, I tinker on stuff,” said senior Tristan Hein, one of three Jordan students at the high school. “The boat was in my wheelhouse. I did basically everything to it. It needed all new carpet so I scraped the carpet out of it and painted the inside. I put a new deck in it.”
Hein adapted many of his projects to include technical elements, since he plans to go to Central Lakes College in Staples to study heavy equipment operation.
Younger students like Savannah Berg, a seventh-grader from San Francisco Township, may not have post-secondary plans yet, but they’re certain they found the right fit at MNCS.
“I was struggling at my old school,” Berg said. “I was either slower in topics or faster in topics and I just wasn’t happy really ... and now here I am, in love with school. I never thought I would say that. I like school, I don’t like getting sick or missing a day.”
Berg completed a project that pulled her top three interests — writing, history and music — together, as she re-wrote the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which references 20th century history, to fit modern times.
“My first project was finding out what all the things meant that he was listing, and then I re-wrote the song to our timeline,” she said. “I like music, I like writing and I like history, so I was able to bundle all those things into one. You can follow your passions at this school, you can find out what your passions are.”
Critics of project-based learning may contend that the programming doesn’t expose students to as wide a scope of information as in traditional classroom. But Jaeger said a lot of the information kids learn at school isn’t necessarily retained long term.
“The thing we’re betting on is that the thing our students learn in their projects will stay learned because they care about it,” Jaeger said. “The way they learn about it is important to them. If I just teach them that, they may remember until it’s time to take the test and then it’s gone.”
Another unique facet of the school is that it is organized as a teacher-led school, meaning that educators carry out most administrative duties collectively. In a way, this style of organization mirrors project-based programming by giving teachers the same level of responsibility and investment in the school as their students.
“We don’t have anyone to blame if things aren’t going well, we have to look toward one another and listen to students to figure things out and make things better,” Jaeger said. “Having that ownership though creates teachers who really want to be here. We haven’t had hardly any turnover in a long time.”
In August, MNCS will celebrate 25 years of operation, a milestone that indicates the school’s programming — while it may at first seem alarming to traditional-minded parents and educators — allows a population of students to thrive.