Wayne Jennings is a godsend for families seeking a truly personalized, individualized education for their youngsters. As I think back over years of writing for ECM newspapers, I remember parents, students and grandparents who’ve contacted me from Anoka to Farmington, Little Falls to Caledonia, each was looking for something different. Each would find in Jennings’ new book, “School Transformation,” descriptions of real public schools that are delivering on the promise of public education.
For more than 60 years, Jennings has been an educator, winning local, state and national awards for his work. He’s been, among many roles, a public school teacher, founding principal of a K-12 district public school option that the U.S. Department of Education recognized as a “carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication,” a Mounds View School Board member, school board president and charter public school founder. He’s also served in the Army and run a construction and a fiberglass canoe company. So he is a practical, experienced man.
Unlike some authors, Jennings is hugely “pro teacher.” When we talked, I asked him what he sees as the central messages of the book. He listed as among the most important themes: “Don’t blame teachers and principals for school shortcomings. They did not invent the system and would likely change it if given the opportunity. We handcuff teachers with rigid established content, textbook coverage and standardized testing.”
Over his 60-year career, Jennings did not just talk about the need to change what he calls “an outmoded system of schooling.” He worked with educators to create new public schools – district and charter – that:
— Began each school year in August with individual student conferences for families. This allowed educators, students and their families to start off in a positive way and to learn more about their hopes and dreams.
— Asked each student at these August conferences, “What are your interests?” Jennings believes helping students answer these questions will “unleash their motivation and potential; … students want to learn about themselves and the world around them.”
— Used the North American continent as a place to learn – not just via movies, books or the internet, but via field trips. His experience convinced him that “students will learn far, far more when we pay attention to how they learn and transform the school environment to ‘world as classroom.’”
— Arranged shadow studies, internships and apprenticeships, that, as he explained, “call upon the extraordinary resources and diverse people in every community to advance student learning.”
Jennings and I met in 1971 when I was one of the first teachers hired at the St. Paul School District’s K-12 Open School, where he was founding principal. The school used each of the ideas listed above. It won various awards, had thousands of visitors and was featured on the “Today Show.”
Unlike many innovative schools that “flame out” after a few years, that school continues as Open World, using many of the same principles that Jennings established more than 40 years ago. That’s in part because those principles make so much sense that families have insisted, despite school board and superintendent changes, that the school stay “open.”
“School Transformation” shows how we can help many more students identify and develop their gifts and talents. It’s available on Amazon. More about Jennings at https://waynejennings.net/
While “School Transformation” is bold, Jennings is one of the most humble, understated people I’ve ever met. I can’t think of a better summer book for families or educators who are seeking hope, support and ideas about what should be done next.
Joe Nathan was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator who directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JoeNathan9249.