Duluth North Star Academy: Engagement with Capital “E”

If there is one word that describes what I saw from both students and teachersat the K-8 North Star Academy charter school of 1,000+ students in Duluth, Minnesota, it was Engagement.  In every classroom I visited,  students and teachers were engaged in projects in teams at small tables, working together on lab assignments, or actively working with other students around the room. In one room, the students were managing a computer-projected lemonade stand on the wall and observing what happened to their sales if they changed the cost of their ingredients or price of their product.  This group sold out too early!  They asked me my advice, but frankly, I didn’t do much better.

You can see the engagement all over the faces of this all-school band and all-school choir.  The choir was singing from the score of Les Miserables—not easy music for middle schoolers.  And look at this student artwork created under direction of veteran teacher Patty Milliken.  The students tell me they soak up her creativity.

Most remarkable about all this?  I saw all of this student and staff engagement between 3 and 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon, as they ended their (longer) school day!

I am grateful to Board Vice Chair Mike St. John and Head of Schools Bonnie Jorgenson for inviting me to present the Pioneering Charter School Story to board members and staff of Duluth Edison Charter Schools prior to their board meeting on April 15.  See Duluth News Tribune story here. I’m pleased that theboard recognized the value of this information as a board and staff development tool, and provided copies of Zero Chance of Passage:  The Pioneering Charter School Story to board members and lead staff.

North Star Academy is part of Duluth Edison Charter Schools, along with Raleigh Academy, a K-5 school located in West Duluth.  Together, they serve nearly 1300 students, which may be the largest charter school system in Minnesota.  And yet, the schools provide very personalized instruction.  Duluth Edison Charter Schools were established in the fall of 1997, and for most of that time, Bonnie has been their leader.   In 2011, they opened their new 90,000 square-foot facility for North Star Academy, a temperature and humidity controlled building with special construction to stimulate educational environment based on friendliness, openness, comfort and enhanced learning.   The bright colors of the school and the beautiful classroom rugs (including a world map rug in one classroom) create a warm and safe place for great learning.   It is impressive!

I was also delighted that Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon joined us for a school tour and to hear the pioneering story.  “Really impressive!” she also told me.   Yvonne is retiring this year after a long career of public service as Duluth City Councilor, state senator, and Lt. Governor.  Her public leadership and expertise in human services will be greatly missed at the capitol.   Also touring the school with us were three leaders of EdisonLearning, including CEO Thom Jackson.  EdisonLearning is the management company hired by the nonprofit board of directors, which has guided the school since its inception.

Finally, I love the shared core values of the Duluth Edison Public Schools. Seems like they are wonderful core values to share at the state capitol—and in life!