21st Century Schools

Is Saturn Coming Down To Earth?

A man, a plan, a school of the future, but Tom King -- the prime mover behind St. Paul's Saturn School -- is the first to say the experimental school doesn't have all the answers

Jo Anna Natale

condensed from The Executive Educator

September 1991

The Saturn School of Tomorrow has been front-page news in St. Paul, Minnesota ever since the experiment began in 1989. But President George Bush brought the magnet school into national focus in April when he credited Saturn, in a speech launching his education agenda, for no less than reinventing the American school.

Tom King, Saturn's project director (a.k.a. prime mover) was at home in St. Paul, watching on television. Mike Hopkins, the school's lead teacher, was at the White House by invitation. Both were surprised, but euphoric, when President Bush praised Saturn's efforts and recognized Hopkins in front of millions.

A month later, Mr. Bush visited Saturn, creating a hoopla even in Democrat-dominated St. Paul. Visibly impressed by what he found at the school, the President got kid-demonstrations of how Saturn's awesome array of technology makes learning fun. In a congratulatory gesture, he gave King a tie clip featuring the presidential seal and inscribed with Bush's signature.

Not bad for King, who had this radical idea for a school of the future; not bad for any educator.

But the high-wattage spotlight has been something of a mixed blessing. As one person closely connected to Saturn says, "I think (Bush's visit) was too soon. All the national attention puts a strain (on Saturn) to live up to glorified expectations."

Says King: "There was an affirmation that what we're doing here is worth doing. It helps us politically from a survival standpoint, a fund-raising standpoint. The negative side is folks who draw the conclusion that we hold up answers here. We don't. We hold up questions. If you want to see questions, come to Saturn."

In fact, the questions are becoming increasingly pointed. Despite accolades from the White House and some real strides, Saturn, now beginning its third year, is at a critical stage in the experiment -- a "major fork" in the road, says King.

An early analysis shows student test scores are slipping, which worries parents, district administrators, and Saturn staff members. "The fact of the matter is, if kids don't really improve (on tests), I think the program will be held suspect," says King.

Saturn's teachers are divided over how best to direct the school and its curriculum, and parents are questioning what some see as laissez-faire learning.

In the face of these problems, which he readily acknowledges, Tom King is trying to maintain support for a vision that isn't crystal clear in anyone's mind -- not even his own. For King, what counts is the pursuit of a better way. "I'm a Moses here, " he says. "I don't think I'll ever see (completion of the goal)." So what's he aiming for? "Enough success where the project can continue."

The "project" that aspires -- but doesn't promise -- to lead education into the 21st century has been brewing in King's brain for years. It's the same brain that , at age 12, tried to convince Proctor & Gamble to develop a toothpaste cap you wouldn't have to unscrew, that would release the paste from a tiny hole when the tube was squeezed. P&G said no thank you, but King wasn't deterred from a life of ideas.

Years later, as a "good but frustrated teacher" in the St. Paul Public Schools, King was thinking about ways to improve education. He thought about it while teaching teachers about technology and while working in an uninspiring central office job. Then one day, King heard a speech by American Federation of Teachers President, Albert Shanker.

Shanker wondered why schools couldn't approach reform like the Saturn Corp. approached car construction -- from scratch, bound by no tradition. Bolstered by the notion, King went to then Superintendent, David Bennett, who has built a reputation on magnet schools, and Saturn, the school, went into production.

In its present incarnation, Saturn is the combined effort of many people -- King, Bennett, teachers, district administrators, university personnel. King, who oversees educational technology for the St. Paul Schools, has special responsibility as Saturn's project director. As such, he garners philosophical and financial support for the school, which, in its first years required a $1 million budget.

Costs gradually are coming down, but as schools go, Saturn is a high-dollar venture. It sits in a $9 million building -- a renovated YWCA in downtown St. Paul overlooking the Mississippi River. Outside, the eight-story structure is nothing special -- old-city beige with a modest blue sign. Inside, though, Saturn has the look and feel of a high-priority operation, a place that complements learning rather than compromises it. The school is spotless, climate-controlled, carpeted. Walls are lemon, rose, mint, celestial blue. In the media center, where children often work independently on projects of their own choosing, New Age music trickles against a background of Neoclassic pillars. Computers are as commonplace as notebooks.

"We have an absolutely unique school here," says King. It's no overestimation.

Saturn's 284 students, who represent all abilities and who in a traditional school would span grades four through eight, are expected to take responsiblility for their own learning. With the help of parents and advisers, they set their own academic and personal goals, chronicling their progress in portfolios of work accomplished. Students work in groups -- often boisterously. Their school supplies include sophisticated hardware and software. Saturn has no report cards, no required textbooks, no grade levels, no lengthy summer vacations.

The teachers see themselves as guides to learning rather than directors. Four teachers -- the lead team, headed by Hopkins -- develop curriculum, according to the children's interests. These teachers make many decisions for the school. In addition, Saturn teachers have tools others would envy: computers and telephones in every classroom, offices, voice mail, and, for those with the most responsibility, salaries in the $60,000 range.

"It's a whole different way of thinking about power, control, content, and how we think about kids," says Hallie Preskill, and assistant education professor at the University of St. Thomas, who is conducting an evaluation of Saturn.

Saturn is a laboratory, pure and simple, testing many of the ideas raised in years of research on school reform. It's important, King says, because "I don't think there's any question education is in need of sweeping changes."

To understand Saturn is to put aside many of the personal experiences and biases ingrained in people educated in traditional, public schools.

"It is a true shift away from a curriculum-centered institution to a student-centered institution," says Hopkins, lead teacher. "And that's not trivial. Because it's student-centered, some say it's unstructured. But there is a good deal of structure here, built around students' needs. It just takes a different set of glasses to see it."

Still, some people say it's Saturn that needs new eyeglasses so it can see its own shortcomings. Boston University's John Silber, for one, has called Saturn "an interesting gimmick."

The test score issue is creating one stir. Early indications show standardized test scores are down, especially in math computation. The drop appears steepest, though, for students who have spent only a year at the school, versus those with two years under their belt. There are many suspicions why -- the kinks in a new system, the lack of regular curricular content or sequence, the absence of textbooks (none are used in teaching at the school, although other books are commonplace).

Suspicion also falls on the tests themselves; Saturn officials say stand ardized tests don't necessarily measure the kinds of things taught at Saturn -- critical thinking, responsibility, learning to learn. "We've listened more to the forward thinkers, I think, to what will be the needs of the future than to (those who say) go back and drill people," says Hopkins.

But whatever the explanation, test scores are a serious issue for Saturn. Says former superintendent David Bennett: "Test scores are going to be very important. (They) need to show improvement after three years, not after one or two." This is the third year -- a year when St. Paul has a new superintendent in Curman Gaines. Gaines did not return calls for this story, but observers say he intends close scrutiny of the school. (At press time, Gaines had ordered an evaluation of Saturn.)

Although Saturn has a part-time principal, he now takes care mostly of building and scheduling concerns. It's teachers who have the most power here. Or at least, some of them do -- and those with less feel left out of the school's development.

"This is not an environment that tolerates much looking in the mirror," says one teacher, who asked not to be identified. "If you're not part of the power structure, you run little chance of influencing it."

And there are teachers here who would like to see changes made, to see Saturn adopt at least slightly more traditional methods. It's a philosophical tug of war in an environment where, as King puts it, "buy-in is crucial."

At a faculty meeting in June, two schools of thought emerge. One is the approach that underlies Saturn now: "The traditional way of doing business has not been that successful in educating kids," Hopkins is saying. "We can't lose sight of the fact that we've shifted our focus and are along the way to developing curriculum not driven by textbooks or content, but guided by processes we're developing for these kids."

The other side is expressed by teachers who would like to see a more sequential approach to learning. "There's no weft to go with the weave," says teacher Wendy Frick. "If we do away with textbooks, we have to have something in (their) place that offers the thread."

Still, for some parents, Saturn can be a "leap of faith," as researcher Hallie Preskill puts it. Some parents welcome that leap: "I believe my children are better off as a result of this education, " says Arthur Dee, president of Saturn's Council, a group of parents, teachers, and students. "They have access to excellent teachers, a lot of resources they would not have in other schools. And I have much more input in what their education should be."

Other parents, though, don't know what to think. About 25 have pulled their children out of the school since its inception. Some moved away, others couldn't get used to the idea. "They miss the homework, they miss the smiley face stickers," says Susan Garrett, an education assistant at Saturn.

Still others are torn. Claudia Swanson says she wants "the idea," the individualization and attention to learning styles, to work, but she has some apprehensions, as a Saturn parent and as vice chairman of the St. Paul school board. "I've had a running concern ...about the lack of reporting back to parents," says Swanson, whose son attends Saturn. "I have absolutely no idea whatsoever -- and this is the truth -- what he has studied in math for the entire year." Swanson says the situation has improved some, now that the school has introduced a system in which students do regular self-reports of progress. "But that didn't tell me whether the teacher saw (the report) or agreed with it," she adds.

On the other hand, Swanson says her son loves using community resources, such as the library and local museums -- an important component of education Saturn-style. She says he made a three-dimensional model of how arm muscles work. "It made a real impression on me. He talked about it. He really understood."

One thing that no one disputes about Saturn is that kids seem to enjoy it. "I love this school," says Doug Salstrom, an 11 year-old who's been at the school since it opened. "If I was to go to any school in the world, I'd choose Saturn."

Preskill says she sees considerable success and hope in that. "I look at Saturn, and I see lot of kids excited about learning. All the rhetoric, I see it coming true. Even though the school isn't perfect, I see real opportunity for kids to get excited about learning."

King is the first to acknowledge that Saturn doesn't have all the answers. He is the first to emphasize that Saturn is an experiment and that experiments don't always go smoothly. The thing about experiments, though, is you learn from them. King says people can underestimate the "R&D aspect" of Saturn and the chance it provides for schooling, as we've known it, to surpass mediocrity and soar.

Patience and much more work, the vision-keeper maintains, are key for Saturn. "My feeling is it's going to take five years to get a handle on these issues and we won't then have them all resolved, but I think we'll have a good start."

At most, King hopes Saturn will pave the way for the schools of the future. At the very least, he hopes it will inspire other risk takers. "We tried an idea; others will pick it up. I don't think efforts will stop."