Bob Pearlman Home
21st Century Schools
Saturn School of Tomorrow


What is Saturn School?

Tom King

Some Facts About Saturn School
Saturn School is a nongraded, middle magnet school currently serving 280 students in grades 4 - 8. The magnet process allows parents to choose Saturn as one of over thirty magnet programs. Students are randomly selected from a waiting list by ethnic category. Since St. Paul schools have 45% children of color, so must be the student body at Saturn. No other criteria are used for selection. Parents are told that attendance at Saturn requires a greater involvement on their part. They must participate in the several Personal Growth Planning conferences held during the year. Virtually one hundred percent of parents participate. Students are very representative of the district's demographics except that about sixty percent are boys. We think this is due to the school's rich technology resources and many parents' belief that technology is for boys. In addition, we get many students who are "counseled" into Saturn, "Why don't you consider Saturn; they have a Personal Growth Plan and some alternative program there. Maybe they can help you better." Many of these students, of course, are boys. Saturn is located downtown to draw on the many resources there. Students attend classes offsite at the Science Museum of Minnesota, at the Minnesota Museum of Art and use the downtown library. We are setting up mentorship and apprentice experiences to help establish the relevance of schooling to the world of work.

To simplify the planning, we opened with grades 4 through 6 and added grades seven and eight in subsequent years. Primary grades in a downtown setting was a concern for our Board. But, since then the district has opened a downtown kindergarten. We find it difficult to attract fourth graders from other elementary schools to come to Saturn. The Board recently indicated we may be allowed to add the primary grades. Not only does this provide the school with a cohort, but it also lets more students start fresh with a new approach to learning, rather than re-learn new ways to learn.

Saturn Facts
Saturn is a unique school. Here's what makes Saturn alike and different from other schools. First you need a mission statement. While we've changed it some in recent years, this was our first guiding statement: "To bring together the best of what is known about effective learning research and powerful learning employs a Personal Growth Plan for each student, a curriculum for today and tomorrow and the assumption of learning success for each child." Here are some of the differences:

We changed whatever we thought would lead to more effective learning. After three years of operation and a comprehensive evaluation process, we are beginning to find some of the answers.

Sharing What We Are Learning: What Works And What Still Needs Work
Over 3000 visitors have come to Saturn to see this unique program. Among them have been the former President George Bush who recognized Saturn as a site where "teachers are reinventing school" during his announcement of his America 2000 plan. Students conduct the tours and explain the intricacies of the program. Most of our visitors are impressed by what they see and hear. Those positive comments balance some of the more local negative publicity. More will be said on the media's influential spin later.

The Superintendent and Board have remained supportive of the school in face of considerable political opposition and budgetary constraints Saturn was expensive to renovate and equip and the Board committed major dollars to fund it. One in seven dollars for the first two years of the project was raised from outside sources. While this outside help was considerable, the balance funded was still a major investment for a local board to make in educational research and development. More state and federal dollars are needed for seminal change efforts such as Saturn. So far such funding has been limited to private efforts such as NASDC, which appears to be seriously underfunded. If public education does not continue to explore effective innovations, it will be left to the private sector efforts of projects such as Whittle's Edison Project. This raises some serious concerns for public school change.

Lessons From Saturn
After four years we have learned a lot at Saturn. There are things that are working and things we are still working on. We've been involved in several major evaluation efforts and have been open to scrutiny by interested evaluators and visitors. We learn from their many observations as well as our own. There are some things we have learned by trying, changing, listening, guessing, and sharing.

Planning is essential to the success of any project. There is rarely enough time for it. But it must be a high and continuing priority. We lengthened our school year so we could have more planning time. Staff need to review the mission and goals, build schedules, learn about new technologies, how to work effectively together in new roles. If you don't take time to plan, events will take on a life of their own. We involved parents, students and the community in our planning, as well.

Whenever you start something a new and exciting project, you are likely to attract very different personality types to work on it. These "joiners" tend to be very bright, highly energetic and strongly convinced their course of action is the right one. Staff who come on at a later time may have great difficulty getting into this inner circle. Creators are very different from maintainers. Issues of working well together must be raised and time spent on keeping the communication and trust channels open. We spent considerable time with several capable Organizational Development consultants and these issues remain problematic. Much of the difficulty, in hindsight, may be due to the fact the new roles at Saturn were never sharply defined. We didn't know with great certainty all of the roles that these new positions had to assume. Staff differentiation resulted in higher salaried, year-round teachers working closely with other teachers, including interns, paid at lower rates. The leadership model created did not invite broad participation or a team-based approach. More time should have been spent on teambuilding or selecting staff who are more willing work well with others.

Building A Site-Based School Community
The St. Paul school district serves nearly 40,000 students in over 60 schools and programs. It is still highly centralized, although efforts have been underway to create site-based schools. As in many schools across America today there are not nearly enough resources to address the broad roster of services schools attempt to provide. Change is not a process most of us are comfortable with. Most seasoned educators have gone through their share of unsuccessful innovations and remain unconvinced. Their negativism is heightened by the shrinking resources in public schools. With supply budgets cut every year, teachers buy their own classroom supplies. When a new program or idea gets funded, the equity issue gets loudly raised by staff who have been waiting forever for their equipment or supplies.

The Issue Of Up-Front Costs
Schools that look different and work differently don't usually fit into existing school sites (without a lot of renovation). Technologies cost a fair amount of money, too. Cost is among the first criticism of your critics. The Saturn community found a languishing YWCA building, replete with gym, auditorium and pool. No outside playground and little parking, but it was located right in the middle of the community we proposed to use. Lease purchase and renovation costs ran to $9.0M but that was a fraction of the cost of building a new building downtown. The district is in a student growth phase so this move didn't invite great criticism. More students are living in housing that rings the downtown area, anyway. The budget for technology in this new school was major, however. Nearly a million dollars was earmarked for computers and other media. Even the furniture, though comparably priced, was high-tech and futuristic looking. Midway through the first year of operation, and when a good part of the technology was in place, we held a grand opening and invited the community to take a look. Only the technology and furniture caught the critics eyes. That this new school was an early R&D effort fell on deaf ears. Many could not accept the major expenditure of dollars on untried assumptions with resources so scarce. Before the first year was over, the nay-sayers were lobbying administration and board members. The local paper, which gave some encouraging coverage before the school opened, began to focus exclusively on program shortcomings. Before the first year of a the valuation period, Saturn was being held to the terminal outcomes and standards described in its five year plan.

The Non-Professional Reactions Of Other Professionals
New organizational models mean new roles for staff. New year round teacher positions were negotiated with the bargaining agent and the board and compensated beyond the teacher contract. Originally we plan ned to recreate the role of principal teacher: a half-time administrator and half-time teacher who would serve in a supervisory and leadership position. Once the principals caught wind of the proposal, protests were carried to the Superintendent

Becoming Proactive With The P.R.
If you are not proactive with news about what you are doing, most of what you do will be to react to news written or said about you. At Saturn we assigned those responsibilities to a very capable educational assistant. She has worked diligently to inform people about the uniqueness of the school, to host the many visitors, to provided tours to prospective students and parents. She has been quite successful in helping us keep a positive image within the national community. Our local press has been another matter, however. Good news doesn't sell local newspapers.

Putting On Your Own Spin...
Try to be held to standards of your own choosing. Without a clear mission statement, a sensible set of objectives and some agreed upon milestones, you will spend you energy where critics turn you....and if goals are unrealistic or unclear, milestones will become millstones. It's imperative to have a clear, proactive program of information.

Choosing Your Noose And Your Ribbons
It makes no sense to be inspected for proper hot air ballooning standards if your chosen mode of travel is the space shuttle. For us, standardized tests, the district's benchmark for all schools, held us to standards our students weren't yet learning. From the beginning we focused on student performance as measured by portfolios and their personal growth plans. While national norms may be helpful in relative ways, norm-based measures have a long way to go when it comes to performances and outcomes. So, if you've got a very new, nonstandard developing program, watch out for the standardized pitfalls. It would be better if truly experimental programs were exempted from standardized issues for their beginning years.

The Curriculum Commandments
Much of what we do in K-12 education gets dictated by higher education. They set the admission standards and write most of the textbooks. The textbooks determine the curriculum and what gets taught. Changes are needed in the way higher education trains its teachers too. If exit interviews were conducted with teacher training grads or a year or two later, the colleges would find that their curriculum had missed the point. In fact it misses many points. Not nearly enough time observing good teachers, practice teaching, using new learning technologies, working in multicultural environments, becoming skilled with project based learning and cooperative learning strategies, knowing how to be a facilitator or conductor of learning and not a purveyor or font of all knowledge. Until higher education is itself restructured it is unlikely that these needs will be well understood and passed on to their graduates.

Beyond Architecture
Just because a school may look different and it cost a lot to make it look different, doesn't means that it is. Space and equipment changes alone don't mean restructured schooling. You can add Wide Area Networks and Local Area Networks and labs and modems and even Computer-Assisted Design and Drafting. But if students and teachers continue to interact with learning in the same old ways, nothing has really changed. People need to change their behaviors, too. We need to re-wire our own neurons and change our own protocols. While schools remain committed for these changes with their students; teachers need to learn new things too.

The Limelight
Being in the limelight shows your mistakes as well as your successes. Very different schools attract attention. Your local press, if it's anything like ours, is in the business of selling newspapers. and they are afflicted by a great case of the grass is always greener (see the earlier reference to the Gallup poll). Even if the articles they write aren't all bad, whoever writes the headlines for major local newspapers is afflicted with a bad case of cynicism and pessimism. This is not the case for publications outside your home town. You don't have to be a prophet to get the prophet's lack of honor treatment. You will be anathema to your former colleagues, too. If you get the attention, good or bad, and if you get more money, whether it's a lot or a little, your associates and colleagues will soon be former. your judgment and motives called into question. In short many will be hoping that your restructured efforts go the way of the last innovation that came to town. (it was teaching machines, wasn't it?).;It will be hard to keep whatever support you once had. It is here that your early efforts to build a broad base of support will pay off. If you involved the community in the planning, included the teachers' groups, the principals, the parents, even the students in the input process, your efforts will be all the more formidable. Wolves have a hard time with sturdy brick schoolhouses, no matter how windy they are.

Our local paper has been our most negative detractor. Rarely is positive news covered. But anything which seems to suggest that all is not well with this new school gets front page coverage. A local columnist took one of our students to task for misspelling a word when he was entering information into the computer at President Bush's request during his visit to the school. We had all we could do to keep the students from writing a letter to the editor when that same columnist misspelled a word in one of his stories a few weeks later. The lesson is: Never fight with folks who buy their ink by the barrel. Also, our standardized test scores have not been exemplary since staff and students concentrate more on skills these tests really don't measure very well. Even though students have built exhibits at the Science Museum, painted a colorful mural in the city, won the city-wide mathematics league, the paper choose to focus on the standardized test scores. Coverage in other papers and journals has been kinder, understanding the tremendous tasks this restructured school faces.

Grandmother's Rules For Innovators
When if first started in school administration some 20 years ago, a wizened colleague gave me a copy of some tips on rules to follow. Half of them were "grandmother's rules." They were a lot more meaningful than grandfather's rules and have stayed in my mind all these years. They still serve as good rules when it comes to innovation, too: Here's my top five and a rejoinder:

  1. Every person needs success and praise! (decorate the troops for their heroism; there will be plenty of it. Just keep your eyes open. Run off certificates or just say a public thanks now and then).
  2. Some days you just can't make it! ( recognize that it isnt' going to be a good day every day, but every day will have some good in it if you look for it. Accept the balances in life).
  3. No one can do better than they can do! (give it your best shot; if it still doesn't work and someone else doesn't have a better shot to give it, forget it and move on to something else. The list of things that need to be done is plenty long.)
  4. Every person at every moment can be more than he or she is! Expect the best from others, you might get it. No matter how many times someone hasn't done it right there's always the next try. So you keep on trying....)
  5. If you want happy people hire happy people! Hire the skills you want by finding people that have them. Select the person for the job.

The Ultimate Test Of Success

Sustaining Change: The Important Thing Is To Last
Sam Snead said it best: "The more I practice, the luckier I get." Add to that Vince Lombardi's, "Perfect practice makes perfect." and you've got a formula that, over time, will produce success. Change has got to be given a chance. There is evidence to support that minor changes take three to five years to work. Major change needs five to ten years. Too often, those who approve new projects want instant results. Sometimes understandably so. School boards, for example, get lots of political pressure from the have-nots and the squeaky wheels. If you just got funded, you're a prime target for next year's cutbacks. Have a broad base of support, a written plan with milestones and agreed-upon evidence. Keep the decision-makes informed. If anything keep them over-informed. It's better that any bad news come from you rather than a rumor or a newspaper headline. Try to find ways to bring some kudos to those who have made your innovations possible. Have a grand opening, give out some award certificates or plaque

Reinventing Schools; Reinventing Ourselves

* Originally posted at the Penn State College of Education's former special website section on the Saturn School of Tomorrow at