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Education innovator Joe Nathan seeks to replace himself

After 26 years at the helm of the Center for School Change, Joe Nathan has announced that he’s ready to pass the baton.

Joe Nathan

After 26 years at the helm of the Center for School Change, Joe Nathan earlier this week announced he was ready to pass the baton. Citing health issues as the reason for his decision, Nathan asked colleagues and supporters to circulate a job description — his.

The list of possible qualities the center’s next leader might, but does not necessarily, need to possess is long indeed. Which is indicative of the many roles Nathan has played in shaping education Minnesota — and the rest of the country.

Most notably, Nathan played a role in the development of the country’s first charter school law, passed by Minnesota lawmakers in 1991. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a portfolio of state programs that allow high school students to take classes for college credit.

And he is a prolific writer, doggedly reporting education columns for a network of some 15 suburban and Greater Minnesota newspapers, as well as research and policy papers. It’s not unusual to get emails from him that bear wee-hours time stamps.

The list is long, and doubtless as Nathan moves forward with trying to replace himself there will be tributes, exit interviews and — if we’re lucky — observations penned by Joe himself about his nearly half-century in the sector.

Yes, I called him Joe. Possibly Joe’s least oft-mentioned accomplishment in the current era is the one that affects me the most directly. Joe was an educator and I a student at a school that produced a number of education advocates who went on to shape the policy landscape.

The St. Paul Open School

In 1971, Joe was one of a group of parents and teachers who, frustrated with options that were failing to engage their kids, more or less accidentally managed to persuade St. Paul Public Schools to allow them to open an experimental program. Step into pretty much any school in Minnesota now and you will see things that were born at the St. Paul Open School.

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I’m a graduate but I’m also an alumna of the experimental precursor to another innovation Joe shepherded into being, Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). One of the blessings of age (and of a graduate degree, which is the only line on my résumé anyone ever looks at) is that I am no longer called on to explain why my transcripts are packed with class titles like “Breads of the World” and “Moot Court” that have no grades attached to them.

Among other former Open community members, I’ve gotten to go back a couple of times to what is now called the Open World Learning Community to talk about the very early days. As a kid, I never thought to question the origins of the program. As a grownup education writer, I think the stories are endearingly anachronistic.

The idea was to let students initiate learning they were excited about, on the theory that we would charge forth and extract knowledge from books, teachers, community members and — those being hippie days — the cosmos.

At the very beginning, this meant teachers stayed up late every night creating a menu of “classes” posted on a bulletin board students would consult the next day. This didn’t last long for reasons ranging from the utter exhaustion for the teachers of planning a class on Mayan architecture one night and orienteering the next to the unanticipated challenge of trying to help kindergarteners, who mostly couldn’t read, map their days.

Quick — how many innovations can you spot in that “Free to be You and Me” paragraph? It was the first magnet school here. And at the time the only “open” school between here and Evanston, Illinois (I think).

Now called personalized learning

The notion of motivating students to be engaged by allowing them to study things that capture their imaginations has grown up — and in too many places mutated — to become personalized learning, one of the hottest items on today’s landscape.

There is the aforementioned PSEO, which I ended up in after I had run through the school’s offerings by the end of my freshman year. And, for kids who needed more structure and more conventional instruction, there was soon another Nathan-incubated new school, which laid some groundwork for school choice.

At the Center for School Change, which has enjoyed several institutional homes over the years, Joe continued his work in chartering, PSEO and other educational improvement efforts. If you think you’ve got the stuff to succeed him, he’d like to hear from you.

Personally, I have benefited the most in recent years from invitations to events the Center has sponsored. If forced to name a favorite, I would single out a seminar on lessons Minnesota can learn from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities. The convening was the realization of a dream he hatched in the 1960s as a civil rights activist.

Joe had a heart attack the night of July 4 when he was home next to a phone and near world-class hospitals. We are fortunate he didn’t have it the night before, when he and his wife of 36 years, retired educator JoAnn Nathan, got a little lost during a hike.

Joe barely skipped a day’s work, though, immediately penning columns on the quick work of the first responders that saved his life and sharing nutrition advice from his caregivers.

Joe has promised to continue to work as a public school advocate, albeit in a less demanding manner. Which can only be good news for more generations of Minnesota students.