Minnesota New Country School founder to retire at year's end - Le Sueur MN: News

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Minnesota New Country School founder to retire at year's end

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Posted: Friday, December 13, 2013 2:40 pm | Updated: 10:31 am, Wed Dec 18, 2013.

After 18 years of service to Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Dee Thomas, one of the visionaries and founders of the charter school, is set to retire.

Thomas’ dedication to MNCS over the past two decades has led to the expansion and replication of charter schools across the country. She has also made an impact worldwide, having done project-based workshops in Japan, China, Iceland and the Netherlands.

“I am amazed how organized and how creative she is. She has so much energy,” said Joan Skelly, the education and event coordinator at MNCS. “She is my inspiration, how just a few people talking over a cup of coffee about an alternative way of learning and look what was created.”

Getting MNCS started

But before the school could be replicated, groundwork had to be laid to bring a charter school into the community. Thomas said before MNCS started in 1994, members of the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board, community members and some teachers posed the question, ‘Could we strengthen the communities by creating different educational venues for kids?’

“Le Sueur-Henderson had gone through some strategic planning at that time and that was one of the things that they had talked about was providing a choice in education,” Thomas said, who retires at the end of the month.

Doug Thomas, Dee’s husband, was on the LS-H School Board when they decided at looking to open a charter school, and Dee credits Doug as being a lead at putting the plan together. Thomas also credits Virginia Miller, who was the School Board chair, and Dr. Harold Larson, the then superintendent, as very forward-thinking people who helped get MNCS started.

At the time MNCS opened, Thomas was the high school principal at Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop. She said, “I spent a whole lot of money getting my administrative degree so I decided I needed to use it in a traditional way before I came here.”

After starting out in three Le Sueur storefronts, MNCS moved under one roof to its current location in Henderson in 1998. Thomas said the Henderson Economic Development Authority was happy to increase the amount of traffic on Main Street with the school’s location, resulting in the move to Henderson.

National attention

In 1998, Thomas received a phone call that she first thought was a prank.

“I got a call from this guy that said, ‘Hi, this is Tom Vander Ark from the Melinda Gates Foundation,’” Thomas said. “And I said, ‘George, is that you?’ And he said, ‘No this is Tom Vander Ark from the Gates Foundation.’ So I said, ‘Bill, this really sounds like you.’ And he said, ‘Dee, this is really Tom Vander Ark from the Gates Foundation.’”

Vander Ark, the executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations — a grant-making foundation that supports initiatives in education — wanted to visit MNCS to see what the school was all about. Vander Ark also wanted to bring Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard University.

Despite a little embarrassment from the initial exchange, Thomas happily welcomed Vander Ark and Wagner to visit the school. Once Vander Ark and Wagner arrived, Thomas said they were amazed by what they saw with the students and the environment.

“They stood here for maybe an hour and Tom just said, ‘We have to replicate this,’” Thomas said.

Vander Ark told Thomas to write a grant on how the school could be replicated for 15 more locations. After reviewing the letter, the foundation wrote a grant for $4.5 million. EdVisions Cooperative took over replicating MNCS and hired a staff to create 15 schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Gates Foundation later added another $4.5 million grant to replicate the school nationwide.

“Right now there are about 42 to 47 schools that are like this across the nation,” Thomas said. “But we needed to create a school like this that could function on the basic state aid. The school itself could not receive any of that $9 million; it was strictly … to get them up and started.”

For the love of the job

Thomas said she wouldn’t be in this line of work if it weren’t for the kids.

“I just love the enjoyment of seeing how much students can actually produce if you give them the opportunity to be responsible for their education,” Thomas said. “Rather than being told what they need to do, they have to figure out what they need. I just look at some of the stuff that comes out of the students here and it just amazes me.”

Seniors at MNCS have to complete a 300-hour class project and then write a self-evaluation and reflection of their personal experiences. One of the most rewarding aspects of her job is when she gets to read the student reflections.

“I get those reflections in and it’s just like ‘Oh my God, we did it!’” Thomas said.

Having students move on to post secondary education is also a rewarding feeling for Thomas and the rest of the staff at MNCS. She said many of the students have been told they will never be college bound, but in fact, 80 percent of MNCS graduates go on to college and of that number, 80 percent complete their degree.

“They are world-changers,” Thomas said of MNCS graduates. “Even in town here, the Ney Center is run by one of our graduates, the Mayo House is run by one of our graduates, JR Brown Center is run by one of our graduates and the city maintenance guy (is a graduate). To see these kids really coming back and giving back to the community they grew up in is great.”

Reach reporter CJ Siewert at 507-931-8576 or follow him on Twitter @LNHcj

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