Jennings Community School: A Conversation with Krissy Wright

Q&A   22 October 2019
By Krissy Wright, Jennings Community School


If I were to speak to people at the classroom level, I would tell them we need people who are comfortable begging for forgiveness, rather than asking for permission. That’s my experience in seeing people successfully make a shift versus those who have been unable to.

Krissy Wright

Q: What path led you to working at Jennings Community School?

Krissy: I grew up in a suburban area of the Twin Cities where I attended a traditional K-12 school system. I was one of those kids who tested well, but I didn’t do homework. And, once I got to high school, I skipped a lot of school. There were a few classes I did enjoy—all of which engaged me in hands-on experiences. Those were the only classes I chose to attend.

 After graduating high school, I headed to college where I swore up and down I was going to be anything but a teacher. My mom was an elementary school teacher. I saw how hard she worked and how little gratitude or recognition she received; I didn’t want that.

I got my degree in psychology and landed my first job at a hospital in Mankato, Minnesota. I worked in human services for the mentally ill and dangerous. I worked there for four years, but I knew it would be short lived. The work was mind-numbing, so I enrolled in a masters program and an accelerated program (simultaneously) to receive my special education license. I knew I wanted to work with folks who needed a little bit more advocacy around them to help them see what they were really capable of achieving.

Once I completed my masters and received my teaching license, my first job was working at a charter school in the Twin Cities. I started as a special ed teacher and quickly moved into a role as an administrator. My team asked me to be the Director, and although I didn’t really want to take the position, I decided to take it on as an interim role. As the Director, I partnered with Minnesota’s Teacher-Powered Network. 

I wanted to create more structure at the charter school, so every adult could handle responsibilities often reserved for traditional administrative roles. We worked hard to flatten out the leadership structure—learning from the work at schools like Avalon School and Minnesota New Country School. When I left the school, they decided not to hire another Director. The team saw themselves as fully capable to fulfill their duties and the needs of the school without an administrator at the top—they were all at the top. 

After a brief stint at a non-profit focused on providing professional development opportunities, I found myself at Jennings Community School in 2018. Ironically, ten years prior, I interned at Jennings for a year while working toward my teaching license. I spent my first year as an advisor and this year my role has morphed into position most akin to dean of students.

Q: Having witnessed the impact a learner-centered environment can have on young people, what opportunities for transformation have you seen within conventional schools and districts in Minnesota?

Krissy: I’m spoiled here in Minnesota because in the circles I run in, learner-centered education is the norm. But, when I go to meetings at the Department of Education, where it’s a mix of conventional districts and other organizations, they are used to being told what to do without any say in the matter. It’s alarming to me how common this structure is. I have to keep reminding myself that my bubble is small.

I also do work with Education Evolving where they are working with some of the conventional Minneapolis public school districts. When it comes to encouraging change within those larger systems, I think you have to start small. Rather than asking the entire district to change, create some proof points in individual schools.

These conversations are difficult with teachers in particular because when they see what’s possible and get hyped up, they often return to their schools and get shot down because they don’t have the autonomy or authority to make those changes directly. There are so many hurdles to make the smallest little change that they get stuck. 

If I were to speak to people at the classroom level, I would tell them we need people who are comfortable begging for forgiveness, rather than asking for permission. That’s my experience in seeing people successfully make a shift versus those who have been unable to.

From what I’ve seen, the change conversation moves most quickly when it starts at the administrative or superintendent level. Given the current systems structures, these are the people who have decision-making power. Once we get them signed on, it is more likely to see agency and autonomy develop at other levels of the hierarchy.

Q: What is the most important shift you have to make with learners when they first arrive at Jennings?

Krissy: Many teachers, like my mom, go into teaching because they love kids and want them to become successful. They don’t go in it for the money or fame. Once again, when I meet teachers from conventional systems at conferences, I’m reminded how spoiled I am in the opportunities and autonomy I currently have at Jennings. Most of our kids come from these kinds of conventional districts, and a lot of times, they begin with distrust in our educators. They didn’t trust their teachers before they arrived, so they aren’t going to trust us just because they are at a different school. 

One of our first jobs is bringing an understanding to them that most of the teachers they had in the past wanted the best for them. We show them why their time in conventional schools felt so restricting and how it’s the system and not any single individual that created that feeling. It’s important to have the kids understand the difference between why it feels so different in a learner-centered environment like Jennings versus a school-centered district.

Q: What else happens for young learners during this transition period? 

Krissy: There is a transition moment teachers and students alike must go through—an unlearning period. It’s amazing how many kids come here who have literally been told they are stupid or worthless; that they should just go and get a job at McDonald’s. They have never been encouraged to do anything. Getting beyond that is as simple as showing our kids that we are here to listen, rather than telling them what life is about. It makes a huge difference for them.

We have rolling enrollment throughout the year, so onboarding our kids is an interesting challenge. We are always exploring how we can bring each student into our project-based learning, advisory culture as quickly as possible. We have to get their guard down because they’ve been damaged so much by previous schooling experiences. We have to get them to understand that we want to help them and that we are going to provide opportunities that are relevant to their lives.

Q: What’s a story that best encapsulates the learning experience young people can have at Jennings?

Krissy: We had a young learner come in one time letting us know he didn’t have a place to sleep the night before. Obviously, we needed to ensure he had a safe place to sleep as soon as possible. But, we also encouraged the student to lead the process—making the phone calls, finding a shelter where there was a bed available, and actually crediting the entire process as a learning experience. This allowed the student to realize that school can actually be relevant to life.

When the student talked to somebody on the phone and met someone in-person, this easily fell under the speaking and listening language arts requirement. After the process was complete, the student came back and did a reflection about the experience and, within that reflection, earned more credit toward graduation. 

Expanding beyond this story, we conduct a senior seminar that guides students to resources they might need after graduation, such as: finding an apartment, finding a therapist, and creating a personal budget. It becomes obvious how various experiences can be related back to social science and mathematics. Even something as simple as figuring out how to do their laundry at a laundromat allows them to compare prices of laundry detergent to determine what will give them the best bang for their buck. All of these are true learning moments and should be credited.

Q: What was true ten years ago when you first interned at Jennings that still excites you today?

Krissy: It was clear to me ten years ago that Jennings was (and still is) really about finding what the kids are interested in. Our advisors intentionally have those conversations with each kid and have them create projects based on those interests. With each project, they have fun, they learn, they complete the work, and they feel successful. They go from being damaged by previous education experiences to feeling successful for the first time in their lives.

The advisors love doing this stuff with the kids. And, we learn just as much as they do because they bring their interest and questions about the topics they’re digging into—things we often know little about ourselves—and we all get to learn alongside one another.

Q: What were you unaware of ten years ago?

Krissy: What I didn’t realize ten years ago (and it might simply be truer today than it was back then) is that we have such a high concentration of young people who need support in various areas of their lives that it is really exciting to know we are able to provide those resources. We are able to help take care of the basic needs they have in their day-to-day lives. We have four transformational outcomes at Jennings: 

  1. Being a responsible citizen; 
  2. Being a productive worker;
  3. Being a self-directed lifelong learner; and 
  4. Being a creative, healthy individual.

We always try to point kids back to these four outcomes when they go through their learning. Learning is about preparing kids for life, and we believe these outcomes match that purpose.

Q: What do you wish people asked you more often about the work you do at Jennings?

Krissy: I wish they would just ask. I think most people just assume that our school is for the kids who are on their last leg. “This is for the bad kids” or “They’re the kids who have been kicked out of everywhere else.” I wish they would just ask. Then, they would see what these kids can accomplish.

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