Exploration High School: A Conversation with Nathan Strenge and Sam Neisen

Q&A   05 November 2019
By Nathan Strenge, Exploration High School, and Sam Neisen, Exploration High School


I think people should keep in mind that one of the reasons we don’t see a ton of truly learner-centered schools popping up each year is because there’s a million reasons why they don’t start, and one reason why they do.

Nathan Strenge

Nathan Strenge and Sam Neisen will be launching Exploration High School in the fall of 2020—a learner-centered environment focused on young people determining and fulfilling the notion of success that is unique to their interests and aspirations. We wanted to speak with them before launching to provide insight into what drove these two learner-centered leaders to take a leap of faith to build a learning environment from scratch in Minneapolis, MN.

Q: What path led you to leading learner-centered work and wanting to be a part of this movement?

Nathan: Going back to my high school days, I saw my friends getting decent grades, but they really didn’t care about school at all. They were just floating through the system, trying to get to some predetermined outcome (e.g. graduating and going to college). I could tell something was amiss.

Fast-forward to my professional experience as a 9th-grade math teacher—I saw a different side of the system. There were so many kids that, by the time they “graduated” middle school, were so far behind that I was trying to teach to kids whose competency was stuck at a first grade understanding of math. When I was supposed to be introducing [insert 9th grade math concept here], some were still struggling with basic arithmetic.

There was no way I could design a course that met the math needs of all those kids at once, so I decided, instead, to focus on their relationship needs. That shift—along with some technology that better met each student where they were mathematically—moved us from the 50th to the 99th percentile in the state-wide math test.

But, even then, these kids were just barely going through the motions, and I felt there had to be something better. That’s when I really started researching what’s happening in the current education system and what the alternatives might be. I came across examples of learner-centered schools and realized this wasn’t a new idea. It’s been around for a long time. So, I asked myself: How can we create a system that is designed for individual learners and not a system that is designed for the “average,” while asking individual learners to figure out how to fit into it?

Sam: I had a similar experience to Nathan. Both of my parents were public school teachers in Minnesota. I’m originally from the Twin Cities. I got into education because I really believed in it. Like Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” I really believed and still believe that giving people the opportunity to understand who they are and how they fit into the world can be emancipatory.

I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota, and then I taught internationally for a semester. But, most of my career was at a big suburban high school here in the suburbs of Minnesota. There were always signs up that said it was the most successful and most challenging school in the state.

I was there for about three years and by-and-large, I really didn’t understand most of what we were doing. I was one of 20+ social studies teachers in a school with roughly 4,000 students, and it was really challenging to try to provide students with the chance to figure out who they were and how they could shape the world. Instead, I was giving multiple choice tests every three weeks that included questions they could just look up on their phones. We weren’t engaged in any learner-centered experiences.

I just knew there was something better, and I knew we could be doing something more for our kids. I started thinking back to the folk schools, citizenship education program, civil rights movement, and other moments in history where I felt we got education right.

Today, I think it’s about us trying to build on that legacy by creating a system that is going to be supportive of kids—not the other way around. That’s where I stand. When I look at our young people, they have so much potential and so much energy. And, frankly, there’s a lot happening in the world right now, and if we’re not tapping into the young population of problem solvers and creatives, I think we’re never going to get to where we need to go. That’s what brought me to reimagining school, and ultimately, to creating a local school here in Minneapolis that can support young people who can support the community.

Q: What are the measurements of success you all want to have at the forefront of your work?

Nathan: Success has to be defined on an individual basis. We have to create a way to look at each individual and say, what does success mean to you? That might be answering a question like: Where do you want to go? At this moment, in the next year, or in life? Do they know what problems in the world they want to solve? Do they know what skills and gifts they have that they could build from? And, what can they do with those skills right now?

I think today it’s so important to have a network that provides young people the opportunity to create the capacity within themselves and within their community to leverage their gifts. How do we create a portfolio of work that not only shows the work a young person has done but also shows the new knowledge and skills they’ve developed through those projects?

How do we measure success? I think it’s certainly nuanced, but it’s definitely going to be more individualized. I know that it’s not a specific answer, but it’s a starting point that really defines our philosophy.

Sam: It’s really about relationships. The conventional model is too factory-oriented. It’s too transactional. If you start from relationships, you can better understand where people are and where they want to go. When I was teaching in suburban Minnesota, I remember some kids who were doing really well academically, yet they felt overwhelmed, inadequate, or frankly, stupid. There was this really intense culture of achievement.

I remember I led students in a small personal reflection exercise where we listened to a poem by Charles Osgood called “Pretty Good.” The poem is about floating along in life. It is about how a person can be just fine and life might be alright without any real effort or purpose; the poem ends with the person realizing that without any conviction or effort or purpose, life can be really challenging, unfulfilling, hard, and ultimately sad. So, I engaged students in some small, personal goal setting activities. And, it really was all about relationships because as we would talk about goals and life, I shared with my students my own definition of success—simply, I think you’re “pretty great” (as Osgood’s poem ultimately inspires us to be) if you can look yourself in the mirror and say I’m proud of who I am and what I do.

That’s what we want with all of our kids when we open next fall: our kids will be successful if they can look themselves in the mirror and say I am proud of who I am and what I do. 

Q: How do you enroll parents in this transformative view of success?

Sam: We need to be intentional in expressing what we’re trying to build. When teaching at a college prep high school, everyone had to take the ACT. Student dissatisfaction was really high, and student mental health was really low. It was extremely heartbreaking, and there were a number of student suicides while I was there. Sure, many kids got into college, but a lot of them didn’t end up graduating. There was a culture of challenge with no sense of direction.

That’s a story I would start with when speaking with parents. This school really didn’t prepare students for the next step; so, instead, we want to promote and instill lifelong learning in our students.

The second piece would be that in our model, it’s very tailored to what the student wants and needs. For us, it’s much more intentional about where they want to go and who they want to become—and how we can continuously support that.

Nathan: When we’re having these conversations with parents, they want what’s best for their kids. As a parent myself, I want what’s best for my kids. I start by asking: What do you want to get out of your child’s experience? Why do you want them to go to college? What is the desire behind that? What future do you want for them?

We can support any one desire you have for your child, and it starts with empathy, so that’s the first thing for me.

The second one is much more about describing how we as a society have accepted that school is about consuming content and hoping that leads to inspiration. In our model, we’re starting with inspiration and then infusing content around curiosity and passion. To me, leading with inspiration is way more powerful. The skills and content knowledge are going to follow. If you get kids learning something they care about, they can’t not learn—it’s impossible.

Q: What is the most common question you get from parents when you’re explaining what Exploration High School is going to be?

Nathan: Where do the standards come in? It’s an interesting question because it comes with the assumption that the standards are being met really well in conventional schools, and they’re not. If we’re measuring the standards based off of being in a seat and not failing a class, that’s not meeting standards, if you are really out to meet what is intended.

Q: How will you onboard educators to bring to life the learner-centered model you’re building?

Nathan: Very few teachers licensed in Minnesota have been trained for this learner-centered paradigm. And so, we have to look through a different lens as we determine who will thrive in this environment. We’re going to be looking less at experience in a conventional model and looking more at the traits that these individuals have—adaptability, creativity, innovation, relationship-building.

I think there are a lot of people like that, because many people want to think differently and reimagine learning. They just don’t know how. I think we’re going to get a lot of teachers who are looking to be more creative, more relationship-focused, more purpose-driven, and more of a guide than a content expert.

Sam: One of the things that’s been really empowering and exciting for me is creating an ecosystem of support. So, one of the things we are building is a multi-layered system of support from our broader network—our board, National Advisory Council, and community ambassadors that go around and advocate for us. We are utilizing the resources out there in the learner-centered community to frame where we are and what we’re committed to. I want us to be clear on how we can create a culture where the teachers are guides; finding open-minded educators who love to learn is really exciting and a tangible next step.

Q: What do you most want people to know about the work you’re about to embark on that maybe doesn’t come up in the regular conversations you have with the community?

Sam: I want everyone to know we are here to listen. We don’t have all the answers. But, together, we can co-create solutions to problems that are really big and make really tangible impacts locally. We have ideas for what the school can be, but we want to ensure young people are co-designing with us during the first years. How can we listen to their parents and people in the broader community, like those in small businesses, local libraries, and community centers? How can we create something that is authentic, supportive, and transformational? That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to and most hopeful to communicate. I want to hear ideas, so we can create a lasting experience for young people.

Nathan: This process—the obstacles that it takes to create something that is truly learner-centered—has been unbelievably challenging. I’ve been working on this for over six years now, so I guess my ask would be one of support. We need as much support as we can get because it was very difficult getting to where we are now, and I know it will only get more difficult when we open. Any support or resources (e.g. time, donations, connections) is going to have an enormous impact on our ability to launch.

I think people should keep in mind that one of the reasons we don’t see a ton of truly learner-centered schools popping up each year is because there’s a million reasons why they don’t start, and one reason why they do. We want to start as small as we can to effectively learn and empower young people as we grow.  We just need as much support as we can get so we don’t stumble.

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