Mock Trial Teams Formed at Nova Academy | 3.11 [IMAGE]


The Minnesota High School Mock Trial Program is a law-related education activity that introduces students to the American legal system, challenging them to exercise critical thinking and teamwork skills while playing all the roles in a case trial. The Minnesota bar Association sponsors and organizes the program, which involves more than 120 schools statewide. Minnesota was one of five original mock trial states when the program began in 1984. Now, all states either take part in the national mock trial process, or have similar statewide programs.

Photo: Sami Burr, Alex Wolf, Michaela Johnson, Nick Vance and Chase Adelsman examine the evidence.

Last June, as the school year ended, some Nova students became interested in getting involved in the Mock Trial Program. Happily, Richard Lesicko, a mock trial expert and husband of a Nova teacher, agreed to provide overall guidance. In the fall, student leaders organized three teams that were ranked at first by the students’ strengths and talents, and adjusted later as they started to train. Besides Mr. Lesicko, the teams were helped by two lawyers to navigate the case being tried.

The teams received the case and supporting exhibits — documents and forensic evidence — in October. One case is prepared for all the mock trials in the state. Nova teams went through two invitationals and two levels of competition before being narrowly eliminated. Each team has three lawyers and three witnesses. The trial judges are real lawyers or judges themselves.

As novices, Nova teams were challenged on many levels. They identified teamwork, oratory and competitiveness as qualities essential for success in a mock trial. Some of their comments about the process raise serious questions about the justice system that the program is meant to illuminate.

Nick Vance recalled the goal of learning about the American justice system, while pointing out that in the heat of the mock trial itself he felt that he was in a battle of wits with the other team, requiring him to use every strategy to make his case look better. Michaela Johnson was shocked at one point — “You walk into the actual courtroom and realize that this really matters!” Since the Nova team’s trials were held at the Ramsey County Court House, that sense of reality was heightened.

Sami Burr, who was president of all the Nova teams, picked up on Nick’s remarks. “You need to be able to think quickly on your feet. The other team will throw stuff in that is not necessarily relevant or right, but it can throw you off if you’re not quick.” Chase Adelman reflected the kinds of pressure he felt: “It’s a stressful intellectual competition. You need to be able to present your view and defend it.”

The mock trial participants are definite about coming back next year, and expect many 8th grade students to want to be involved as well. “This year we were spoilers (preventing a few other teams from advancing). Next year we want to get to the regionals.”

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Parents Challenge Silva’s Process | 3.11

Dear Editor,

More than three hundred parents crowded into the Rondo Education Center on a Saturday morning to voice their concerns over dramatic changes proposed for St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Given the state fiscal crisis some changes are necessary but the shift from citywide to community schools is a reversal of decades of school policy. Such a significant change should not be taken lightly and the voices of parents must be heard.

The February 12 meeting at Rondo was one of five information sessions scheduled by the SPPS administration. After an initial video and an introduction by Superintendent Valeria Silva, we were promptly divided into smaller groups according to topics of interest and first language. It’s unlikely that this separation was itself strategic but, nevertheless, it served well to divide a group that clearly wanted to be collectively recognized as a legitimate voice in the debate on the proposed changes.

In our group an extensive list of concerns were raised. As the meeting progressed it became increasingly evident that, given the extent and complexity of the proposed changes, there is not enough time for parents to fully understand them and the implications they have for our children, our schools, or the district as a whole. It was poignantly clear that the two month timeline between January 12, (when the plan was announced) and March 15 (the date on which the school board will vote) is simply too short a time to allow for either genuine delivery of accurate information about the plan or an exploration of what it will mean in reality for the people whom it will greatly impact including children, teachers, parents, and administrators. And there certainly isn’t time for meaningful input from the community.

The Administration’s attempt to present us with a fait accompli was crystal clear. It was also clear that the plan was developed without the input of those who will be most affected by it, the school children and the parents who are their voice. The stated intention of the plan to create “strong schools at the heart of strong communities” is ironic, given the way the plan was developed and is being quickly forced through. Instead of acknowledging and listening to the expertise of the community, the decisions were made by the SPPS Administration and announced to parents as subjects rather than as partners. Throughout the meeting educational research was cited as the primary basis for the decisions being made. Research has its place in informing such plans but it has been proven again and again that genuine engagement with those who are the members of a community is the most effective way of strengthening that community and the most effective way of developing a genuinely sustainable plan.

It is a huge mistake for the school board to so hastily push this plan through. They should immediately announce a postponement of the March 15 vote and take more time to inform and consult with those who have a right to have an opportunity to improve the design of this plan and who could greatly improve its chances of succeeding.

Interested parents can meet/talk on a new Facebook community page: Voices of SPPS Parents.

-- Amanda McCormick, Robbie Ramer, Melanie Alvar, Anne Kelly Berg, David Sisk and Carla Belistri, all parents of St. Paul public school students.

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Community Support Strong for OWLC | 3.11

Close to 25 supporters of Open World Learning Community (OWLC) spoke at the SPPS Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night in favor of allowing the school to remain open as a 6th to 12th grade option. At least as many others showed up in support of those speaking.

The school, formerly St. Paul Open School and located at 90 Western Avenue, has an almost 40-year history as the district’s only K-12 school. The district’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities (SSSC) plan proposes cutting out nine grades and converting it to a high school only.

Students, parents, alumni, an outside expert on Expeditionary Learning (EL), a former board member — even prospective parents — spoke about what a vibrant school it is with a powerful teaching staff. The group argued that keeping grades 6, 7, and 8 is needed to keep the school viable and multiage learning possible.

Alumni Alex Plonski spoke of enrolling as a young elementary student and being allowed to work ahead at the grade level that challenged him regardless of his age. Plonski graduated by the time he was 15, went to the University of Minnesota for undergraduate work and now, at 18, is enrolled in a PhD program at the University.

Expeditionary Learning (EL) school designer Nan Rice talked about how much progress the school has made restructuring into an EL School in the last year and a half. She noted OWL staff has mastered it so well that several will be speaking at an upcoming national conference, which she considered remarkable.

Expeditionary Learning Schools were pioneered by Outward Bound and involve real-world experience or “expeditions” to motivate and engage both students and teachers. OWL is the only public EL school in Minnesota, although there are 165 such schools across the country.

Recent national, third-party research has shown students defined as in the “achievement gap” score significantly higher on standardized testing when enrolled in EL schools than those enrolled in other district schools. These results also applied to students overall and were highest among African American students.

Parents are in a quandary why the district seems to be marginalizing this promising school, in which they recently invested almost a quarter of a million dollars, when one of the main objectives of SSSC is to eliminate the achievement gap. “We want to work for the greater good of the district’s plan,” said one school parent, “not defend turf,” noting that the school has agreed to significant changes but has not had any response to requests to reevaluate keeping the middle school option.

Another significant change is the proposal to move the school out of their current W7th location to an empty district-owned building downtown. The group expressed disappointment in having to move from the area but recognizes that the district is not interested in negotiating about real estate. And although many can see benefits of increased partnerships if located downtown, there is an eagerness to embrace the W 7th area again if plans change and the school remains where it is.

The board of education votes on the final proposal at their March 15, 2011 meeting.

--Mary Kate Boylan, parent

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Task Force Speaks Out on Open School Building | 3.11

The current Open World Learning Community building, formerly Jefferson Elementary, is a pivotal community asset for an area recently hard hit by foreclosures and vacant buildings. Over the last two years, nearby neighbors and the Fort Road Federation have invested considerable resources, time and energy in renewal and rehabilitation of the surrounding area, and had been working in close collaboration with school staff and students on cleanup and revitalization of public lands near the school building.

This growing school-community partnership, along with recent physical improvements to the school site and the installation of public art fitness stations to the adjoining “Pleasant Park” site, inspired hope for the future of the area. The neighborhood cannot afford to lose this crucial partnership, only to have it replaced by an empty building. An empty building would lead the future of the neighborhood in the wrong direction. We strongly urge St. Paul Public Schools NOT to leave the current Open World building empty. The growing strength of the community around the Open World building would support a strong school and vice versa. The neighborhood is committed to working in collaboration with the leadership, staff, students and family of any school that would occupy the building.

-- Sarah Gleason, West 7th/Smith Ave Neighborhood Task Force

Editor’s Note:
Superintendent Silva can be reached by e-mail at

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Oneida Scholarships Available to West Seventh Residents | 2.11  [IMAGE]

The West Seventh Community Center announced the availability of Oneida scholarships for adult learners who are residents of St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood. These funds are from money that remained after the closing of the Oneida Education Center that once operated in the West Seventh area. The St. Paul Foundation currently provides financial management.

Individual grants of $1,000-$2,000 will be made to those chosen by the selection committee. Grants must be used toward a certificate or degree-granting post-secondary education or training program and/or expenses that will enable the adult learner to pursue education or training. The application deadline for the 2011 scholarships is February 25, 2011.

To be eligible for the Oneida Scholarship you must: be 18 (before Sept 2011); live in West 7th Neighborhood (downtown St. Paul and Fort Snelling, I-35E and Mississippi River); be enrolled in a certificate or degree granting post-secondary education program in the year in which the grant is made; have financial need relating to successful completion of program; have a clear post-secondary educational/training plan and goals and demonstrate capacity for success in pursuing post-secondary education/training. Previous winners are ineligible.

For more information, contact Julie Murphy at 651-298-5493 ext. 214 or

Open World Learning Community Teachers Receive Mini-Grants [IMAGE]|1.11

The St. Paul Public Schools awarded mini-grants to three OWLC teachers to support special projects they are leading.

Tim Leone-Getten received a mini-grant to continue to work with OWLC’s Kids Against Hunger program that plans and carries out the packing of emergency meals to be sent to Haiti as part of relief efforts there. This year OWLC students will train and work with Nokomis Montessori and Adams Spanish Immersion, as well as organizing an OWLC packing program at the school. In the past 3½ years over 400,000 meals have been packed by thousands of volunteers.

Elizabeth Biagi’s grant funds and supports her first graders’ Expeditionary Learning about the development of transportation, including field trips to the Transportation and Children’s museums. (see picture right).

Megan Hall received a mini-grant to support a music and movement program between secondary students at OWLC and students at Bridgeview School. Megan also received a Como Zoo and Conservatory Ward 5 Grant for a hands-on zoo class to promote the study of biology.

Elizabeth Biagi talks about her work
My name is Liz Biagi (pictured) and I teach first grade at Open World Learning Community (OWLC), an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school. There are twenty-two children in my crew (class). OWLC is a Saint Paul Public School using EL as an in-depth hands-on, minds-on way of teaching.

EL involves going deeper into subject matter using Minnesota standards and developing the subject at a level the students can understand and actively participate in. The final result is a service-learning piece. Every crew produces a product or fulfills a community need that has been previously identified.

In October, I received a $500 mini-grant to help fund my crew’s EL experience. This is how I created the project that I continuously tweak as we go. It helps to be flexible.

As a teacher, the Minnesota Learning Standards are what guided the development of this project. My topic is Transportation. The standards for first graders include teaching science about balance and motion, how things move, how things fly. Social studies: how technology has caused changes within products over time, for example in cars, trucks, trains, buses, light rail, boats and canoes. All these avenues include math, measuring, adding, subtracting and estimation. Reading and writing fiction and nonfiction books, articles and newspaper clippings help round out the experience. Students journal and help keep records of what we are learning.

What do you Know about transportation? What do you Want to know? What did we Learn?
We will have experts come into the classroom and talk with us about light rail. On our visits to the Transportation Museum as well as the Children’s Museum we will explore different modes of transportation. I also have resource books about airplanes and early flight in Minnesota that I gathered during Minnesota Educators Association days at RiverCentre, as well as voyageurs’ prints of canoes being used to transport people and goods on the river.

Where did I see the opportunity, community need, for service learning?
By creating a book of culturally diverse photos focusing on first grade children modeling the positive behavior we want on the bus, in the hallway, lunchroom and on field trips. The print underneath will be in home languages. For example: “I can sit still on the bus. I can keep my hands to myself. I can ride the bus safely.”
  • Impact: Riding the bus is a privilege, not a right. If children cannot behave they lose bus-riding privileges. Parents must then transport the children to school. This creates a hardship for many lower income families, who do not own cars or have time available to take off work. Parents can find their own work in jeopardy. Misbehavior on the bus and at school has far reaching consequences.
  • Collaboration: Connections to interpreters in Spanish, Hmong and Somalian, staff at Salvation Army, Bus Company, and the service learning staff.
  • Final Product: A diverse picture book in child-friendly language, explaining how to ride the bus, walk safely in the hallways, behave in the lunchroom, use the restroom and conduct ourselves on field trips.
  • Community Celebration: Our celebration will be a publishing party with parents, families, children and volunteers involved with creating our book being invited.
The children will each receive a copy of the book and copies will be placed at area libraries. I attended service learning training at SPPS headquarters on December 2 and there is interest from other St. Paul Public schools for copies of the book. My final piece will be a teacher reflection. What worked well? What did not? What would I change if doing this again?

Open World Learning Community Rich in Activities: Students Support Military Overseas [IMAGE]| 1.11

In cooperation with the American Legion District Four and the St. Paul Post Office, seven crew classes (Liz Biagi, Tom Totushek, Mark Scioli, Megan Hall, Leo Bickelhaupt, Susanne Hollingsworth, Chris Pesklo) at Open World Learning Community put together packages for our military overseas as part of the Shop, Ship & Share program. Items such as letters, toiletries, stationery, imitation snow, a hockey puck, coffee, candy, cookies, magazines, and cards were sent to our service members. This project fulfilled the learning targets and values of integrity and stewardship, making a difference and doing what is right. On December 3, principal Todd Bartholomay, staff member Josie Ahartz (an Army veteran of the Vietnam war), and four students, Chante Neal, Sarah Spafford, Jennifer Lor and Velonika Barnett, brought these packages to the collection site at Rosedale Mall. In all, more than 680 boxes were shipped “This is spectacular,” said 4th District Legion Commander Teresa Ash, who headed up the effort. “It’s difficult to put into words how much this support means.”

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