St. Clair key in change for local teens, by Suzan Travis-Robyns


The student was a painfully shy third-grader, but she raised her hand with conviction. She had studied hard and knew the spelling words.
“The teacher told me to put my hand down,” Mary St. Clair remembers. “After all, I had failed all the spelling tests before.”
Looking back, St. Clair sees that moment of humiliation as a watershed.
“I decided I was going to grow up and be a teacher and I would never treat a child the way I was treated,” she said.
St. Clair graduated from a Catholic school in Bloomfield Hills.
“I was not what you’d call a successful student,” she said.
It wasn’t until she enrolled at Northern Michigan University and had the freedom to study the topics that interested her—art and culture—that she received praise and encouragement from her teachers. She said the life-long friendships she formed at Northern also gave her confidence.
From that tentative beginning, St. Clair 0701loclaunched an education career that took her to Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and a Fulbright Scholarship in Canada, before returning to the place dearest to her heart: Marquette County.
With a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in reading, St. Clair took the reins as the principal of Tri High School in Ishpeming in 1994. After three years, she took on the challenge of turning the school into North Star Academy, a high school chartered by Northern Michigan University. At the time, charter schools were new.
St. Clair retires as CEO of North Star Academy, now located in Marquette, this month.
North Star Academy currently has eighty high school students. Polaris Middle School, for seventh and eighth graders, was added in 2005 and has thirty-five students. Both schools share a new building, completed in 2005, located at 3030 Wright Street in Marquette. The school formerly was housed in St. John’s Church in Ishpeming.
As a charter school, North Star receives an extensive monitoring report annually from Northern Michigan University to ensure that goals and benchmarks are being met.
As a public school, North Star’s curriculum must meet all state requirements. There is no charge to attend a charter school.
The process of relocating to Marquette and financing a new building was a milestone in the school’s history. St. Clair worked for three years to make it happen.
The next major change for North Star Academy is the retirement of the school’s first and only CEO.
“Mary is a visionary educator,” said William Hyry, Charter Schools Officer at Northern Michigan University.
Hyry has worked with St. Clair since she took the reins at then-Tri High School. He was the superintendent of the NICE District.
“Mary allowed the students to help plan the current North Star building,” Hyry said. “She has a firm commitment to having the school and the students be a positive force in the community.”
Hyry said St. Clair’s pursuit of accreditation through the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), has facilitated the community-school tie.
Michigan schools can receive accreditation through North Central Accreditation or the CES. With either accreditation, schools must meet state-mandated requirements. The difference lies in the way education is delivered.
Former North Star board member Bonnie Holland said the CES accreditation allows a more personalized, innovative approach to education.
“[St. Clair] was always seeking opportunities to be innovative,” Holland said. “CES allows for personalized learning with a set of democratic values that empowers students to be activists in charge of their own education and to be useful members of the community.”
Cornerstones of the CES philosophy are creating personalized education, expecting high student achievement, creating a collaborative environment with small classrooms and team teaching, and maintaining a school-wide dialogue among teachers.
St. Clair was first exposed to the CES approach in the late 1970s in a large school district that used the model to successfully personalize education. One aspect of the approach that impressed her were advisory groups that allowed teachers to listen to and get to know small groups of students.
As a young teacher, St. Clair set out to make school the home base and allow the world to provide the classroom.
When studying Western pioneers, she took her elementary school class on a camping trip, complete with a covered wagon. When her students studied Island of the Blue Dolphins, children and parents worked together to transform the playground into an ocean.
“I always tell teachers: ‘Do real work with real people. Don’t sit and talk about it. If it’s social studies, run a campaign or get involved in one. If it’s math, build something real,’” St. Clair said.
She sought ways to develop comprehensive critical thinking skills in her students and to apply subjects to their lives.
“Education should be integrated,” St. Clair said. “The work world does not operate in non-related forty-five minute blocks of time. Societal issues like hunger encompass many topics and multi-faceted points of view.”
When St. Clair had the opportunity to set the foundation for a new school, she thought carefully about the school environment.
“I was always interested in how kids develop from their experiences in school,” St. Clair said. “Half of it is how kids learn, but the other half is how they take to the school environment, how they are treated when they’re young, sets the pattern.”
Unique characteristics of North Star Academy are the service-learning program, student portfolios, student-created educational plans, small classrooms (there are fifteen or fewer students in the classroom), integrated subjects that are not limited to the traditional forty-five-minute time blocks, and a focus on technology. Each North Star student has a laptop computer, and wireless connections were incorporated into the new building.
Unique graduation requirements at North Star include a service learning program in which students must complete 100 hours with a Marquette County nonprofit and a portfolio demonstrating what they have learned in high school that includes a presentation.
St. Clair said the current traditional school model has not changed since the early 1900s. She calls it the I’m-the-teacher-you’re-the-listener model.
She said verbal students brimming with questions often don’t do well in traditional schools.
“I believe those kids are often the leaders of the world because they don’t accept the status quo,” she said. “It takes a bold teenager to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to do something different.’”
Former board member Holland revels in North Star’s difference. She had a personal connection to the school, with a granddaughter and an exchange student who attended.
At North Star, students spend the first two weeks of class examining their own learning styles and accepting responsibility for their education. The result is engaged learners, according to Holland.
“I had a teenager who watched the news with me and debated the issues,” Holland said. “She learned that in her social studies class.”
Holland, now of Houghton, left the North Star board in July. She was president of the school board for five years.
Some of the projects in which North Star students have been involved include building ice shanties that eventually were sold as playhouses; working with the Salvation Army through the empty bowl project to learn about hunger and raising money to help alleviate the problem; and receiving a grant through the Department of Environmental Quality to identify chemicals in schools and then suggest non-toxic alternatives.
“It started out as a project in chemistry,” St. Clair said. “It ended up with students in teams giving Power Point presentations to other schools. These students became the experts. In the real world, one thing leads to another.”
Don Mourand retired as superintendent of the Negaunee Public Schools in the late 1980s. He later served on the North Star board. Mourand said he was impressed by St. Clair’s hard work, commitment to innovation, and “real desire to work with students on a personal level.”
“Education at North Star is very well done by caring people,” Mourand said. “Mary stays with young people, despite the ups and downs of their lives.”
Charter schools receive state funding, but are not allowed to request additional funds through millages and bonds.
St. Clair has made up the difference at North Star by bringing in more than $1 million in grants during her tenure.
The first large grant came from the Kellogg Foundation and funded a well-equipped science lab. In the past three years, North Star has received $70,000 in grants for its service-learning program. Teacher training, allowing staff to visit some of the most successful schools in the nation and to receive instruction in innovative techniques also has been funded largely through grants.
St. Clair’s tenure has been marked by vision combined with practicality, according to Holland. She said St. Clair used meticulous research to explore the implications of change, to show the likely effect of a new policy on each aspect of the school.
“We were always taking risks,” Holland said. “But they were very calculated risks.”
St. Clair’s bold initiatives—creating a charter school and securing a new building—are in sharp contrast to her high school days when she was too shy to step from the crowd.
Pushing the envelope has become her forte as an adult.
Case in point: She thinks schools should be run like businesses and that competition will improve education.
“In my mind, the customer is the student,” she said. “Running the school like a business with a focus on parent and student satisfaction makes education more accountable.”
Change? She’s all for it.
“At North Star, we said: ‘Why can’t we question everything?’” St. Clair said. “I hope that continues. I hope the school keeps changing if necessary and adapting and doesn’t accept the status quo.”
—Suzan Travis-Robyns

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