There is a sort of a rebirth happening at the Jennings Community Learning Center (JCLC), located at 2455 University Ave. W., just east of Highway 280. After 14 years of combining academics with travel opportunities for its students, the school has remodeled to better accommodate its unique learning structure.
JCLC is a tuition-free charter school serving grades 7 through 12. The school adheres to all Minnesota graduation standards, but what makes it unique is its self-directed, project-based learning model, said director Bill Zimniewicz.
Students at JCLC learn in mixed-age groups facilitated by advisers. Zimniewicz believes this format fosters students’ desire to learn and create, unlike more traditional school settings that can at times lose sight of students’ individual needs and learning styles.
“Our advisers know each and every student,” Zimniewicz said. “We want to see them grow to their full potential. We want to know what they want to learn about.”
JCLC was established in 1998 by Wayne Jennings, a longtime proponent of learning through life experience. Jennings’ history of searching for nontraditional solutions to student learning needs has included founding the St. Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) Open School (now Open World Learning Community) in 1971, along with several other charter schools. He also assisted in the design and implementation of several nontraditional schools, including SPPS’ EXPO Magnet Middle School.
Zimniewicz is passionately dedicated to his students. “The current traditional structure doesn’t work for every student,” he said. “We want to offer an environment where students are cared about in a way they cannot be in larger classrooms.”
Keeping group sizes at 18 students goes a long way toward fostering meaningful relationships between advisers and students, he said.
“Our kids can learn by doing; they learn through experience. We can do that because they have the attention of the adviser,” said Zimniewicz. Another of the ways that JCLC sets itself apart from traditional schools is by offering travel study programs to a select group of students each year. Groups have traveled to New York, New Orleans and Hawaii, as well as to a variety of locations in the Midwest.
“We want kids to love learning,” Zimniewicz said. “They get to see the places they are reading and learning about.”
But Zimniewicz is no pushover. Students have to prove they are worthy of such unique opportunities.
“We don’t put up with violence, drugs, disrespect,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of students who were all set to go on a trip and then we had some behavioral issue with them. They didn’t get to go on that trip. I told them, ‘Work on the problem; hopefully you’ll go next year.’”
Students are held to a high standard because Zimniewicz believes they can reach it, he said. His tough love philosophy seems to work. The school anticipated that its attendance would increase significantly this fall, which led to the rethinking of the school’s layout.
The remodeled space is bright and colorful and includes fully enclosed classrooms instead of the large cubicles the students used to gather in. The newly configured common space now includes a stage for presentations and an area for dining. The kitchen has been updated as well, and the school participates in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free or reduced-fee lunches for eligible students.
Each classroom has a desktop computer for each student and boasts brightly painted desks that the students built themselves. No one is more proud than Zimniewicz.
“The kids made these,” Zimniewicz said. “They are not just learning math and science here, they are learning about pride and ownership in their work and in themselves. We are preparing them for a lifetime of learning.”
Alex Lodner is a freelance writer who lives in the Como Park neighborhood.