21st Century Schools

The Saturn School of Tomorrow

A story of educational reform

[This is the archive text of the section intros to the Penn State College of Education's former special website section on the Saturn School of Tomorrow]*


Originally proposed in 1988, the Saturn School (yes, it's name was taken from the non-traditional car company) was the first practical example of school reform to come under national scrutiny. While it went "on-line" in 1989, it incorporated many of the changes educational reformers are yet calling for today:


These questions are yours to answer as you explore our site.


A Vision of Educational Reform


On February 9, 1986, Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, gave a passionate speech addressing the need for fundamental change in America's educational system not unlike the innovations that were taking place in the automobile industry. The assembly line approach to education was unrealistic and ineffective in preparing children to become users and managers of information in a global society. Moved by this speech, a District Administrator working in the student records area, and with ten years prior experience, Tom King, had a vision to be the first district in the nation to plan a transformed school. A school focusing on student and teacher empowerment. Essential to a successful transition into society are higher order thinking skills and a joy for learning. Children needed to become life-long learners.

The Saturn School of Tomorrows' motto: was conceived, "High Tech, High Teach, High Touch". A whole child approach where learning was not constrained by an arbituary time frame and whose menu of classroom instruction focused on mastery and cooperative learning. Parents and students in conjunction with the teaching team would develop each childs' Personal Growth Plan and sign a contract committing to a high level of involvement.

In pursuing his vision, Tom King formed a partnership with:

With the partnership in place in 1989, and no federal money for the first two years, the vision was ready to move into a reality. The Saturn School of Tomorrow; a non-graded, middle magnet school for grades 4 thru 8, where ongoing evaluation would be used to create a true learning organization.




President Bush made a visit to the school in 1991 that set the stage for a media blitz. One of the positive aspects of this visit is that it helped the school receive funding. However, the negative aspect of all that attention is that some people may have been watching with a very critical eye.

Today, the media attention has faded and the original teachers are all gone. The community has changed and the school has gone through a period of dropping test scores in math and science.

One of the problems with reform efforts like this one is that school administrators are under can be pressured to dismantle the reforms when students do poorly on standardized tests. Of course, it could be seen as unfair to judge a school incorporating different educational goals by the same standards as traditional schools.

Some would argue that this is not what Saturn is all about. It is important to note that Tom King, the prime mover behind the Saturn School, is the first to point out that this school never claimed to have all the answers, only questions. Perhaps the reform process is in a stage where these questions, that Saturn raised, are trying to be answered. The school should be expected to change. If it didn't, then it would fall into the same trap as traditional schools.

The most peculiar thing about education is that it takes motivation for any learning to occur. If the Saturn School is able to motivate its students to do something, then perhaps this is really what the school is all about. If the students want to be there and the parents are involved, success can not be far off. "I love this school," and eleven year old Saturn student said in 1991. "If I was to go to any school in the world, I'd choose Saturn."



The story of the Saturn School offers, not so much a pessimist's view of change, but, perhaps, some hope and more than one lesson. In the article below, Tom King, no longer associated with the Saturn School, but still a proponent of educational reform, discusses them in the briefest possible space.

Perhaps the largest fact Saturn reminds us of is that any worthwhile, sustainable reform requires consensus and cooperation. When just one constituent of education (students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, higher ed, government, and the tax-paying community at large) is left out in an attempt at reform, or otherwise feels slighted, the negative impact can be enough to kill the effort.

In this sense, the pace at which change takes place is at least as important as its scope. To be most successful as educational reformers, we may have to forgo the swiftness and and comprehensiveness we would like to see in order to bring all the constituents along together. We may also have to become a little better, or quite a lot better, at listening than we are at talking.

* Originally published at the Penn State College of Education's former special website section on the Saturn School of Tomorrow at http://www.ed.psu.edu/insys/ESD/saturn/index.htm.