In a Passionate Life, Lessons for Learning

In a Passionate Life, Lessons for Learning

A tribute to Verne Johnson, Blended Learning Trailblazer

The close of this year’s bitter, uninspiring campaign season marked the passing of a leader who embodied a very different approach to public life and leadership.  The journey of civic and education pioneer Verne C. Johnson, who died last week at 87, offers a case study of a leader who catalyzed innovation and creative disruption over the course of six decades (see here), culminating in his co-founding of Venture Academy’s blended learning model in his final year.  There aren’t too many gray-haired heroes in the ed-tech world.  This is the story of one of them.

Minnesota has a reputation as a northerly Shangri-La where, in Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average.  The state Verne set out to creatively disrupt was no Lake Wobegon.  As the 1950s began, Minnesota’s household income was below the national average and Minneapolis was still known as the nation’s capital of anti-Semitism.  The son of a small town school superintendent, Verne first made his mark pushing fellow Republicans to denounce Joe McCarthy, leading the local—and nationally catalytic—draft Eisenhower for President movement, and representing Minneapolis as the Minnesota Legislature’s youngest member.

Verne went on to catalyze citizen-led problem-solving and innovation during long stints as director of the Citizens League, a General Mills executive and a senior health care pioneer.  Advising Gov. Perpich with Ted Kolderie and others in the 1980s, Verne helped design Minnesota’s trailblazing public school choice policies: open enrollment and dual high school/college enrollment, ideas which led directly to the chartered schools concept.  Two decades later at 80, Verne launched the Civic Caucus, a highly influential Minnesota leadership group advancing the redesign of education, health care and other systems through citizen engagement.

In the last year of his life, in between chemo and radiation treatments, Verne became a personalized blended learning pioneer.  Driven by the inability of most schools to motivate most students, he grasped technology’s potential to help reimagine education by engaging students and leveraging teachers without increasing costs.

I must admit that when Verne first spoke with me about blended learning in summer 2011, I was not fully convinced.  I had spent the past 15 years launching and supporting low-tech, old-fashioned “no excuses” schools.  I hadn’t been impressed with the early results of ed-tech for disadvantaged kids.  Weary of K-12’s endless, jargon-laden faddishness, I pictured yet another push for expensive hardware sitting in classrooms that yielded no impact on student learning.

I quickly learned Verne and I were on the same page.  Verne’s expertise about schooling came not from the classroom or academia, but from a lifetime of listening to all kinds of people, especially kids.  Verne observed how many current reforms—even no excuses schools—struggled to inspire student passion, cultivate truly great learning, sustain themselves financially, or reach a scale sufficient to transform a broken system.

After a second meeting, Verne and I decided to move forward with the launch of Venture Academy, Minnesota’s first blended learning middle-high school.   We had no money, no school leader and no guarantee of success.  What we did have was a vision of a model that radically shifted the ownership for learning from adults to young people.  Through personalized, digital and experiential learning, we aimed to inspire imaginative, passionate and purposeful young leaders ready for college and meaningful life missions by age 16.  We also shared a commitment to catalyze the transformation of student learning far beyond a single school.

Most importantly, we had Verne.  He had the contagious enthusiasm of a young entrepreneur.  Our founding and most engaged board member, Verne lent his reputation and precious time.  The clearest leader I’ve met, he constantly pushed me to better define and explain how Venture actually worked.  How will it engage students? How will it leverage the time and talent of teachers?  Verne’s questions helped secure our Next Generation Learning Challenges award and other support.

Verne’s passion for Venture only accelerated in the final days and even hours of his life.  After Verne began home hospice care this September, we secured an extraordinary school leader.  Kerry Muse was a California math teacher who led disadvantaged children to achieve 200 to 300 percent learning gains—by pioneering personalized blended learning.  Separated in years (56) but not in spirit, the two trailblazers hit it off immediately.  Verne arranged for Kerry to present at last Friday’s Civic Caucus meeting and provided detailed advice over three bedside meetings.  Verne drew his last breath just hours after Kerry’s presentation.

A week before his death, the Citizens League honored Verne at its 60th anniversary celebration.  Verne’s son Ron gave a keynote address that recounted the values he learned from his dad.  Check out the video tribute to Verne here.  Ron is better known as the CEO of J.C. Penney, the creator of the Apple Store, the Genius Bar, and Apple One-to-One, and the man who made Target hip in the 1990s.

Like his son, Verne’s actions were guided by his values.  These included vision, imagination, courage and active citizenship—encouraging people, especially young people, to take initiative and responsibility for solving challenges and seizing opportunities.  Verne also radiated kindness, optimism and a sense of urgency.

Across a lifelong hero’s journey, Verne was undoubtedly one of the nation’s unheralded yet most catalytic re-imaginers of education and the role of citizens in public life.  In a changing world, he knew that Minnesota’s and America’s success was not inevitable and required continuous renewal and creative disruption.  Verne was a creative disrupter.

Venture Academy and other pioneering models will thrive and eventually benefit millions of children if they foster the values that Verne modeled so well—and if they inspire many more Verne Johnsons.  Our common future depends on it.

Written by Jon Bacal

Jon Bacal

A serial edupreneur, Jon Bacal is chief entrepreneurship officer and founder of Venture Academy, a grades 6-12 NGLC Wave IIIa grantee opening in Minneapolis this August

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