How is MNOHS different?

by MNOHS Executive Director Elissa Raffa

As a non-profit, teacher-led community school, MNOHS has invested in a very low student-teacher and student-counselor ratios. We do this so every student can get the attention he or she needs. Compare our student-teacher ratio (13:1) to the Minnesota average (16:1) or to other models of “virtual” learning (60:1, or worse).  

A major research report released this month raises serious concerns about cyber charter schools (see link below). As MNOHS' academic leader, I participated in a survey as part of that research--however, student achievement data from MNOHS was not used in the study because of the way the sample population was constructed.

Is MNOHS really different from the “cyber charters” included in the study? In most ways, yes. When accredited by NCA CASI (AdvancED) 2013, MNOHS received four strong commendations. Exhibits exceptional commitment to help each student succeed as an individual is the one we’re most proud of. Here’s how we do it:

We make time for each student. The arithmetic is simple: Because MNOHS’ student-teacher ratio is low, we are able to connect one-on-one with each student. Our teachers and counselors develop significant learning relationships with students to help ensure each one’s success. Compare this to for-profit online programs that maximize profits for shareholders by assigning one teacher to hundreds of students.

We focus on active, connected learning. MNOHS students graph and interpret data using spreadsheets; develop geometric proofs using The Geometer’s Sketchpad; compose music using NoteFlight; practice drawing and painting techniques; conduct chemistry experiments at home and in an online virtual lab; edit photographs using Gimp; analyze poems, novels, primary source historical documents, and musical compositions; conjugate Spanish verbs; record field observations in geology or biology; write essays; and more—and they do it all from a distance, taking advantage of special software provided by MNOHS as well as resources in their own communities. MNOHS teachers are online with students each day, answering questions, pointing students toward new discoveries, providing feedback, and encouraging their learning growth. Students can also call, text or email their teachers, or drop in to the MNOHS Academic Support Center if they want to talk through a particular assignment or just to connect.

Teachers teach, parents parent, and everyone collaborates. In all educational settings, including high schools, parental involvement plays an important role in students’ success. Trusted adults in the lives of MNOHS students know their students well, can advocate for them if needed, can support good study habits, and can help them to remember why a high school diploma matters if their motivation sometimes falters. MNOHS teachers and counselors collaborate--as a professional team and with parents, guardians and other trusted adults--to identify and build on each student’s strengths. We offer online resources and frequent informational meetings for parents, but we never require parents to provide instruction.

Engagement and motivation is an issue--and self-advocacy may be an answer. Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report referenced below, said, “Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time." At MNOHS we have invested in low student-teacher ratios and close student-teacher relationships. In this context, we encourage students to advocate for themselves no matter what the issue. This is not what most students expect at high school, and it takes practice. The transformations we have witnessed when students join us in this approach are well worth the effort. At MNOHS we have time for each student--to learn each one’s story and help each one get where he or she wants to go!

 If you would like to discuss the study referenced below or related issues with MNOHS Executive Director Elissa Raffa, she can be reached at 800-764-8166 ext. 103 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Real Learning

Janet, the mother of a MNOHS summer student told me this story: Her son, Rob, like many varsity athletes wanted to knock off the required health course in the summer. Their family chose the MNOHS Health Issues and Choices course, while most of his teammates and friends chose their district's online option.

One evening, some of Rob's friends we hanging out at Janet's and she invited them to stay for supper. Rob brought a notebook to the supper table and began to take notes.

"What are you doing?" his friends asked.

"My nutrition assignment," he told them. "I'm writing down what I'm eating to analyze it later."

"You're kidding," they said. "You're doing actual work for an online health class?"

"I kind of like it," Rob said. "What do you do?

"We read stuff online and answer the questions. You're doing real work?"

"It's kind of cool," Rob repeated, setting down his pen and picking up his fork.

At MNOHS, 'real work' means active, authentic learning. Whether students are analyzing their nutrient intake in health class, composing melodies in music class, or testing conjectures in geometry, they are engaged in real learning, guided by highly accomplished teachers in the field.

A case in point, MNOHS Health Teacher Bonnie Rosenfield received the 2013 University of MN Women's Physical Education Alumnae Association Helen M. Slocum School of Health Education Honorary Award in recognition of her leadership, dedication and service to school health education. At MNOHS, Ms. Rosenfield's students are engaged in real learning, developing information literacy and critical thinking skills so that they can assess for themselves the validity of health-related claims, make the best possible choices, and develop the best possible habits.

At MNOHS, all learning is real learning. We celebrate students who are pursuing their passions--in academics, athletics, or the arts. All students have their priorities and preferences, and sometimes just want to cross a graduation requirement off their list. Each MNOHS teacher, however, does everything possible to help students engage meaningfully in each course, because every student deserves a high-quality education.

Elissa Raffa, MNOHS Executive Director

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13 to 1 student-teacher ratio

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