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School on a Hill: A new future

Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final installment of the ongoing “School on a Hill” series detailing the history of the recently demolished Morris school building and the development of education in Morris. For prior stories about the school, please visit

MORRIS -- Over the last few months we’ve investigated the development of education in Morris through the lens of the history of the old Morris school building. So, where have we ended up? What is the most important aspect of education?

Answering this question is tricky. The project of learning and teaching transcends the classroom and experiences in school. Each difficulty we face in life provides an opportunity to learn, grow, and transform the self. Through that process we change our communities and, further, the world at large.

Through speaking with teachers and students from every era and walk of life we’ve learned that the success of education depends on the unseen love and efforts of thousands.

We’ve also learned that education takes hard work.

“For those teachers working hard and doing their best—it is draining,” said Ken Gagner, current principle at Morris Area Elementary School and 22-year veteran of teaching fifth grade in the district. “You need to be a hard worker, because it takes work to be a teacher.

“In the end, though, it all comes down to relationships,” he said. “The kids need to know that you care about them. The rest, I think, works out by itself if you really care.”

Gagner said that teaching has become more challenging than ever because of changes in technology and a quickly evolving social landscape. Changes in the world, he said, have necessitated changes in education.

“When kids leave our school they are not dealing with the world I grew up in,” he said. “The rate we are progressing as a society goes far beyond learning a specific set of information. As educators we have to give kids a good base and prepare them to be lifelong learners. We try to give students a set of tools to do that.

“Learning through failure is fine, it’s ok to fail. But what’s important to learn from your failures so you don’t repeat them over and over. We need for kids to be confident and to have courage to go out and learn more. You are just starting, there is so much out there, and you’ve got to keep learning as you go.”

Gagner expressed that he was most concerned with the success of the students and working to make sure the teachers have what they need to serve the students well.

Carol Wilcox is a former Morris mayor and taught fourth grade at Morris from 1970 to 1993. She said that education has been the bedrock of Morris’ development since the city’s founding in 1878 and that civic engagement in the community has led to the Morris we have today.

“There were many schools before the Morris school we think of,” she said. “The first settlers to this place must have thought education was very important.”

Wilcox said that her involvement in politics first as a city council member and later as Morris’ mayor taught her that engagement in the community is rooted both inside the classroom and out.

“When I talk to high school kids about city government I say you have to be persistent, you can’t give up. My feeling was always I had no right to disagree and moan about things in the community unless I was willing to work to fix them.”

She also said that good education starts at home.

 “Children learn from their parents—what they see at home—and if kids come from a community-minded family, they’re more likely to remain engaged.”

In this series we’ve heard a lot from teachers. At the end of the day, though, it’s the success of the students that makes a school.

Thomas Roberts graduated from Morris in 2012 and is currently a sophomore at Princeton University studying astrophysics and Russian. He said that studying space science and rocketry in Gagner’s fifth grade class contributed to his choice to become a space scientist.

“I was in Mr. Gagner’s class and I remember we talked about history and the cold war, as well as rockets. It opened up my fifth grade mind,” Roberts said. “We also talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I asked Mr. Gagner: ‘if I want to become an astronaut what would I need to do?’

“His answer was that I needed to work hard and that if I really wanted to become an astronaut I could do it.

“I knew I wanted to make some kind of difference in the world but I remember thinking to myself that since I live in the middle of Minnesota, far away from NASA, I couldn’t go anywhere. At that age I couldn’t differentiate being an astronaut from any other job. Either way it seemed to me as impossible to leave Minnesota as it was to leave the earth.”

Roberts said that participating in high school activities gave him the focus he needed to achieve his goal.

“One thing that affected me was participating in the Morris Area High School theater department and working with our director at the time, Dave Johnson,” he said. “In my freshman year, he helped us write our own play to participate in the One Act play competition.

“The play ended up being about the meaning of censorship and free speech within the context of high school as well as larger society. Working on that play gave me the opportunity to think globally and about the future. By that time I no longer had my heart set on becoming an astronaut, but still wanted to work in the field of space science.”

Roberts said his parents specifically gave him the courage and support to go through the steps of choosing and applying to Princeton.

“I decided that I wanted to study physics at Princeton but it seemed impossible. I thought that a top school like Princeton was only for people with special circumstances and a lot of money. Not for someone like me from Morris. My parents said I could do it only if I were willing to challenge myself to the highest extreme.

“After that I took the most difficult classes and tried as hard as I could in my after school activities. I built a schedule balancing high school classes and after school activities, as well as my studies as a full-time math major at the University of Minnesota Morris for four semesters.”

Once accepted to Princeton, Roberts said his focus in the classroom has become about finding ways to make scientific study relevant to non-scientists.

“I think anyone can learn and achieve in the sciences. Anyone can be a global citizen,” Roberts said. “People today think of science as being for ‘members only’ and takes lots of school and money. That’s not true through. In the future I want to have dialogue and do whatever I can to bridge the gap between scientists and regular people.”

Roberts said it was those early experiences in school that sowed the seeds of his later achievement.

“For me Mr. Gagner bridged the gap between being a kid in a classroom and an astronaut in outer space,” he said. “I think being a world citizen is about understanding how the physical world works and how that relates to our lives. Today I’m studying to become a researcher in space science. Something I didn’t think was real growing up in a small town. A job you might only read about in old books. Through that achievement I’ve realized that anyone can do anything with an education.”

As we look ahead to the 21st century uncertainty abounds. The demands of the coming century will test the younger generations in a way unique in history. Without education the creation of a new future is impossible. The achievement of students—their health and development—is the foundation of the Morris that will be 20, 50 and 100 years from today.

The Japanese philosopher of education Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “Education exists for youth, who are the future. Education should encourage youth to realize their precious potential and to display their unique individuality with enthusiasm and vigor. Furthermore, education should teach youth to uphold the sanctity of life—for both self and others—so that they may create supreme value in their own lives as well as for society.”

A century is a long time for a small town in Morris, but in the vast tableau of world history it’s the blink of an eye. The difference between 1914 and today is beyond imagination. We live in what any other era would think of as science fiction. The dilemma of building the future through education has faced every generation of students and teachers at the Morris Schools and today it challenges us still.

No matter what’s to come for Morris and the world, we can rest assured the young people and those who love them will continue to change the world—just as they’ve done for so many generations.