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This School Produces Originals

Students in New Albany, Ohio design multimedia presentations, build computers, and monitor wetlands. Any questions?

It’s just after lunch on a Tuesday afternoon, and Kinko’s is hopping. Middle-schoolers in denim shorts crowd around a table to bind the covers of picture books they’ve created. Senior girls wearing baby-doll T-shirts and scrunchies put the finishing touches on papers that are due, like, really soon. Space is tight, backpacks are everywhere, and the decibel level is high.

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Shouldn’t these kids be in school?

Actually, they are.

This is Kinko’s for Kids, one facet of a radical approach to education that is taking shape in the New Albany Plain Local School District. The program is designed to change how young people learn–and think.

“We said we wanted kids to develop meaningful projects,” says Gary Sweitzer, 52, director of curriculum at New Albany. “But some people didn’t understand what we meant by ‘meaningful.’ So I started using the metaphor ‘Kinko’s for kids.’ If you treat kids like customers and give them access to tools, you can ratchet up the quality of what they produce. Then I thought, Why don’t I see if Kinko’s is interested?”

Located in a rural town northeast of Columbus, Ohio, New Albany used to be a typical public-school system. Then a famous local resident, Leslie Wexner, 60, CEO of the Limited Inc., took an interest in the area. He didn’t just want to build houses or malls. He wanted to create a cradle-to-grave community that integrated education, business, health, recreation, and volunteer work. And he wanted the public school to stand at the center of this nexus.

In 1989, Wexner formed a company, the New Albany Co., to develop the area. By 1996, the district’s school moved to a new campus that blends classical architecture and cutting-edge technology. It has 653 students in grades 6 through 12. Among its resources are a digital media lab, complete with a scanner and a digital art tablet, 200 computers–plus, of course, the first and only Kinko’s for Kids.

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But Kinko’s for Kids isn’t just for kids. It opens its doors to the public every afternoon. Inviting the community into the school has created opportunities rather than headaches, says Jon Stonebraker, 41, who runs the library and information center. “As we expand the audience to include the community,” says Stonebraker, “student projects become part of the real world. When a student knows that the historical society, for example, is going to view her project, it adds realism. It’s not contrived.”

One recent project brought together the classroom and the real world in dramatic fashion. The school organized an environmental program in which juniors and seniors monitored local wetlands and delivered their findings to the EPA and to the Ohio Department of Transportation. Last October, two students smelled something funny, so the group ran tests that detected high concentrations of bacteria–including levels of E. coli that were many times higher than those allowed by law. The students went before the village council of New Albany, which hired a testing firm to check their results. The firm was so impressed by their work that it offered internships to three of the students.

“We give kids as much ownership as possible,” says Stonebraker. “When students are engaged in their work and have an audience for it, they often produce more than what’s required.”

Students also learn that appearance matters, adds Sweitzer: “Before, because the tools that students could use were limited, teachers would say, ‘Don’t put a cover on your report. I’m interested in the content.’ That ignores the way the world works. Presentation is important.”

New Albany’s ultimate goal, Sweitzer says, is to turn its students into lifelong learners. “Four things have to happen if you’re going to become a lifelong learner: You have to set your own goals. You have to choose the means of learning. You have to do self-assessment. And you need to keep yourself motivated.”

Stonebraker believes that traditional education smothers the curiosity that underlies all real learning. “You want kids to be so excited about their projects that learning is not even an issue.”