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home : news : news October 4, 2015

1/31/2014 8:22:00 AM
Life after Graduation: Renee (Schulz) Owen

by Connie Bickman

Note: This column features "hometown folks," specifically Cannon Falls and Randolph High School graduates - of any year - and their unique or interesting careers. If you know of anyone you feel would make an interesting feature, email cbickman@gmail.com - their email address must be included.

Renee (Schulz) Owen, CFHS 1986, says her fondest memories growing up in a small town had to do with freedom. "At a young age I could hop on my bike and ride downtown. I remember canoeing the Cannon River with a couple of girlfriends and no adult chaperon at the age of 11. In high school, we had the freedom to drive around the beautiful countryside and visit friends in nearby towns."

Renee recalls CFHS. "Teachers really cared and they worked hard to provide us with opportunity. Anyone could be in extra curricular activities, no matter how good you were. I participated in art, music, drama, speech, and several sports. Those skills served me well later in life. Growing up in Cannon Falls taught me to be industrious and confident. I was raised with the assumption that if I worked hard, I would be rewarded with success."

A self-proclaimed over-achiever in high school, Renee was class salutatorian, lettered in three sports, was MVP in tennis, and received awards and scholarships in speech, piano, art, athletics, academics.

Her parents, Glenn and Louise Schulz, live in Cannon Falls, and her grandparents, Dorothea and Arnold Schulz are from the area. Her older sister, Barb (Joel) Forthun, lives in Cottage Grove, has three kids, and is a retired choral teacher (Prescott, WI).

"We lived across the street from the elementary school where my mom taught 5th grade for 30 years. Dad cut hair in an old-fashioned barber shop on Fourth Street, with a barber pole out front. When I was older, Dad started commuting to the Twin Cities to work as a security guard at Northwest Airlines. That was big, because we took advantage of airline passes to travel internationally."

Most of Renee's childhood was spent outdoors - playing sports and kick-the-can with neighborhood kids. "I was a Tomboy. We also went to my Grandpa's farm a lot, and I loved riding the tractor with my uncle. When I wasn't outside, I was playing classical piano, drawing, or writing stories. I had friends, but never felt like I fit in. I was noticeably awkward and taller than everyone."

College changed things for Renee, especially her perspective on the world. "I was incredibly naïve when I went to college. At the University of Michigan I met people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I grew up as this all-American girl where people were treated with decency. I hadn't experienced injustice and actually believed everything I was taught in American History. When I learned about what the CIA was doing in Central America and South Africa it was a devastating loss of innocence. How could our government lie to us and be so cruel? I literally didn't know there was so much suffering in the world - and the thought of some of that suffering being caused by my government was devastating - because that meant I and my parents--everyone I knew was culpable.

"I took it personally, and wanted to help make everything right. I got involved in liberal organizations and started going to protests. Then I discovered Jerry Garcia. I don't know how many "Dead" shows I saw, but it was a lot - a very liberating experience, and it helped me to not take everything quite so seriously.

"I majored in art in college because my mom was a teacher, and it just seemed too boring. I wanted to do something more exciting. Ironically, I found being an artist bored me - too much time alone in the studio and social gatherings were pretentious art gallery openings. My work in education, on the other hand, has been an incredible adventure - far from boring!"

Renee went on to receive a MA from the University of Colorado in Educational Leadership and a BFA from the University of Michigan. She holds an Executive Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Duke University and a Waldorf Foundations Certification from Antioch/Center for Anthroposophy. She also completed the Future of Learning program through Harvard Graduate School of Education.

But the path Renee took to her current position as executive director at Rainbow Community School in Asheville, North Carolina, was very non-conventional. From political activism to a quest for spiritual enlightenment, she moved to Hawaii, believing the key to changing the world was to get back to nature. To her, this meant living "feral" - wearing only a sarong, carrying a knife and cooking all her food over a campfire, while living in a little tarp strung to a tree.

Her spiritual quest continued when she met Scott Owen, "the most radical guy I knew." Scott was a jewelry maker/artist, from Tucson, Arizona and they married in 1992. Land was expensive in Hawaii so they bought property in the high desert on the Colorado/Utah border and lived there for the next 15 years, raising their three children. They lived in a trailer "in the middle of nowhere," surviving on less than $6,000 a year, growing their own food and selling jewelry to craft stores. The nearest grocery store was in Moab, Utah, 50 miles away, through miles of switchbacks.

When Renee and Scott's oldest daughter, Mesa, was of school age, they realized that the nearest school was a bus ride three hours a day to Nucla, Colorado, a Uranium mining town. No problem - Renee founded and directed her own charter school - Paradox Valley School.

"When the school first opened, every child, kindergarten to 6th grade, within a 30 mile radius attended - 19 kids. I had lived in this area for seven years, but never mixed with 'the locals' in the valley. We were in our own little world raising our family on our farm up on the mountain.

"When you work at a school in a tiny, remote place, you learn about what goes on in every home. The stories of neglect, incest, and abuse would curl your hair. This was another huge loss of innocence for me, and suddenly I was on a mission to save these kids. These were very independent pioneer families who would cringe at me saying I wanted to save them, but I was incredibly passionate about getting these kids an education so they could break this legacy of poverty and abuse. I started writing grants like crazy and ended up raising over one million dollars for our little school in the desert!"

Through the Colorado Rural Charter School Network, they received Annenberg Rural Challenge funds for engaging in place-based/project-based learning - a very alternative method. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) did all the research and evaluation for the project.

Renee stated, "I didn't even have a degree in education yet, and all of a sudden I was principal of my own school and involved with HGSE! We developed a great method to use with kids who needed to learn in alternative ways - in ways that really motivated and engaged them. Even though education wasn't valued in most of their homes because their parents didn't graduate from high school, these kids LOVED going to school. We had a hard time getting them to go home at the end of the day." Renee also started an after school program that was both academic and artistic, and founded a public library so everyone could have access to literature and computers.

Part of the success of Paradox Valley School was that Renee convinced investors that creative freedom was a cornerstone of learning. Money for keyboards was provided, offering every student private piano lessons. She stressed place-based learning programs, like field trips with a geologist, and recording oral histories using video cameras, interacting with older residents, and other projects.

Renee's efforts were hugely successful. Students who had some of the lowest test scores in the state when the school first opened, ended up in the top 10% of Colorado academically. A Colorado School of Excellence Award was awarded by the governor, and one of the Paradox Valley teachers won Charter School Teacher of the Year. The school won a national award for excellence in arts and academics from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, becoming one of only five schools in the country recognized for integration of the arts into academic programs. Students performed bluegrass music, one of the place-based after school programs, at the Kennedy Center. Some of these kids had never left Montrose County prior to that.

Renee continues to keep track of these kids. "It's remarkable to see them going to college and getting scholarships." Renee also had the opportunity to help other schools in the state with Charter School accreditation and presented at the Charter School conference each year. By the time she had become a certified teacher with her MA in Education, she was hired with grant funding to write a book about project-based learning, which she did with Carla Fontaine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

When daughter, Mesa, graduated from 8th grade, (Paradox School had expanded to 8th grade), Scott was ready to move on. Renee gave up everything she had worked for - their farm and her school - without knowing what they would do next.

"It was the most emotional decision we had ever made, and a huge leap of faith. I started applying for other school leadership positions, but none of them were going to allow me the freedom I had at Paradox. Public education was becoming so test-focused that it was hard to imagine teaching in a traditional school. After serving at-risk kids for eight years and working for social justice in one form or another all my adult life, I couldn't get passionate about working at a private school....but then I found Rainbow. I knew my destiny was to work there. I thought the school sounded amazing."

Rainbow Community School in Asheville, NC, is a private independent school, serving P-8. It has been a national leader in alternative, holistic and contemplative education for more than 35 years. Rainbow was one of the first in North Carolina to develop a sustainable campus, designed to be energy efficient, using passive solar designs for energy conservation. Renee was hired as the executive director in 2007 to maintain "all that is magical about Rainbow," while building a cohesive curriculum that is academically excellent and allows all types of learners to soar. She was captivated by Rainbow's holistic curriculum.

"Our structure has flow and flexibility to it, rather than rigidity. I think that academic excellence comes in many forms, and that traditional American education sometimes gets in the way of academic achievement. At Rainbow, students spend a lot of time outside, on and off campus, including field trips. Research shows that being in nature lights up many areas of the brain, making it easier for children, especially children with attention issues, to focus.

You may see a teacher holding a snake from the playground while students identify it, draw it, and discuss its natural history. There are lots of hugs, children being kind to one another, including middle school students helping younger students. Older kids use MacAir laptops to graph the resource distribution around the world. First graders work in small groups to make dioramas of ecosystems. In second grade every student writes their first book and publishes it, including illustrations. Students are completely engaged, challenged and motivated.

"We see a child holistically, and teach holistically. While academics is the core of what we are here to accomplish - the structure around which the school operates - the rest of the human is also touched, taught and nurtured. Academic learning accelerates and is much deeper when the rest of the child is also engaged.

"The piece that is really unique here is the spiritual domain. Recognizing that each child has a spirit helps with behavior, because we don't ask children - or parents - to put on a mask and pretend to be something they aren't. Children develop a true moral compass here and leave with a secure sense of who they are. It strengthens their learning curve too. If you want someone to learn how to read, don't teach them phonics, or the rote mechanics of reading, before they have gained a love for literature and story-telling, or else you destroy the love before it can take hold. Once they learn how to read, they will read like the wind!

"At Paradox, I was passionate about helping each of those kids individually. At Rainbow, my passion is even bigger. I see these kids as future leaders. They have so much intelligence and moral understanding, that I know they are going to go out into the world and make it a better place."

Regarding her family, Renee says, "Scott and I are in the fantastic phase in life where we have the satisfaction of knowing we must have done something right. I think raising them in the wilderness was an important piece of their childhood. Most children don't get that kind of freedom anymore. Our kids didn't have TV, computers, or video games growing up so they had to use their imagination."

Daughter, Mesa, 21, is a Junior at Kenyon College, studying abroad in Grenada, Spain for the school year. Johanna, 16, is a senior at Carolina Day School, and son, Geronimo, 14, is a freshman at Carolina Day School. Scott continues to make jewelry, is a radio host, social activist, and farmer.

When asked of future plans, Renee stated, "I love my work at Rainbow so much, I can't imagine leaving it. However, I would like to pursue my PHD at some point. I think I could have a positive effect on education if I taught at a university and/or published some of my work about the importance of holistic education."

Renee doesn't regret giving up her first choice career of being an artist. "I believe teaching is one of the most important careers there is. Anyone who is doing something great in the world first had to get an education."

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