Two new schools are rising in the east, representing two starkly different ideas of how to equip children with the best education for the 21st century's challenges while competing for students.

St. Croix Preparatory Academy will soon open a $21.7 million, 90,000-square-foot facility in Oak Park Heights, just south of Stillwater. The charter school with 900 students markets itself as delivering a classical, private school education for free. Its students take Latin, focus on questions as much as answers, and get big doses of "character" and "leadership" in their lessons.

The 1,100 students at East Ridge High School, which opens this fall in Woodbury, will get big doses of everything. The $95 million facility is 380,000-square-feet -- enough to fit three Target stores -- has a two-story atrium cafeteria, a stadium with artificial turf and panoramic views of the countryside, and a 950-seat performing arts center.

Its curriculum and classrooms, with interactive whiteboards and a phalanx of wireless access computers, will not only prepare students for top colleges, but for trade schools and almost any quality occupation they want to pursue.

South Washington County School District officials say they envisioned the facility as a community center, hosting events, meetings and even dramatic productions by community-based groups.

East Ridge's opening, "is really about more than the opening of a high school," said district Superintendent Mark Porter. "It's an opening for student achievement, and student opportunity."

Getting together

St. Croix Academy's ambitions are less expansive.

"It gives us a home where we are all together," said Jon Gutierrez, the school's executive director.

Students had been spread over two locations in Stillwater, a former Herberger's department store and a commercial space; getting to gym class involved walking two blocks to another school's gymnasium.

But the school won't be defined solely by the confines of its new digs in its plans to deliver a classical education.

Even their leaders are different. Aaron Harper, a barrel-chested former linebacker who is East Ridge's principal, took the well-worn route of athlete to (microbiology) teacher and coach into administration. He defines his primary responsibility as leading teachers and students.

That is why, he said, he chose to have as an office a small conference room tucked between other offices. The expansive, glass-walled corner office that would be his goes to his administrative assistant instead.

"I don't want to be answering e-mails and shuffling papers all day," Harper said. "I don't want to be a manager. I want to be an instructional leader. And instruction takes place in the classroom."

By contrast, Gutierrez is a software marketing executive turned school administrator. Smaller than Harper and trim, he has a ponytail and a divinity degree. But he does get a twinkle in his eye when he passes what will become his corner office. At the old school he used a computer storeroom for an office.

A need for both

The schools, both on the east end of the metro area, are not rivals and aren't likely to meet on the gridiron anytime soon. (St. Croix Academy doesn't have a football team.) But they do compete for students and the consequent state and federal dollars that fund their operations.

If fannies in the seats are the measure, charter schools such as St. Croix Academy seem to be winning. Charter school attendance in Minnesota has increased by 22,000 students over the past seven years, while traditional public school enrollment has declined 40,000 in the same time period, said Joe Nathan, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.

Which format ultimately works best depends on whom you talk to and perhaps who your children are. Parents and educators of their respective schools believe they have the right format. And whether the two facilities are worth the money taxpayers laid out for them is another question upon which there is disagreement.

"There is a need for both, but not all kids can do well in both," said Ann Werner, director of licensing for educational administration in the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

Werner, who was a principal for 10 years of a high school larger than East Ridge and chairman of the board of a 127-student charter school, said kids with a broad range of interests are likely to prefer a big school while kids less outgoing might do better in smaller environments.

Personal relationships key

No matter the size of the school, personal relationships with adults is the key, Werner said. "We know from research that a critical piece in any size school is for the student to have an adult that they are personally connected to."

East Ridge has taken that research to heart by devising a program it calls an "Academy" model where 90 students are paired with three teachers in three classrooms for science, social studies and English. "We're trying to take the experience of a large metro area high school and make it more personal," Harper, the principal, said.

But East Ridge is not even the largest new school opening this year. That distinction goes to the new 430,000-square-foot St. Michael Albertville high school.

Bob Rego, whose firm Rego + Youngquist designed the East Ridge and St. Michael Albertville schools, saids school design has changed dramatically in his 30 years of experience.

"We try to give them a flavor where the kids feel it is a good place to hang out. Where they want to be at school," Rego said.

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287