A school follows an alternative path to success

The Open School is about as far from a "regular" high school as students can get.

For one thing, its students are seasoned travelers. Junior Carrie Durgin traveled north to Manitoba, Canada, to find out about polar bears and south to New Orleans to learn about jazz. Classmate Carol Von Michaelis flew to Costa Rica to investigate turtles. Others are embarking on a two-week examination of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

"Every time I take a trip, I come back loving the school even more," says junior Megan Warner. "I couldn't even imagine going to a regular school," chimes in Rachael Randall.

Despite the idiosyncratic style of this school, it is a public school, operating within the Jefferson County School District and receiving no more funding than any other Colorado public school. The Open School is an alternative public school with a strong track record of turning kids who weren't making it in traditional schools into enthusiastic learners. The school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate and 85 percent of its graduates go on to college, despite the fact that a large number of students were labeled "problem students" at other schools.

It's a school that shuns grades, tests, and rote learning. Initiative and intellectual curiosity are the focus. And in today's climate of intense focus on accountability and test scores, The Open School stands as a challenge to easy assumptions about what makes a good school.

"We hold kids to a very high standard in this school," says principal Bonnie Walters. She recognizes that it's not a standard easily measured by traditional assessments, but says that it's seen in the transformation of students who arrive unwilling to participate and find themselves some months later engaged and involved.

"All you have to do is to be here and listen to kids and watch them, and you know this is a successful place," she says.

On standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs, Open School students tend to place above the national average in verbal skills but do less well in math. Subjects that require sequential instruction tend to be a weak point for the school. Students take the nationally recognized Iowa Test of Basic Skills in ninth and 11th grade, and scores in math and verbal skills are above the national average.

Kurt Belknap, who's taught at the school for 15 years, points to its 25-year history of turning around kids who were languishing and says, "We know what we do here works. We see it in our graduates.

"We serve a different population here," he adds. "We take the kids the rest of the district doesn't want, the ones who felt confined by structure."

The school began in 1975, when a group of parents in Evergreen, Colo., who had been involved in the creation of two alternative elementary schools, wanted to provide a less-structured environment in the higher grades.

In recent years, The Open School was combined with a preK-eighth-grade school and moved to Lakewood, a suburb of Denver. Of the 274 students at the high school, few actually live in Lakewood. Most come from outside the town and this year 64 travel in daily from other districts.

Students and faculty are quick to agree that this school wouldn't be the right fit for everybody. "For some kids, traditional schools really work," says student Carol Von Michaelis. "Some people need more structure." Each year a handful of students decide that the school isn't right for them. Last year, five kids dropped out.

The students who stay represent an unusual mix: academically gifted kids and students who couldn't make it in a traditional setting. "We seem to have a lot of kids at both extremes, and not too many in the middle," says Ms. Walters.

Sometimes parents place their kids in the school, but in many cases it's the kids themselves who make the choice. Ben Riggs, a senior, says his parents were not very happy when he enrolled in ninth grade. After watching his growth, he says, "Now they love it." Ben did well in a conventional school but often felt restless. "I was tired of sitting behind a desk and getting talked at," he recalls.

There's little of that at The Open School. Students are given almost entire responsibility for their learning. Each one is assigned to a faculty adviser, and together the two map out a "learning path." The bond that develops is often a powerful one, and some see that relationship as key to the school's success.

Some classes are formal, but much work is individual. Transcripts here eschew grades in favor of lengthy narrative descriptions that record student learning and development.

In order to graduate, an Open School student must complete six "passages," or individual learning experiences. These are intended to bolster students in areas that need strengthening.

Senior Ashton Honnecke, for instance, worried that he was more comfortable with books than with people, so he and his adviser created a passage focused on learning to better interact with others.

Initiation to The Open School includes a three-day camping trip in the wilderness. In addition to that first experience, each student is required to take at least two other extended school trips. Some take as many as 16.

Because The Open School has no sports teams, no band, and few extracurricular activities, all such funding is poured into travel instead. In addition, students are actively involved in planning the trips, cutting costs where possible, and helping to raise part of the money. Staff pay their own way. Students and faculty have become expert budget-travel planners. Sixteen days in Ireland, with airfare, for instance, will cost only $1,100 per student.

Tom Gregory, professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington, spent a year teaching at The Open School in 1987-88 and calls it one of the best high schools in America. Professor Gregory wrote "Making High School Work" (Teachers College Press) about his experiences there, and asserts that the school makes a contribution to all of US education by "shattering preconceived notions as to what 'learning' really means."

Perhaps the best tribute to the school's strengths are the testimonials of its former students. Tim Campbell, class of 1988, says he came to the school as a teen with a troubled past. "It was the last place that would take me," he remembers, and at first he had little interest in participating. But the school's focus on hands-on learning soon drew him in.

"I saw kids there taking pride in their work," he says. "I stopped wanting to be one of the kids who just sat in the hallway." For Mr. Campbell, who's now enrolled at Colorado State and working as a student teacher at his former high school, The Open School's unusual methods were "the spring board to self-respect."

*Send e-mail comments to coeymanm@csps.com

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