Expansions in education
Animas High approaches opening day

Durango High students make their way to class this week. come net fall, high school students will have two more choices: Animas High and DHS’ Big Picture./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

After nearly five years in the making, the opening bell is ready to sound at Animas High School. The alternative, local high school, which will focus on offering students a tuition-free “21st century education,” is set to open its doors to 100 freshmen students this August.

The idea for Animas High School was first hatched 4½ years ago on a mountain bike ride. At that time, Gisele Pansze, who holds a masters degree in education, and a friend asked why there was no real alternative to Durango High. That initial question kicked off a two-year search for options, which eventually led Pansze and other members of the Animas High steering committee to San Diego and a school called High Tech High.

High Tech High opened in 2000, and its college-prep model stresses the use of technology and real-world situations as a path to life-long learning. The High Tech High system is all over California and boasts more than 2,500 students with a record of 100 percent college admission.

“We knew right away that High Tech High was the perfect model for Durango,” Pansze said. “It was the combination of innovative curriculum, engaging teaching methodology and the ability to transfer the kinds of projects they’re already doing straight into our community.”

Late in 2007, Animas High School received approval from the Colorado Charter School board to open a 440-student public high school in Durango. The approval means that Durango students will have the opportunity to attend the smaller school free of charge.

Eyeing an opening date in the fall of this year, the Animas High School board hired Michael Ackerman as the school’s head. Ackerman has been a professional educator, freelance photojournalist, certified mountain guide and founded a public school, Tributaries Alternative Education Program, in Conway, N.H. The High Tech High model was a big piece of what drew Ackerman to Durango.

“We’re trying to be forward thinking here and set these kids up for success,” he said. “We’re not just talking about college. This is preparation for a life of learning.”

The Animas High facility will be essential to the alternative school’s success, he said. According to the High Tech High model, the building plays a vital role in the process and functions as a multi-media backdrop. Ackerman noted that while the space cannot be disclosed, Animas High is in eleventh hour negotiations for a space within a 2-mile radius of Durango High School.

“The building is a perfect fit and will allow us to remodel in such a way that the building will meet the needs of the student,” he said. “For Animas High School, the building will be part of the education process, and we have found a space that will house us for a minimum of two years and can be designed to fit the High Tech High model.”

One core tenet that will shape Animas High School will be “personalization,” Ackerman explained. “We want to go beyond creating boxes for students to fit into,” he said. “Animas High will take away the split where the smart kids go one place and those needing remediation go another. That’s not the way the real world works.”

Students at the alternative school will have access to classes like “Media Technology,” “Photojournalism” and “Inventing,” and traditional classes will also get a different spin. For example, first-year students will take World History and World Literature together as well as a block studying physics and algebra. “Hands and mind are a big part of what makes up Animas,” Ackerman explained. “Just like life, the learning is not going to be compartmentalized.”

In addition to Ackerman, several full-time faculty members and a part-time resource officer have been hired. The school will begin its first year with a 100-student ninth-grade class and grow from there into a full high school. “We want to take baby steps and not dilute what we know is going to be a great product,” Ackerman said.

There have been some last-minute challenges for Animas High School, however. So far 40 students are enrolled for this fall, and the school’s organizers have had some difficulty getting the word out. Part of the confusion involves the Durango School District’s Big Picture High School, a totally separate charter school with more of a vocational bent that is also opening in August. In spite of perceived rivalry with Durango High School, Principal Diane Lashinsky noted that Animas High could represent the best fit for some Durango families.

“I think it offers a choice for some of our students and families, and the High Tech High model is obviously credible,” she said. “If students do choose to go there, it will affect our enrollment. But ‘competition’ is not a word I’d use to characterize the school.”

Looking forward to the next school year, Ackerman hit a similar tone. “We feel like there’s a place for all these programs,” he said in closing. “Animas is going to work for some kids. Durango High is going to work for some kids. And Big Picture is going to work for some kids. Isn’t it great that Durango’s kids now have options?” •



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