Breaking the mold

More startup schools offering individualized education
by Malia Durbano

Are children really able to make decisions about what they would like to study in school? Can they, along with parents and teachers, govern a school in a democratic way, creating rules and determining consequences? Zahra Lightway, catalyst for the soon-to-be Durango Community School, believes it can be done.

Lightway founded a school that functioned on these principals in Houston before moving to Durango. She witnessed students thriving in a self-directed learning environment. With less hierarchy, the students learned together and from one another.

“It’s not a bunch of devil children walking all over the adults,” she explains. “Each side is equally empowered to set boundaries. It lays the groundwork for negotiation, collaboration and mutually respectful and satisfying relationships. Children’s interests are as diverse as children themselves, so how could a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning really work?”

The democratic system within the school teaches creative problem solving, listening, team work and persuasive communication as well as forgiveness, compassion and community building, Lightway said. Children will “hold themselves accountable when they’ve been involved in making the rules,” she said.

Lightway has been working tirelessly for the last several months to bring such a school to Durango and said the idea is gaining support among families wanting to send their children to such a school.

“The children are asking for it. They are asking to be let out of the standardized box and to co-create their own learning journey,” she said.
“Parents are also asking for an honoring of their children and an honoring of their individual differences, interests and learning styles.”

The Durango Community School is only one of the choices parents now have for their child’s education. Numerous progressive schools have formed in recent years. Lightway explained, “We prefer the term ‘progressive’ over ‘alternative’ because alternative schools imply that the students have behavioral problems that prevent them from being in a traditional school – usually at high school age.  A progressive school implies a moving away from the traditional educational model.”

Many progressive options are cropping up around town. Most of them are modeled after schools in other parts of the country. Based on California’s successful High Tech High project-based learning model, Animas High School offers students a more open learning environment. Teachers design projects that facilitate hands-on, interactive learning. Mountain Middle School, in its first year, follows the same model and was also created to feed the high school.

The schools began with a group of local mothers out on a hike who decided they wanted options for their children’s education. They spent a year travelling the country observing other schools before deciding on High Tech High.

This and other new models are pushing the boundaries of public education with innovative ways of teaching and learning meant to energize teachers, excite students and raise the achievement bar.

Nancy Heleno was a founding board member for  Animas High and then for Mountain Middle.

“The parents wanted a middle school to be able to serve kids younger than high school age,” Heleno explained. She wrote grants and got half a million dollars from the Colorado Department of Education to start Mountain Middle School last fall.

As a former college professor and author, Heleno says she has a passion for the appreciation of how the brain uses and processes information. “We’re not all the same, and that’s why options are so important,” she said. “Our brains are designed to learn with hands, ears and eyes, not just sitting passively. We retain more when we use our other senses.”

Heleno also said she believes it’s important for students to take what they’ve learned and use it in a real world setting “to show ... that you can apply that knowledge – you don’t just take a multiple choice test.”

Heleno’s passion and commitment began five years ago when she was on the steering committee to start the Liberty School – another school for children who learn differently. According to Bill O’Flanagan, head of school, the Liberty School offers a special program for children who are dyslexic, gifted or “twice exceptional” –dyslexic and gifted.

“Because of the dyslexia, these students can’t read, so their giftedness is overshadowed and ignored until they can read at a certain level,” O’Flanagan said.

The Liberty School is the only school in the Southwest serving this population. The school utilizes the Orton-Gillingham approach to language remediation, and families have moved from as far away as New Zealand and St. Croix so their children could attend Liberty School’s specialized program.

Another option is The Big Picture High School, which is a 9-R school affiliated with Durango High. “We offer essentially the district’s alternative for kids who want something different,” explained Alain Henry, Administrator of Secondary Options. The Big Picture model started in Rhode Island in 1996.  “They went back to the three R’s in education, but these three actually start with R. They emphasize rigor, relationships and relevancy – with the rigor on the back end.”

This model stresses smaller class sizes and is student centered. Students have more freedom and more responsibility. The hands-on practical learning revolves around projects designed and implemented by the students with advisor (teacher) supervision. The students all strive to get an internship in the community to shadow a mentor two days a week beginning in ninth grade.

Families with younger children also have options. Durango Montessori School meets the needs of students in grades one through five. The Montessori philosophy incorporates multi-age classrooms, with students in small groups that are more independent, exploratory and interactive.

“Parents choose our school because they want their children to have a more personal experience. We foster independent thinking skills where kids get to make choices about what they do when,” explained Durango Montessori Director Mary Polino. “Learning is more autonomous while still meeting state and Montessori standards as well as a high academic agenda. We teach kids how to work together to problem solve. We want them to love learning and provide the tools for them to take their curiosity and run with it.”

It seems many parents and educators all agree on some of the guiding principles on which Lightway is basing her new school. “Parents don’t want their kids taking tests all the time. We need to get away from the standardized model. Kids don’t come in standardized packages. We need to honor each child’s individual learning journey and not make them all learn the same thing on the same day.”

The Durango Community School, Montessori and Liberty are all organized in a multi-age group configuration. Lightway explained, “This is going to prepare children to function in the real world. A single-age environment doesn’t exist in the real world.”