Guest Article by Dr. Fredric G. Posner
The Alumni Project for Jefferson County Open School By Dr. Fredric G. Posner
This project entails an in depth follow-up of the graduates of an unusual school: the Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood , Colorado . The Open School (as it is usually called) is a school that goes against the grain of current educational practice. For nearly 35 years the Open School has thrived as a public alternative to conventional schooling. The pre K-12 school is non-graded, self-paced and experiential. No standardized tests, grade point averages or academic credits cloud its approach to the education of the heart, mind and spirit. Every student has a personal advisor on the staff or in the community along with a personal learning plan with goals in the social, personal and intellectual domains.
Students have a direct say in school governance and curriculum as well as in the hiring of staff and administration. Students move out of program levels based on the completion of rites-of-passage projects and their development as self-directed learners. In fact, they demonstrate they are ready to graduate or become members of the adult tribe by writing their own narrative transcripts.
The intent of the Alumni Project is to follow up on the former students of the school (estimated at 1,400 since the first graduating class in 1976). Where are they now, what do they do, how do they view their lives? Do they live according to the goals of the school?
- Goals of the Open School
- Rediscover the joy of learning.
- Engage in the search for meaning in your life.
- Deal with and understand the world that is.
- Prepare of the world that might be.
Help create the world that ought to be.
At this point, I have over 700 former students on my network. I have interviewed about 100 of them on videotape. The rest have been filling out questionnaires that have been structured to address the 5 goals of the school and their relationship to the lives of these adults.
Results at this point indicate that 84% (right at the Jefferson County School District 's average) of these former students went on to college or university. This is a frequent concern of prospective parents and critics of the school: "How do they get into college without grades?" Even more interesting: a full 78% of these college students have actually earned degrees. The national average for completion is a whopping 45%! 25% of those who attended college earned graduate degrees including Master's degrees from Harvard and M.I.T. as well as Doctorates from Yale and California Berkley.
However impressive these conventional kinds of measures may seem, I am really more concerned with levels of life satisfaction, attitudes about lifelong learning and active involvement in communities. Although I don't have the final results, these more meaningful measures are running very high. Most former students seem to be very happy, especially with their relationships with friends and family. When asked to rank the importance of certain things in their lives, over 90% are reporting that being able to maintain meaningful relationships are most important to them. The Open School 's influence on the ability to develop and maintain significant relationships is rated very highly.
Apparently, most of the graduates tended to define " success" in more spiritual, less material ways. Many said they " were happy with who they were" not how much money they were making or the prestige of what they were doing for a living.
Over 90% of these former students (some of whom are 46 years old) say they value the inherent joy in learning. Again, overwhelmingly, they give credit to the school for igniting their passions for the learning process itself.
Over 95% of respondents state that they are constantly engaged in the search for meaning in their lives. Many trace this search back to their Adventure Passage at the Open School where one embarks on a meaningful quest with all the appropriate risks and challenges. Thus, another recurring theme is the view of life as a great adventure. Most respondents say that they see no distinction between living their lives and pursuing a lifelong education. Many simply say: "The Open School taught me how to live my life!"
Another recurrent response is: "The school saved my life!" Most of the time this is meant figuratively but sometimes not. For those who came from the world of conventional schools, one is tempted to redefine the term " at risk" to include each and every student in that setting.
Community involvement also runs very high. Over 93% say they are engaged in some way of creating a better world. Many graduates refer back to their Global Awareness Passage when they had to identify and do something about a global issue.
Other questions having to do with the rest of the school goals are still in process. Also two excellent questions that were asked in the landmark Eight Year Study of the 1940's are also included in this project: Were the things we (at the Open School ) emphasized the important things? And: Did the school have any influence on your ability to enjoy life?
The heart of this project will be comprised of the stories of individual graduates - their passions, dreams and hopes - how they see the influence of a democratic, progressive education. Some of these narrative profiles will include the life of a scientist studying monkeys in Panama , an engineer working at the South Pole, a fisherman in Alaska and an educational director (disabled himself) working for the Association of Retarded Citizens. Indeed, there are so many great stories; it will be difficult to compress them.
This book will be about passion and hope. What happens when people are set free to follow their dreams? How much can schools encourage and guide instead of hinder and restrict?
I can't say enough about the importance of this project. Today's educational climate is foreboding to so many children, parents and educators. High stakes testing and its ensuing pressures and limitations are just part of the gloomy picture. School violence, student alienation, and a general lack of engagement (even from straight "A" students) are widespread. Anger, fear and frustration mark the educational landscape while the political powers that be keep pushing for more testing, homework and academics.
The Columbine killers were both products of this large, impersonal system. In fact, they were considered "good students" by most conventional school measures-good grades and higher test scores. Because of the avoidance of real issues and the lack of attention to the social and personal needs of students, these angry boys were able to "hide out". As Art Combs once asked: " Why, in our schools, do we have to make a choice between smart psychotics and well-adjusted dopes?"
Why indeed! It is time to take a good look at some alternatives that are proven and well entrenched in the public school system. That's why we desperately need to examine the long-term effects of a public progressive education. What happens to these kids when they graduate from a program without grades, devoid of artificial rules and limitations? What becomes of students who were encouraged to follow their passions, not just prepare for standardized tests? Might an advising system (where every student has at least one positive, in depth personal connection with an adult) and an empowered student government help mitigate the prevalence of violence and alienation in our schools today?
An educational program should be measured by its outcomes. Moreover, the graduates of a school should model the program's goals and mission. Too often, conventional schools have nebulous mission statements or give lip service to the social and personal development of their students. The Open School , with its emphasis on these domains, should turn out well-rounded, productive members of adult society. These people should also be self-directed, joyful, lifelong learners who see change and personal growth as the frameworks for their lives.
Unfortunately, there is very little information on the long-range impact of authentic open school programs. The Eight Year Study is over 60 years old and open educators are still struggling to defend their programs to dubious parents and fellow educators. It is time to say: Look at our graduates. Discover what kind of people they are and how they look back on the impact of a truly progressive education.
We also need to find out what improvements are needed in such programs so that we can provide the best possible confluenceof mind, spirit and heart in our schools today. Just listening to the stories of these former students should help us frame an argument for meaningful school reform. Portraits of these adults will provide visions of hope for the future of educational programs that emphasize the growth of compassionate, joyous, lifelong learners.
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