Rosie Jacobs, 2017
Around the country, high school students face the drudgery of attending school. Whether they realize it or not, students experience the historical nature of factory work, with bells dictating when they change classes. While some teachers stray from structured rows, there will always be classrooms where desks stand in orderly lines like machines in a factory.
Regardless of the individual talents and character of each student, the subjects they must take fall into narrow categories, assignments are similar, and each standardized test seems indistinguishable from the next.
Public school systems have their benefits such as location, transportation, and taxpayer funding; however, the main focus of the curriculum is geared towards testing, creating a toxic environment for cheating, stress and lack of student voice within classrooms.
Some students don’t learn well in this traditional setting. They may need a more hands-on approach, space and time to think and become independent, and teachers who act as mentors, willing to harness their students’ passions through trust and responsibility.
Despite the drawbacks of public education, there are always alternatives.
A Cambridge-based studio called NuVu boasts a very different approach to secondary education, where students focus on collaboration in design, utilizing mathematics, art, science, technology, and music, among others. Grades do not exist at NuVu; instead, a portfolio suffices.
NuVu students attend a seven-week semester. One teacher, or “coach,” as they are referred to, and an assistant, present an open-ended, real-world issue to students. For example, students have developed solutions for climbers affected by hypothermia, prototypes for children with cerebral palsy, and lever attachments that make maneuvering wheelchairs easier. With the help of their coaches, each student forms a perspective and develops a course of action to solve the problem.
The program provides support, both from the studio advisors and outside resources, including leading experts and professors from MIT and Harvard, who later review the student’s work and offer feedback. The founding school, Beaver Country Day, as well as Cambridge Rindge and Latin and the Cambridge School of Weston have partnered with NuVu so their students can have a different opportunity and are able to earn credits.
In NuVu’s rich environment that provides information and support for continuous self-evaluation, reflection, and improvement, attendees acquire a highly personalized understanding of the world and the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives.
Another program in Brookline tackles the problem of the lack of student driven assignments and the unequal playing field between teachers and students that occurs in the authoritarian practices that schools have used for generations.
A student’s voice should be heard and valued. It’s their education. Why not give them the responsibility to lead it?
Students at Brookline High School have already succeeded through the development of SWS, a school within a school. Dating back to 1969-70, students vocalized their support for student-led curriculum and the need for more personal relationships with teachers.
SWS became an alternative for all students who sought to participate in a democratic classroom and community.
The program is voluntary and has a separate administrative unit from the high school, admitting only 120 students in 10th, 11th or 12th grade based on a lottery system. Even though the admission process is separate, students in SWS partake in some of the high schools’ courses as well.
Because the program was initiated by students, SWS gives their students more freedom and more responsibility in directing their own education. According to Brookline High school’s webpage, all students and staff are required to attend the weekly Town Meeting, which “serves as a forum for discussion and debate and for changes which are inevitable in a growing dynamic community.”
In each class, students share responsibility for classroom management and attendance while teachers are particularly interested in getting to know their students, both inside and outside the classroom.
Much of SWS is based on the idea of community building, working together to reach a common goal. Students are highly motivated to speak out and exercise their rights as independent individuals. Students form committees that help in admissions, community service, and any issues or changes within the school.
Other options for alternative schooling include homeschooling or semester schools, where students become involved in intellectual and social communities formed around themes including, marine ecology, organic farming, ethics and leadership, visual arts, and others.
Semester schools are boarding schools that enroll college bound sophomores, juniors, and or seniors. I am leaving at the end of January to attend the Conserve School, a semester school in Wisconsin dedicated to the study of environment sustainability.
The idea of an alternate education seems daunting and unknown. That’s because moving away from tradition is uncomfortable for people and often creates a psychological barrier that inhibits them from exploring these differences.
Not all options are free like public schools are, yet money should not be the reason students hesitate to apply. Many of these schools and programs offer scholarships and financial aid for motivated students.
Perhaps Somerville High School could learn from Brookline High’s SWS or collaborate with programs like NuVu. Students and teachers should become aware of these opportunities where creativity and passion go hand and hand. Let us take to heart what Steve Jobs once said, “innovation distinguishes between the leader and the follower.”