In Providence, RI, I visited the Metropolitan Regional Career & Technical Center (“the Met”). The Met was founded 20 years ago. It is a public school with 850 students, 9th to 12th grades. Every student at the Met takes 2 days per week to do an internship or apprenticeship. Advisors work with students to place them in internships/apprenticeships based on students interests. A student can hold anywhere from one to 10+ internships over the course of their high school career, depending on when they feel ready to move on to another. The school is split up into 4 ‘mini-schools’ of about 200 students each. The small size of these mini-schools—in addition to the efforts of teachers, administrators and students—helps create a sense of community.
In Boston, I visited “School Within a School” at Brookline High School. School Within a School (SWS) was started in 1969. It’s home to 125 students (who applied and were selected via lottery) out of the 1900 that attend Brookline High (a public 9th-12th grade high school). Those students take all their English classes in SWS, as well as some electives. They also spend free time in the SWS space, and they have a little bit more freedom than most students when it comes to choosing their schedule and shouldering the responsibility for their attendance. I was able to sit in on one of the English classes, entitled Race and Identity, which had the feel of a college seminar. The desks were situated in a large circle, which facilitated discussion and a sense of equality. I’ll always remember when, on the first day of my junior year of high school, my English teacher asked everyone to arrange the desks in a large circle facing inward. A subtle change in the layout of the classroom but a powerful and empowering one nonetheless. SWS students participate in a weekly town meetings—where they vote on issues affecting the program—and committees—where they work with a group of others on specific ways to contribute to the community.
In Boston I also saw Mission Hill School (well known in part because of the documentary Good Morning Mission Hill, which highlights some of the schools practices). Mission Hill is a public school with 232 students, preschool-8th grade. Classrooms are made up of 2-year age groupings. A major aspect of Mission Hill, especially for middle schoolers, is portfolios. Students work on personal portfolios throughout the year and present their work to friends and family at the end of the year. Portfolios include aspects of all the subjects the kids study at school. On my visit to the school, I sat in on a morning assembly in which teachers made some announcements and a group of students led the auditorium in singing various songs. Then there was outdoor/recess time. The kids included me in a game of touch football. After that, alas, I sat around while students took the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) math test.
After Boston, I started on my way west. I got to spend a weekend with my cousin Jenny in western Massachusetts. We had a lot of fun hiking, doing yoga, rock-climbing, and making vegan corn pudding for a potluck! Next I headed to upstate New York, stopping in Albany to say hi to the folks at the Albany Free School before heading to Ithaca.
In Ithaca, I visited Lehman Alternative Community School, a public middle/high school with 302 students, grades 6-12. At Lehman, kids can come and go to classes and are individually responsible for their time. Kids have to fulfill a number of credits in specific areas in order to graduate, but within each area there are some very interesting classes offered. For example, I sat in on a class called “Page to Screen” that fulfills an English credit. In the class, kids learn about the relationship between texts and films and how the two mediums have influenced one another. Overall, the class catalog reads very much like what you might find in college. There are committees in which students take on responsibilities in an area of the school’s functioning. An example is the committee responsible for allotting space in the hallways for kids to paint (many of the hallways have student art and colorful, student-painted murals). There is also a weekly all-school meeting in which students vote on policy issues.
In Ithaca I visited the Children’s Garden, a free public garden with a mission to share the joys of gardening and the natural world with kids and families.
In Toronto, I visited Alpha II, an alternative public high school program with around 70 students. I sat in on an advisors’ meeting. The advisors at Alpha II try to help students take advantage of their time in the program by building relationships and getting to know students’ interests. The students have more freedom than I’ve seen at most public alternative schools, the same amount of freedom as you might expect in a Sudbury or free school. In the big main room, some kids were cooking at the kitchenette, some were gathered around a computer. In the art room kids were working with fabrics. I learned about the “Co-op”, a two week course in which students prepare for finding and working at an internship or apprenticeship outside of the Alpha II location. After the visit, Carol (one of the original founders of the Alpha II program) gave me a ride back to my couchsurfing host’s apartment. I first met Carol at the AERO conference. She doesn’t work at Alpha II, but it just so happened that while I was in Toronto she was planning to go to the advisors’ meeting, so she arranged for me to join. During the drive she shared with me the story of how Alpha II came to be. She grew up in Toronto during an era when education was experiencing a renaissance, thanks in large part due to the Hall-Dennis report, which urged major reforms in the education system when it was published in 1968 (here is a description of the Hall-Dennis report, from Alpha II’s ‘sister school’). Carol felt she received a wonderful education during that time, but when she was a little older she noticed that her younger siblings were not receiving the same type of liberatory education she had. Educational policy-makers were rolling back some of the changes that came after the Hall-Dennis report. She felt that an education based on the HD report worked, and that every young person should be able to gain such an education. Years later she had an opportunity to come together with other parents and community members (in 2007) who wanted to bring back for high school students the type of education highlighted in the report, and that was the beginning of Alpha II.
I really enjoyed my time in Toronto. I had a lot of fun with the people I met there. I was struck by Toronto’s size—it’s a huge metropolis, the size of Chicago. I knew it was big, but I guess I was struck by how it could be so big and not very far from the Midwest and yet I didn’t really know much about it. Maybe the invisible wall of it being in another country put some extra distance between us. I do remember having certain ideas about it, certain impressions gathered over the years, but those, like most impressions you have of a place before you actually go there, fade into the background as soon as you spend a few days there. And when you do remember those impressions, maybe days or weeks later, it feels as though you’re recalling some part of a dream.
The last stop on my trip was Ann Arbor, MI. There I visited the Ann Arbor Open School, a K-8 public school with 500 students that was founded in the ’70s. The school uses an approach called “open classrooms,” which involves setting up “learning stations.” Students can move around and choose from a ‘menu’ of activities. Students often work in small groups or independently on a variety of projects. From observing some classes and seeing work displayed on walls, it seemed like the kids had some good opportunities to explore their interests. The teachers and students agree on “learning contracts” together. The contracts outline a project or projects to be undertaken and list the responsibilities of the students in completing them.
Also in Ann Arbor I visited Clonlara, a physical school and an international homeschooling resource organization that was founded in 1967 when homeschooling was illegal in the state of Michigan. My tour was brief, but the school seemed like a relaxed environment where the kids could follow their interests. In the office there were homeschooling advisors who communicate with and offer resources and support to homeschoolers across the country. Clonlara has offices in a number of other countries including Spain, Hungary, Germany, Costa Rica, and China.
Lastly, I got to spend a day at Little Lake Learning Community, a small (~10 students) democratic school that’s been around for 5 years. Little Lake definitely has the feel of a free school, with kids in charge of how to spend their time. They’ve taken inspiration from both the Albany Free School and the Sudbury Valley School, but they’ve also developed their own unique way of doing things. They make most decisions by consensus, while some issues (e.g., the budget) are voted on by a board of directors that includes staff and parents. When I arrived in the morning, Alex—one of the two staff members—welcomed me, introduced me to some of the kids, and gave me a tour of the space. Little Lake rents space from a church, and they have a main open space/kitchen, a music room, a classroom with a whiteboard and books (there are a few scheduled, optional classes including math, German, and French), and an open backyard space with a playground. Some kids brought out a word spelling board game. They spread it out on the floor and used the letter chips to spell words on the board. They asked me to play with them, so I sat on the floor and spelled out words with them. Then I was invited by another student to watch a game of Dungeons and Dragons that was being played on the playground outside. On the jungle gym, A group of 7 or so were playing their own modified version of Dungeons and Dragons. I listened as they described their actions in an imaginary world while I tried to get a grasp of how the game worked (I’ve never played D&D). Afterwards, everyone gathered to play “Groundies”, which I learned was the kids’ most frequently played game. One person was ‘it’ and had to navigate the jungle gym with their eyes closed, trying to tag people and calling “groundies!” if they suspected anyone was on the ground (if they were right then that person would become “it”). After the game of groundies people headed inside. I was asked by some kids to read them a few stories, and I happily obliged. Popcorn was made, some kids built a fort out of blue gym mats and tables and chairs, and a math class gathered to go over multiplication and division. Imagination was in the air at Little Lake. Being there was a reminder of the simple joys that come with being a kid and moving along to your own rhythm. I’m grateful that my last school visit on the trip was a memorable one.
And with that, I come to the end of my school year of traveling. I’ve learned so much along the way, met so many generous and inspiring people, and experienced some amazing places. I got home a few weeks ago. In August I’m heading to Albany. For now I’ll be enjoying the summer.
I want to give a huge thank you to all the people who made this part of the trip amazing for me—Josh, Raúl, Reza, Yassi, Jenny, Kyrs, Tom, Laura, Carol, Peter, Jasmin, Shahrzad, Hediyeh, Shawn, Noah, Alex—and to everyone else who welcomed me into their homes and their schools during my travels.
Lastly, thank YOU for reading my posts and following along with me on my journey.