Jefferson County Open School students. (Used with permission)

Here is the third in a series of profiles about the winners of a pilot project, called Schools of Opportunity, that is highlighting schools that are creating healthy environments for students, teachers and staff. Seventeen schools were named as inaugural winners in initiative to identify and recognize public high schools that seek to close opportunity gaps through practices “that build on students’ strengths” — not by inundating them with tests. (You can see the list here.)

Each high school recognized as 2015 Schools of Opportunity has supported and challenged its students — many of them at-risk — and its teachers, but each story is unique. The first story featured how Colorado’s Centaurus High School fosters a healthay climate for students and teachers. The second profile looked at how one majority-minority school on Long Island, Malverne High School, fosters a college-going culture and builds academic and social-emotional supports around students who need them. This third profile looks at a school that has refused to conform to standardization.

The Schools of Opportunity project is the work of Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, and Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education who specializes in educational policy and law. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, was named New York State High School Principal of the Year. She is taking early retirement at the end of the school year to advocate for public education. Welner is director of the National Education Policy Center at UC Boulder, which produces high-quality peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

You can visit the project’s website at Here is the third profile of a winning school, from Burris and Welner:

Jefferson County Open School
Lakewood, CO Principal: Scott Bain
Superintendent of Schools: Dan McMinimee
Enrollment: 525
Economically disadvantaged students: 42 percent

By Carol Burris and Kevin Welner

American public schools in general, and high schools in particular, have largely become standardized. Federal and state policies powerfully shape what children learn and even how they learn it. It’s rare, therefore, to find a public school that outright refuses to conform. But that is what Jefferson County Open School has done, pursuing its own unique vision of engaging, relevant, learner-centered education.

From its inception 45 years ago, the Open School has embraced an educational philosophy rooted in the belief that students are inherently curious and want to learn. Accordingly, educators should follow the lead of the student, facilitating opportunities for students to discover, explore, and master their interests and their passions. In doing so, the school has provided a vibrant and viable alternative to conventional schooling—an alternative that is particularly stark in our age of standards- and test-based accountability policies. The school offers an equitable, innovative, and proven educational approach that features a commitment to educating the whole child.

The school’s approach is built around a series of six self-directed learning projects in specified but broad areas (e.g., logical inquiry, career exploration, and practical skills). These projects are designed by each student, working within a long-term relationship with a faculty advisor who guides their work. Because these projects arise and are developed by each student, they are personally meaningful and relevant. Learning projects foster intellectual growth while simultaneously assisting students as they navigate the transition to adulthood.

On the day of our visit, we sat in on a whole-school meeting where students, among other things, presented on participation in the commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. As shown in a short documentary made by one of the traveling students, the group marched the entire route and even stopped at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas on the way to Alabama. Their authentic participation in the community they joined included speaking at one of the formal commemorative events.

Such curriculum-related “explorations” are engrained in the school’s curriculum – everything from local camping and hiking to lengthy trips overseas. The travel costs are surprisingly small, due to home stays and other cost-cutting; the school also raises money to support students from lower-income families. The school’s educators have found the explorations to be valuable for learning and for building community.

One other element of the whole-school meeting is also noteworthy. Two students led a presentation about the upcoming prom, focused on drinking, drugs and appropriate levels of public affection. What was striking was the degree of maturity, authenticity and connection to the audience achieved by the two presenters. In a nutshell, the message was: We are part of a community, we hold each other to high expectations, and you’ll be letting us down if you do something stupid. This may sound like an ineffective message for teenagers preparing for the prom, but it was not – and a message like that can only work within a caring, close community that has already established a strong, healthy culture. The school, in fact, has put in place a variety of practices to maintain a school culture built on respect, on personal relationships, and on individual dignity.

All of this is happening, of course, within Colorado’s high-stakes, test-based accountability system. A few years ago, the state’s accountability system flagged a dip in test scores for part of the school, meaning that the scores would have to increase if it were to avoid being caught up in the sanctions regime. This prompted the school’s leaders to deliberate about whether to focus instruction on raising those test scores. As one of the school leaders told us, these are standardized tests, but being standardized is exactly what the school rejects. They spoke with students and with the larger school community and recognized that a big part of the problem was that the tests were being treated dismissively. In response, students rallied around the cause of protecting their school, took the tests on as a challenge (even if still wrapped in ridicule), and the scores went up. The school had to change very little, sticking to its basic principles.

When visiting the Open School and seeing how well it serves students, it’s hard to avoid asking oneself about scalability—about whether this model of school can just serve a small niche (it’s a choice school), or whether it can be scaled up. The answer is probably that it can and should be scaled up considerably, in some cases as a complete model and in some cases as offering elements for adoption in somewhat different schools. The self-directed learning projects described above offers one example.

Another is the advisory approach, with a faculty member bonding with a student over a period of several years, as described by Open School principal Scott Bain:

“All students work closely with an adviser at three-year intervals. Advising is the means to ensure that each student has a close, meaningful, non-familial adult relationship. Through the advisory relationship, students can rely on a trusted adult to guide, support, and challenge them to achieve beyond their expectations. Advisers also serve as a conduit for parent involvement in a student’s education. In the age of accountability, there is no greater accountability than to earn the trust of a student and their family.”

But a caution is needed here: these innovative practices, if taken in isolation, can miss the point and lead to disappointing results. At the Open School, the practices are all approaches or tools used in furtherance of the larger emphasis on highly personalized learning within a highly supportive environment. Students will not likely be able or willing to take ownership of their own learning unless the context and culture is in place.

The principal offered this final thought:

“Paradoxically, the highly individualized nature of the Open School program actually accentuates, rather than detracts from, the sense of community created at the school.”

At a time of such a strong push for standardization, it’s important to see what else is possible and how delightful the results can be.

Jefferson County Open School students on an archaeology trip in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado . (Used with permission)