I have been involved in the creation of learner-centric public high schools throughout my professional career, in Colorado and in New York. Described below is the beginning of one such school in a Colorado school system in 1975. The school continues to this day, although I have been gone from it since 1986.

Building a Culture of Trust

The “system” was defined for me in a memo that I discovered in the desk that I had been given. There were just three items that were declared to be non-negotiable: we must abide by the school system’s employee contract, we must cost no more per pupil than the other high schools and we must meet the school system’s existing graduation requirements. That was it. No small print!

The contract demand was easy. We had over 300 applicants from around the country for six teaching positions, and a committee of nine parents, nine students, a teacher from our feeder school and myself, spent four days interviewing the 24 candidates who were invited to come at their own expense.

We agreed that hiring would be by consensus, and we finally finished at 2:00 a.m., but the process was wonderful. The highlight was when one of the students, whose normal speech included “chick” and “dude,” politely asked one of the parents, a physicist with a cultured British accent, whether he was uncomfortable, as she was, with the fact that they often disagreed with each other. It paved the way for the eventual consensus!

As you read carefully through these first paragraphs, be aware that the school had not yet officially opened. What we had been doing helped to create an environment of trust, and trust is at the heart of self-directed learning. Students were authentic participants in the choosing of the entire staff, myself included. We all were teachers, and we all were learners.

To respond to the budget demand, we did a careful analysis of the school system’s budget book. We made the case that, although we didn’t want to participate in interscholastic athletics and some of the other conventional school extra-curricular activities, we were entitled to a comparable per-pupil allotment for activities that were appropriate to our own design, primarily educational travel. We were given an additional $10,000 which enabled us to rent nine-passenger vans that we used for trips across the United States and into various parts of Mexico.

“We decided that the graduation requirements of our school system were not demanding enough…we had an all-day retreat to brainstorm what we would propose as our own.”

We decided that the graduation requirements of our school system were not demanding enough. Over the course of that first semester we had students, parents and staff members study other possibilities, and in December we had an all-day retreat to brainstorm what we would propose as our own. The school board was pleasantly surprised to find that we were going to expect more of our graduates than any of the conventional high schools.

Three factors had given us a head start in creating our personalized learning environment. The students all chose to attend this public school, so did all of the teachers, and the original enrollment of 100 grew within the first month to 150, the maximum that had been approved by the school board. Even with our small size we wanted to avoid the feelings of anonymity that plague large conventional high schools, so we created an advisory system wherein every teacher would serve as a mentor and advocate for 16 students.

Advisory groups functioned as families within the school society. When one of the original teachers suggested that we should have a “disorientation,” a series of challenges to help students (and teachers) free themselves from dependency on the “system-centric” schooling, it was through the advisory groups that we were able to accomplish a risky adventure with people who were still strangers to each other. Each group spent one week in the wilderness and another week in the inner city, learning how to work together and learning how to use the real world as their “classroom.”

One young woman told her group that her asthma would prevent her from going on the wilderness trip, but the others offered to help carry her pack and provide whatever other support she might need because she belonged to their family. On the city trip, one student spent the day helping an elderly black couple with household chores. That evening, as each person reflected upon what he/she had learned, this young man said, “I learned that I will never use the N-word again!”

Redefining Curriculum

The disorientation was an introduction to our curriculum process:  experience followed by reflection. In addition to the evening discussions, the students were expected to write a detailed reflection upon their learning at the end of each week. These were shared with their advisor and became the first elements of a student’s portfolio of self-evaluation. The advisors would help their advisees learn how to be more specific than, “It was fun; I learned a lot,” which would be a typical first attempt.

The students, having been in “school” for 24 hours for 10 days, were then given a couple of days off, during which time the teachers created a schedule for the remainder of the semester. Some students chose to participate in that activity and, of course, they were welcome. The first schedule included time for weekly advisory group meetings and time for individual advising. After that priority was established, ideas for classes came from three sources: from the advisors, based upon what they learned about the students during the disorientation, from the teachers’ areas of expertise and enthusiasm, and from outcomes desired by the system.

I have avoided the usual curriculum language, including “requirements,” because we discovered that it narrowed our vision and generated a one-size-fits-all mentality. The proposal that we presented to the school system, as a result of the December retreat, divided the graduation “expectations,” rather than requirements, into three domains:  personal, social and academic. A few of the expectations necessitated demonstrating competence, including literacy and numeracy. A second set of expectations were areas for developing habits of life-long learning such as knowledge of inner resources, community service, health and physical education. A third set were designed to ensure that every student was exposed to laboratory science and the scientific method, to music and the arts, and to at least one other language and culture in addition to his or her own.

The school as an organization changed and grew just as the participants did, with the creation of a Walkabout curriculum structure emerging by the fifth year. This has provided clarity for communication within the school and between the school and prospective students and their parents, while sustaining the values of self-direction and trust upon which the school was founded. We added a series of culminating Walkabout experiences which we called “Passages” – demonstrations that the skills being acquired in school could be applied in the real world.

One example with which I was personally involved was when my daughter spent four months, starting in the summer and extending into her senior year, studying dance in Chicago and New York. She had been told locally that she was good, but she wanted to see if she also would be recognized in the more demanding big city studios. She wrote a proposal that involved Career Exploration, Practical Skills (living within a budget) and Adventure (including people in each city to whom she could turn for assistance if necessary.) A committee that included her advisor, her parents, at least one other teacher, another student and a community expert read her proposal; suggested modifications; and served as a support group for her. Upon her proposal; suggested modifications; and served as a support group for her. Upon her completion of the Passage experience, she made an oral presentation to her committee as well as a written one to be included in her portfolio.

An Authentic and Personal Method of Evaluation

There are two important reasons why we eschewed the conventional system of grades and credits. We considered all three domains, personal, social and academic, to be of equal importance, but while it may be possible to determine a letter or number grade for some of the academic expectations, it made no sense to try to do so for “knowledge of inner resources” or most of the other items in the personal and social domain. Giving grades in just one domain, however, would suggest that the others didn’t “count” as much, and eventually they would be ignored.

The main other reason we chose not to have letter grades was to help the students become capable of realistic self-evaluation. We believe that is a necessary outcome of true self-directed learning. As I described above, at the end of the disorientation the student would write a self-evaluation, and this continued to be the basis for our alternative to conventional grading. At the conclusion of any course, trip, apprenticeship or other learning experience, the student would write a detailed reflection of the learning that took place and then share it with the leader of the activity. This document was a personal narrative that was annotated afterward to reflect the graduation expectations that the student had met, and then it was shared with the leader of the activity, who would write a response to the student’s self-evaluation. These were collected by the advisor into the student’s portfolio. The evaluation process itself became part of the learning process.

Twice a year, each student was expected to write a broader self-evaluation, and this would be the source material for a student/parent/advisor conference. When it became time to consider graduation, as mutually determined by the student and advisor, the student would distill the elements from the three- or four-year portfolio into a single document. My daughter’s totalled 40 pages. It included the student’s reflection on his/her total school experience as well as examples of work at different stages of his/her development. It also included support letters from her advisor and other teachers and community members with whom she had worked.

From the opening days of creating a trusting environment that was respectful of all participants, to the student self-generated final transcript, to the individual graduation ceremonies as well as one for all the graduates, everything we did reflected love, trust and respect for all by all.

Arnold Langberg has been working in public education in New York and Colorado since 1956. Mr. Langberg finds it difficult to give a brief biography of his almost 60 year career, so he recommends two books for anyone who might be interested in more details about him or the school that he refers to in this article: Turning Points - 35 Visionaries in Education Tell Their Own Stories, edited by Jerry Mintz and Carlo Rossi, and Lives of Passion School of Hope by Rick Posner.