In the early 1970's, a group of teachers and students gathered in a park to talk about their ideal school. After much discussion, they came to a consensus on how the school would be run and decided to call the school The Nova Project. It was to be a student-centered, collaborative and project-based learning experience within a supportive environment where everyone would be respected.
That was the beginning of the Seattle Public School district’s first alternative school, or “option school.” Additional options schools have opened and flourished since.
My daughter attended Nova, and I was involved as a parent and teacher during her time there. Nova, with some 330 students, is a well-regarded high school. Colleges contact Nova teachers on a regular basis to ask about about potential candidates. The colleges appreciate students who are already familiar with critical thinking.
When my daugher and I first moved to the Seattle area, she spent a day at Nova to find out if it was the right school for her. When I picked her up at the end of the day, she was energized and excited. She told me about the book Nickle and Dimed, and what she had learned by listening to students do presentations about the book.
I was impressed. She was ready to enroll.
So, what makes Nova so special? It's simple. Nova is a student oriented, project based learning environment with performance and competency-based assessments. This is a credit/no credit system with 80 percent mastery of the subject required to pass a class. Learning is not about competing with other students, it’s about being engaged to make or do something, not just passively listening.
Each student works with a coordinator to develop a personal learning plan based on her interests and goals, and to provide a balanced education. The students also have the opportunity to participate in classes at the University of Washington and surrounding community colleges.
The students and teachers are not tied to the Common Core Standards at Nova and curriculum is based on collaborations between students, teachers and the Principal, resulting in seminar style, college level classes.
Nor is there much standardized testing. Last year there was a 100% opt out rate from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—although the stakes are higher this year thanks to pressure from the State Superintendent Randy Dorn. There is an on-going conversation between Nova and the district on what will serve students best.
At Nova, each teacher's classroom reflects something about the teacher, her subject, and the students participating in the classes. There are books, comfortable couches, desks, thoughts expressed on chalkboards and interesting things to look at everywhere.
Students participate in interviewing potential staff, creating new classes along with the teaching staff and principal, and participating in discussions on funding and community partnerships. Students also initiate new programs. For example, students recently decided there was a need for a clinic on campus with a focus on addressing the needs of the LGBT community.
Nova provides an education on becoming an engaged and active citizen and on learning how democracy works. Students know what democracy should look like.
In one class, a teacher introduced students to the Seattle Public School system, its current challenges, and different ways to affect change within the system. The students discussed issues in class that were relevant to them and then wrote testimony on the subjects to present to the school board. I was invited into the class to confer with the students on their testimony, to share my experiences of speaking in front of the board, and talk to them about what was happening around the country regarding education. The students then signed up to testify at a school board meeting, and did an excellent job articulating their concerns.
This is the way to learn civics.
The teachers will tell you they don't have it all figured out. They are constantly questioning and evolving with the needs of the students and the times.
Seems like a pretty good model for education, and for life.
Dora Taylor is northwest regional Progressive Educational Fellow. She established the blog Seattle Education in response to the growing visibility of the corporate and billionaire financed influence on public education. Along with being a mother and advocate for public education, she is a Founding Member and the first President of Parents Across America, and has co-authored two books, Digital Networking for School Reform and Left Behind in the Race to the Top: Realities of Education Reform