Giving Thanks, Changing Lives

As our annual fundraising campaign, Colorado Gives Day, approaches its climax we wanted to give you a sense of the gratitude AVS families have expressed for the life-changing gifts they’ve received here.  After reading the following parent testimonials, please consider giving what you can and spreading the word so that more families might enjoy transformations like these. Schedule your donation today at this link and help us reach our goal of raising $22,750 for our Tuition Assistance Fund.

Sherry Cure

I am thankful to AVS for giving our daughters a place to grow in different and unexpected ways.

For example, during our first year here my youngest child—who up to this point had been carefree and left details to everyone else—decided she wanted to set up a field trip to a local pool. The night before the trip, she asked us to drive her there so she could make sure the details were taken care of (which was surprising in itself). When we got to the rec center the staff said, “Don’t worry about it, your teacher will make sure it’s all set up.” My daughter said, “No, it’s my field trip and I need to make sure everything’s arranged.” Since she was only 9 the staff was surprised to hear this, and it gave her the opportunity to talk about her school. And her field trip went off without a hitch. This was our first real glimpse of how AVS was helping her grow up into a more responsible person, and we were thrilled.

Our older daughter had always been the super-responsible kid—almost too much so, and keeping her opinions to herself. Through being part of AVS she has learned to speak out more, and she no longer blindly follows others’ opinions. She thinks about a situation, questions its validity, and makes her own decision. She is now comfortable speaking her mind. She has used this new ability to become active in the day-to-day processes of the school, especially the judicial system. We feel this confidence will serve her well in life, both during and after her school years.

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Kaye Kamon

So deep and wide does my gratitude for AVS run, it’s difficult to know where to begin. With that in mind, perhaps it’s best to start…in the beginning.

I can barely fathom the courage, vision, and determination that drove the founders of AVS to create and maintain this opportunity that would, 11 years later, literally be life-changing (and perhaps life-saving) for us. We never would have discovered AVS without the guidance of educational consultant Jeffrey Freed, who urged me to give the school a chance and provided a bridge of courage and open-mindedness until…

…I had an opportunity to observe and interact with the “results,” the living embodiments of an AVS education—the alumni and long-time students. These young adults seem so involved, and so open about their experiences at AVS. Many alumni continue to support and enjoy the school community years after they’ve left. Repeatedly I’ve heard them publicly express their gratitude for this extraordinary school, some of them even moved to tears as they did so.  

Thank you also to past and current parents who have inspired and supported me. We are making an unorthodox choice, many of us driven by damaging and limiting experiences within the conventional paradigm. Some have the insight before their children ever begin school that the system’s flawed, or that an environment of freedom and self-directed education will result in happier, more successful adults. I have felt much deeper connections to the parents at AVS than any of the other schools my son attended before.

Any expression of gratitude would be severely incomplete without thanking the staff. I hold them in the highest esteem and deeply appreciate their “labor of love,” their dedication to protecting the learning environment for the students, and the magnitude of the personal sacrifices they have made. I know they could be making substantially more money, and certainly have more job security, working elsewhere.  I mean, come on! These folks have their jobs on the line every May as School Meeting votes on next year’s contracts. Talk about a performance review!

Last but certainly not least, many thanks to the students. You know full well that you’ve been given a unique opportunity to take responsibility in creating your lives, expressing your passions, and following your own paths to become effective adults in the greater community. And you are all assets to that greater community already: I know this is true because you have most certainly touched my life in a positive way.

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The Power of Play

We had our first snow of the season a few days ago, and even though the temperature was 22 degrees outside many of our students were running around, chasing each other and throwing snowballs. The morning started out at 65 degrees, so their outerwear was light and their cheeks and fingers were red and icy cold, but that didn’t even slow them down. There were brief breaks for food and to warm up, but snow play quickly resumed.

I stood at the window, watching younger and older students romp around the yard, and then I decided to join the fun. As I stepped outside, the wind blew snow in my face and whipped open my jacket. My hands and ears felt frozen, and my eyes were watering.  After a two-minute walk around the building I’d had enough and went back inside. What was a fun activity for the students was not for me, and I wondered why the cold and blowing snow not only didn’t bother them but actually added to their enjoyment and seeming determination to endure the freezing weather.

Perhaps their innate drive to have fun, to enjoy the moment at hand, helps children focus more on the play and less on any discomfort they might feel. Perhaps when they are totally present and absorbed in a playful activity, they have more tolerance for bothersome elements and, in fact, are learning to deal effectively with challenging situations. My curiosity about this led me to Google the topic of children playing in difficult environments. What I discovered has brought me a whole new appreciation for the power of play.

In a 2012 study , David Kuschner writes about the value of play. Even in the most extreme conditions, such as: slavery, the Holocaust, difficult urban environments, chronic illness, and war, children find a way to play. Not only that, their games often re-enact what they witness in their lives, and in the process help them cope with the horrors that surround them: play becomes a way to confront their reality, by making a story out of heartbreaking circumstances.

Kuschner concludes his report on a upbeat note: “But I also feel positive about the state of play today because history shows us that the life force of play is difficult to extinguish. I have faith that despite any current and future circumstances that might not be supportive of children’s play, children will find ways.”

While the children Kuschner studied contend with conditions far more horrific than a snowstorm, I have come to believe that play is essential in helping our children learn to be resilient and practice ways to deal with their life situations, whatever they may be. I hope we can learn from our children that the freedom to play offers far more than just enjoyment; it develops the skills and readiness necessary to handle reality with grace and courage.

As I glanced back out the window and watched our students fully engaged in the fun, I felt immense gratitude that Alpine Valley School is here for them and honors their right to play. If you would like more families to have this opportunity, please consider donating to our tuition assistance fundraiser at CO Gives.

Colorado Gives—and You Should, Too!

This week puts us right in the swing of fundraising season! We’ve been preparing for weeks now and have started unveiling our various fundraising efforts over the last week.

Our goal this year is to bring in $22,750 for Tuition Assistance. We depend on our Tuition Assistance Program to offer an individualized, empowering education to as many people as possible. Here are are some simple ways to help us keep doing this:

  • Donating is very easy—just head to our Colorado Gives donation page and fill out the information needed. Be sure to click the “CO Gives Day” button to boost our share of First Bank’s Incentive Fund!

  • Want to see how others are helping Alpine Valley School reach our goal? Check out the fundraising pages associated with the school.

  • I’ve been putting together short videos that show different people’s perspectives on Alpine Valley School. Check them out at our YouTube page and on the fundraising pages above.

  • We’re planning on having a presence at the Colorado Gives Rally at the Capitol on Monday, December 8th, and we will be hosting a donation drive at Einstein’s Bagels here in Wheat Ridge on Colorado Gives Day, Tuesday, December 9th.

We would love to see you out at one of these events, have you share our videos or fundraising pages, and especially donate. Help us reach our goal and help more students have the unique experience of an Alpine Valley School education!

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Washington Gridlock and Democratic Schools

By Jim Rietmulder

As a founding staff member of The Circle School, Jim Rietmulder has spent thirty years supporting self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities. On Thursday, January 15, 2015, Jim will speak at Alpine Valley School on the topic  “Every Child a Pioneer: Schooling on the New Frontier.”

The following blog post first appeared two years ago at http://circleschool.org/2012/11/washington-gridlock-and-democratic-schools/.

Jim R IMG_8785aTomorrow we Americans elect a president. Two days ago we Circle Schoolers hosted a group of families and educators here, telling them about life in our democratic school. Now I’m thinking about the connection between Washington gridlock and American schools.

About American national politics, two observations are widely agreed: hyper-partisan politics are crippling American government, and the degree of partisanship has increased in recent times. Primary elections favor the most strident candidates. Once elected, compromise, collaboration, and cooperation are mostly off-limits. Confrontation displaces innovation. Worse still, the system is self-reinforcing, creating a downward spiral of dysfunctional government as parties and partisans seek to block the opponent rather than govern the nation. Both parties are guilty.

At least two factors contribute: first, primary elections tend to draw the most partisan voters, favoring the most partisan candidates. Second, voting district boundaries have been ridiculously contorted to create electoral districts favoring whichever party is in power at decennial redistricting time. The result is that elections serve the self-preservation interests of the two major political parties, sometimes contrary to the collective interests of Americans and good government.

Is school another contributing factor, conditioning children and teens for something much smaller than American ideals? More about that in a moment.

How can we stop the downward spiral, reduce excessive partisanship, and promote practical wisdom in public policy making? Several possibilities have been suggested, and some tried. Putting an end to gerrymandered voting districts would help; California may be showing the way with its non-partisan redistricting commission. Open primaries could help, in which all voters, including independents, can vote in any party’s primary election; but could create new problems, and constitutional issues have yet to be resolved. “Sore loser laws” prevent candidates who lose in the primary election from running in the general election; repeal of such laws, which protect the two major parties from pesky third-party candidates, might help by allowing non-partisan and independent candidates to run without having to pass through the ideological purity filter of primary elections.

Those ideas are all out there in public debate, but here’s one that is not: turn schools into democratic societies. Immerse children and teenagers in public discourse, law-making, and government by consent of the governed. Empower a school legislature as the sole authority for creating school rules. Empower a school court system run by students and staff together, to administer justice. Empower an executive body of students and staff, responsible for managing budget, campus, employment, and day-to-day operation of the school. Demand that students and staff together be responsible for governing, accountable for lawful citizenship, and mindful of the diverse community around them.

What sort of governance and society do most students experience in school today? In the classroom, the teacher makes and enforces the rules. In the school, the principal is the ultimate authority. We could call this aristocracy: rule by the elite class of teachers and administrators. But students could be forgiven for calling it dictatorship or totalitarianism, both within the classroom and within the school. Thus we condition children to a model of leadership and governance in which democracy and collaborative policy making are exceptions, not the norm. We condition students to a disempowering system in which the governed have no right of participation, and thus diminished duty and incentive to cooperate.

Doesn’t this strike you as an odd way to prepare children for life in democratic America? Wouldn’t it be more satisfying for everyone if schools honored principles of American democracy and the human rights we say are endowed from birth: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness?

Immersed for 12 years in democratic school society, students would internalize the ideals and practice of American government and citizenship. Orderly public discourse and collaboration with others on matters of policy and law would become second nature.

I know this because we see it daily here at The Circle School. I wish the option and opportunity of democratic schooling were available to more families and students.

Is it the fate of democratic republics to harden into government gridlock for want of collaboration and cooperation? I don’t think so. As many others have done, I’m drawing a line from schooling to governing, from student to citizen. Let’s make schools a truer microcosm of the society we hope to live in!

A Different Class of Citizens

Chances are, if you follow the news from Denver, you’ve heard about a controversy in our local public school district over proposed revisions in Advancement Placement (AP) U.S. History. Protests (including walkouts and sick-outs) ensued over the following proposal:

On Sept. 18 the Jefferson County Board of Education met and proposed setting up a committee to ensure that the [new AP] courses “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respects for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

It’s inspiring to see students, teachers, and parents demonstrate against what they regard as politically motivated censorship, saying things like “there is nothing more patriotic than protest.” What really concerns me, however, aren’t disagreements over what people, events, and concepts are to be covered in classroom discussion, but rather the fact that conventional schooling allows most people very little power.

Ironically, the educational system in the United States features some of its least democratic institutions. Citizenship is a topic in required courses, yet it doesn’t have a home in the structures and daily life of most schools. Those directly affected by decisions regarding curriculum, personnel, finances, and conflict resolution have next to no voice in those decisions.

I recognize that many good people are working very hard to help these students, but consider for a moment the inevitable effects of centralized, factory-like schooling. When distant officials decide what is best for students, when they control teachers’ actions and pay, lopsided power struggles become more likely, not less. Instead of allowing young people’s natural drive to learn blossom, students are left with the options of either complying with or resisting a pre-packaged curriculum delivered by adults exercising arbitrary authority.

Let’s take another look at the school board’s statement. Notice that they mention “patriotism” immediately after “citizenship,” implying that one can’t be a good citizen without a healthy “respect for authority” (as opposed to thoughtful, responsible participation in the political process). Observe the concern that classroom lessons could “encourage or condone” disorder and lawlessness. How very revealing this is: when order is given top priority, when a person’s only form of meaningful involvement is protest, you’ll see exactly the sort of struggle now unfolding in suburban Denver.

Fortunately there are alternatives far more closely aligned with the ways people naturally learn and the skills needed for success in this Information Age. The Sudbury Model of education was explicitly designed to reflect such bedrock principles of American democracy as consent of the governed, due process, and a jury of one’s peers. We prioritize “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, regardless of age.

In practice, this means autonomy and freedom in learning (freedom of movement, time, assembly, etc.) within a culture of both respect for others’ rights and responsibility for the welfare of the school. Rather than simply getting their citizenship training from textbooks, AVS students learn from immersion in a self-governing community: they assume leadership roles on school committees; they debate, vote on, and enforce school rules. Students can participate as equals in every aspect of school management, including personnel and the budget.

I have great sympathy for those in Jefferson County seeking input into what they’re allowed to study. Actually, my sympathy is independent of the political ideology driving the proposed changes. Rather than simply wishing the protestors success, I am holding out for much more. Instead of imposing any agenda on young people in the hope of molding society in one’s vision, I advocate for allowing all people to learn what they choose, however it best suits them, in order that they can become self-actualized and empowered, respectful and responsible.

One of my favorite quotes comes from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This is exactly what we offer at Alpine Valley School: people-centered, passion-driven learning. And this, not a solid AP history curriculum, is what the future citizens of this country most need.

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Students protest outside Standley Lake High School against the curriculum review. (credit: CBS)