How to build community among alternative schools? Put the kids in charge!

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Guest contributor Peter Fox is a high school student at the Academy of Thought and Industry in Austin. When I heard about the multi-school prom he and his fellow students were organizing this spring, I invited him to share the story with our readers. We love seeing this kind of collaboration in the alt ed community. Thanks, Peter, and congratulations on a job well done!


I first joined the Austin alt ed community in November of 2018. Due to a variety of factors, public school seemed to no longer be a good fit. When my family and I looked at a number of different schools, the Academy of Thought and Industry (ATI) seemed to be the way to go. Although I quickly enveloped myself in the ATI community, one distinct issue became clear to me as I continued my foray into the alternative education scene: there are no Friday night lights in alt ed. In public school, we always enjoyed the fact that there were many other schools in the area. Sure, we may have been rivals, but oftentimes we had friends at these separate schools. We were all practically a huge community. In the Austin alt ed scene, that sense of community did not exist—yet.

Fast-forward to February of this year. At ATI, we are highly independent students. In our school-wide Life Design class, we faced the daunting prospect of taking on a project that we would be working on for the rest of the semester. Our only restriction was that our project, whatever we chose, had to in some way better our community. When I heard the idea of a shared prom between alt ed schools, I knew I had to have a part in it. An alt ed prom could begin to fill the void of organized events among alternative schools in Austin. It would not only impact our small school community but potentially many other school communities in our area. It was the perfect solution to the problem I saw.

And so, we set out. With a grim amount of work in the short time ahead of us, our initial committee immediately brainstormed on how we could plan such a complicated event in a month and a half. It was decided to split up the tasks among four committees: a logistics group, in charge of finding a venue and food; a finance group, who would handle our budget; a decor group, tasked with decorating our prom; and, last but certainly not least, a programming group, for scheduling the event itself and gathering necessary equipment. However, we were still missing one critical element: a project manager—somebody who would keep everything running smoothly and every part moving in sync. After little deliberation, my friend Samantha and I volunteered to take on this role, with Samantha handling the creative oversight and me handling logistical items. Finally, we could begin work.

I first drafted a schedule for every workday we had until prom, complete with deadlines, due dates, and deliverables. This would make sure we could keep track of every aspect that comes with event planning. We then formed committees, and immediately began work on our first deliverables. At the same time, we began reaching out to alternative schools around Austin, asking if they were interested in our prom or any sort of future alt ed event. Spring Break came and went, and when we returned to school, we found that two alt ed schools wanted to join us: Clearview Sudbury School and Lake Travis STEM Academy.

That was when I realized: this is actually happening, and we have to deliver. With renewed energy and added pressure, I sent a small group of people (including our amazing guide Chris Ready) to Clearview to gauge their interest level. The findings were amazing and slightly surprising: the students we spoke to felt the same lack of a larger community beyond their own school and not only wanted to attend the prom, but help plan it. The next day, our Clearview friends visited ATI to work with us on several aspects, such as our theme and possible icebreakers and activities during the prom itself. The time flew by, and soon we were working with Clearview, Lake Travis STEM, and even homeschool students to design our perfect prom.

After months of preparation, the night had finally arrived. We began setting up at 2pm, and the prom officially began at 7:30. We saw our efforts pay off and reaped the rewards in a night of fun and celebration. During a short break, I looked around the room, and what I saw was surprising and satisfying. Students from all three different schools were joined together in groups on the dance floor.

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We had achieved exactly what we set out to do. Our community, during those two hours, was expanded and transformed into something bigger than just us. When we first started working on our prom, we could barely remember each other's names. Now, there was a familiar sense of friendship among everybody on the dance floor, as we enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

So, what’s next? Well, as I put the finishing touches on this post, I’m also sending out an invitation for our next shared alt ed event, a potluck on Friday, May 10. Which, by the way, if you or your school would like to attend, please email me (pfox@thoughtandindustry.com). All are welcome!

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Creating these activities and events is such a fantastic learning experience, and honestly, just a fun time. Our mission, as a group of students, is to create the sense of community among alt ed schools that has been to this point exclusive to public schools, and our prom was just the beginning. Stay tuned for future events!


Peter Fox

Austin’s STEM schools are fueled by kids’ and educators’ natural curiosity

The technology and engineering sectors are producing valuable jobs in Austin and the rest of the nation, and, perhaps as a result, a growing number of parents want to encourage a love of science and mathematics in their children. It makes sense that we’re seeing more and more schools promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curricula. STEM courses and camps are popular in public and private schools, but as you might expect, the alternative schools in Austin offer some special twists. To learn more, I talked with local innovators who are taking STEM in new directions: Rebeca Guerrero and Dorothy and Kori McLain.
 

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

It’s important to be able to take a radio apart, and not get scolded!
—Rebeca Guerrero, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy

Rebeca Guerrero’s warm and supportive preschool, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy, has served children age 18 months to 5 years for the past two years.

Rebeca is a scientist herself, with a decade of experience as a microbiologist. When she realized that most young people today leave high school and head for college believing that science is too hard to master, and only for the smartest kids, she knew she had to try to make some changes. Rebeca’s own mother encouraged her to take an interest in the world and to ask questions and explore when she was very young. “As someone who used to take radios apart for fun, with my mother’s help, it was a shocking revelation that so many students are intimidated by science.”  

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Rebeca moved into teaching and then, when her son was born a few years ago, decided to open her own preschool, allowing them to spend time together, playing and learning with other children. In the fall of 2015, Copernicus Academy started with four students, soon grew to 20, and today has about 50. The preschool combines STEM-focused play with learning in English and Spanish.

“Most of our kids speak English at home, but we have also had children who speak Korean and Farsi.” Parents at Copernicus understand the value of a bilingual education, says Rebeca, but “more than anything, families are looking for a place where kids can grow and feel supported emotionally.” With that supportive base, Copernicus educators pursue play-based learning with intention, making sure the students have experiences that spark a love of the natural world. For example, kids might spend a month learning about the solar system, including Earth’s rotation, the moon’s phases, integrating art and reading into their projects.

On an average day, you might find kids at Copernicus perfecting catapults made out of spoons, cooperating, experimenting, and showing off what they’ve done by launching pompoms. The usual routine includes time in the sun room or outside, snacks, small-group play, centers, and circle time. The staff joins in games and activities, asking questions but never telling the children what or how to play. And then there’s the music: “We sing and have dance parties every day,” says Rebeca. “We want to make sure that later in life they will say: ‘Science is not boring, it’s fun! Science is not for someone else—science is for me.’”

 

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

Everything is connected in our studies at LTSA,
like everything in our world is connected and integrated.

—Dorothy McLain, Lake Travis Stem Academy


At Lake Travis Stem Academy (LTSA), founder Kori McLain was not only inspired by her mother, she recruited her. Dorothy McLain spent most of her career as a college educator specializing in English composition and literature. Now she and Kori and the rest of the LTSA team are preparing about 25 students in Kindergarten through 9th grade for the 21st century, with a curriculum integrating STEM, critical thinking, and experiential learning. LTSA is now working on a partnership with UT High School that will allow older students to continue on at Lake Travis while benefitting from the resources the larger school can offer.

Dorothy has always believed in an interdisciplinary approach to learning. “It’s important to become well-rounded,” she says, citing a recent project in which middle-schoolers learned about the history, economics, politics, and culture of the Great Depression by writing and staging a three-act musical play.

Inspiration. (LTSA)

Inspiration. (LTSA)

“We are both experiential and project-based,” Dorothy explains. Students are engaged in hands-on, real-world activities that give them the opportunity to collaborate with each other and with outside experts to come up with solutions to problems or answer questions. At the end of each unit, instead of a traditional exam, students present their findings to the rest of the school and to the experts who have helped them. “They’re able to share their ideas with the rest of the community and have to think on their feet when the audience asks surprising questions!”

“We learn more from our failures than our successes,” adds Kori. If a model airplane a team has created doesn’t fly, then it’s back to the drawing board for more experiments. Just like in real life.

The overarching goals at both Copernicus and LTSA are to free the natural curiosity in each student and to keep them engaged and asking why? “They all see things around them and want to know more,” says Dorothy. “After that initial curiosity is aroused, we can then go deeper, encouraging them to think, ask more questions, and stay excited about learning.”


Shelley Sperry