Reimagining Education

Fair Oaks, CA  |  Story and photos by Jacqueline Fox
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The UnSchool has already challenged itself as a contender for recognition. Although it did not win, making it to the final rounds in The ReinventEd contest at Sacramento State College, vying for a $5,000 prize, showed the school’s determination to take itself seriously.

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Gabriel Cooper, the former principal at Will Rogers Middle School in Fair Oaks now identifies himself as “Chief Educational Deviant Principal.

Students Chart Their Own Course at UnSchool

Fair Oaks, CA (MPG) - Hacking an education sounds like something you’d get in deep trouble for.  But that’s not the case at UnSchool, now roughly two months into its inaugural semester in Fair Oaks, where students are blowing up traditional educational standards and, instead, charting their own course through a passion-based learning model.   

UnSchool, which opened its doors August 10, is currently giving 85 freshman and sophomore transfer students from schools across the district an alternative high school education experience that, in every way possible, attempts to allow them, as well as their teachers, to reinvent academic norms via a passion-based learning philosophy, not one that marks success rates by the number of students in seats or standardized test scores.

The concept of independent learning is not a new one, but UnSchool is carving out new territory, stripping the learning process down to a bare-bones list of required core learning requirements in science, history, language arts and math, to create open space for students to identify and lock on to an area of interest and run with it. 

“After interviewing lots of students we knew what we wanted for them and we knew what they wanted,” says Gabriel Cooper, the former principal at Will Rogers Middle School in Fair Oaks who now identifies himself as “Chief Educational Deviant Principal. “We are here to hack an education, giving students and educators a way to circumvent the system they know, blowing it up and creating something completely new.”

Here’s how it works. Students take part in the process of setting goals and expectations for learning by working with their “deviant advisors,” also known as teachers. They plot a course for themselves using journals, computers and other forms of instruction, even including long stretches of contemplation if needed, and craft a project for the year that is completely their own with one exception: they are charged with finding a way to tie in core subject learning.

Take freshman Ellarose Colburn, 14, for example.  Colburn transferred to UnSchool from Will Rogers Middle School. She has a strong interest in photojournalism. She’s working with her advisor Jon Leister, a teacher in the district for 22 years, on a first-year project that will incorporate photos and storytelling from an upcoming family trip to Thailand.  If she pulls all the pieces into place, her project will include enough work in core subjects to give her the required credits for history, arts and even science. 

“I love it here,” says Colburn. “When Gabriel came to my school last January to tell us about the plans for the UnSchool, I walked outside and immediately called my parents and said ‘I have to go there.’ It’s been amazing so far for me. I’m meeting new students from other parts of the district and exposing myself to ideas that I hadn’t before. I feel like we are one big family.”

Leister, her advisor, said he’s pleased to be able to teach high schoolers outside the walls of formal academia and give students the freedom to fold a passion for something into their educational experience before they get to college.

“I always loved learning and teaching, but I never really did like the one-size-fits all system,” says Leister. “I didn’t like that you had to wait until you got into grad school before you were asked what your passion was and then be told to go ahead and go study that for your project. Why not let students begin this way at the lower levels, where they are ready for something new and out-of-the-box?”

By no means are students allowed to sit around and surf the Internet all day.  On the contrary, they are accountable to the class, their advisor and themselves. But the standardized, cookie-cutter academic scaffolding of the past is consistently being broken down and rebuilt to suit the new model.

 “We work in academic excellence,” says Leister.  “We are iterating and evolving every day here. And we have accountability to stay within the realm of that excellence."

Grades are based on the students’ current goals after high school. If they are working under college-based learning requirements, they follow an A-G grading system.  Otherwise, says Cooper, they follow a mastery grading plan, which records subject competency without a formal grade. Whichever system students are graded on, they do need to show their work.

“They are accountable,” says Cooper.  “We have a policy here that goes ‘If it isn’t on paper, it didn’t happen.”

Over the course of the next few years, if all goes as planned, UnSchool could grow to include as many as 250 students in grades seven through 12.  For now, keeping the class-sizes small is making it easier to navigate the new territory, work out bugs and make changes where needed, which students and staff will handle collaboratively.

“It’s small, but we did that on purpose,” says Cooper. “Kids are coming in from every corner of the district and we want to make sure we start out with the ability to stay focused on them and not be immediately overwhelmed by trying to grow too, big too fast.”

The UnSchool has already challenged itself as a contender for recognition. Although it did not win, making it to the final rounds in The ReinventEd contest at Sacramento State College, vying for a $5,000 prize, showed the school’s determination to take itself seriously.

“We are doing exactly what the goal of the competition was, which is to reimagine education,” says Cooper. “We were super excited to compete.”  The school, he added, also is pushing for its accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six official academic bodies responsible for the accreditation of public and private schools in the country.

For many parents, this concept of independent study brings up all kinds of fears. Will my son or daughter learn anything?  How do you know they are doing the work?  What will their grades be like and can get what they need to go on to a good collage?

All normal questions, says Cooper, who adds that, so far, the feedback from parents has been positive.  But he admits, for some, the process of putting their children in a prototype for a new way of learning doesn’t come without a lot of potential for anxiety.

“This is super messy, and super scary,” says Cooper. “We are talking about breaking up 200 years of educational design. So, it is really scary for them too. They are also used to following society’s ways, norms and cultural expectations.  But many of them have been wanting something different for so long and they are telling us that kids report they are no longer being bullied, they feel safer and they seem more engaged.”

UnSchool currently shares space with La Entrada Continuation High School for 16-18 year-olds, as well as the El Serena Independent High School, also a performance-based campus.

In addition to individualized projects, students can also incorporate community-based experiences, as well as internships and online courses into their program of learning.  If a student wants to write a novel, a book of poetry or a play as a project, he or she can attend readings and performances, study writers across history from the pastoral poets of England on down to the works of Hemmingway, Faulkner or Steinbeck, whatever works, provided they bring in core subject study components.  

Essentially, the UnSchool aims to give students the freedom to break down barriers to learning and conventional teaching models through a self-directed but carefully thought-out process. It’s not an experiment. It’s a challenge. And the framework for its future is unfolding.

“We are blowing up the old system,” says Cooper, who has been brewing a passion for this project for years.  “I was always looking for ways to deviate from the system as principal in the district.  It’s my dream to give kids a way to hack an education, not be seated in class where they are judged on their grade so much, driven by class numbers and formalized testing. This is where they can be excellent. And they get to have a huge say in what that looks like.”  

The UnSchool has already challenged itself as a contender for recognition. Although it did not win, making it to the final rounds in The ReinventEd contest at Sacramento State College, vying for a $5,000 prize, showed the school’s determination to take itself seriously.Gabriel Cooper, the former principal at Will Rogers Middle School in Fair Oaks now identifies himself as “Chief Educational Deviant Principal.UnSchool currently shares space with La Entrada Continuation High School for 16-18 year-olds, as well as the El Serena Independent High School, also a performance-based campus. Nadie Cline is thriving in the program.