WOODY CREEK - To walk into the Aspen Community School, the charter school high on the ridgeline above Woody Creek, you must first drive up a winding gravel road, turn a sharp corner without a guardrail, pull into a modest parking lot, step out of your car and get distracted by a huge panoramic view filled with the Elk Mountains.
Once the dust and clouds clear, there is plenty of evidence to show you have taken a machine back in time back to the day when $80,000 gets you a school, back to 1970, to be exact, when Harry Teague was a master's student at Yale and came up with the design as part of his thesis, and philanthropist George Stranahan donated the money to get this school off the ground. Just standing there, far from the valley, adds confidence to ask the lingering question in your head: "Wait - kids come all the way up here every day?"
Then you step into the school. You see the small classes. You hear and smell the school's focus on the arts. Kids politely listen to one another. Books are piled from ceiling to floor. Within minutes, you start to believe the students and teachers have a real hunger for learning, whether it is through practicing the standard times-tables or, as luck would have it, you're a science teacher and an elk walked onto the playground and died, giving everyone a chance to learn from that, too.
Either way, you quickly learn that this is not a school defined by the common headlines, by dropped programs, poor student performance, dropouts, teacher strikes, violence, sex, drugs or anything like that.
No, this school is clearly different.
Enter principal Jim Gilchrist. It's a Friday morning, a special occasion since day one of the school, when the faculty began gathering all the students together for a bit of show-and-tell. On a morning in November, the agenda reads like a talent show, and on many levels, it is.
Gilchrist snaps his fingers. He has to grumble a bit to get the audience settled down - and not just the kids. Generations of parents and volunteers are buzzing as they find space on a small group of steps leading to a small stage. Among the crowd are that original architect, Teague, and his wife, Annie, who has taught there nearly since the beginning. One of her former students, Stuart LaCroix, is now the school's music teacher. He wanted to return so badly that he spent years as the school's bus driver - a slick-road duty he called "exhilarating" - before finally earning the music position.
With Teague as his teacher, LaCroix only spent kindergarten and first grade there before he transitioned back to the more standard programs. But he never forgot that feeling.
"When I was here, Annie Teague and another teacher had organized a trip up to the Flying Dog Ranch, and we got a call early on that we had to hurry up because one of the cows was giving birth," LaCroix recalled. "I don't know if you've ever witnessed a cow giving birth, but that sticks with you."
Soon, the buzz quiets, and Gilchrist does not have to snap anymore. All the little and big eyes are staring back at him. He asks the crowd, "How do you show respect to one another?" A hand shoots in the air. A little boy no older than 5 or 6 speaks just as he's called.
"Don't play tag in the school," he says, generating a few chuckles.
"Yes," Gilchrist responds. "We shouldn't do that." He spins the joke into a short lesson on manners and common courtesy.
A few snaps and claps later, he lets the show begin. He introduces the first act, a group of students who had recently finished a segment on the history of slavery. That preceded a poetry presentation, which was followed by a watercolor demonstration and then capped by a Spanish version of Simon Says. Then came the final act, when four students who had just started playing music took the stage dressed like rock legends and performed more-than-respectable versions of "Let It Be" and "Wild Thing."
After it's over and the classroom work quietly begins, Gilchrist hums the tunes as he walks back to his office. He's been principal for 12 years and has worked at the school for 27.
"On any given day, I could be teaching a class or unplugging toilets," he says. "It's leadership. It's fun. Everyone here knows everything. We're all three-dimensional human beings, and from what we can tell, people just want to be a part of it."
Therein lies the catch. How many times have we heard this story: You build a good thing, it grows in popularity, you expand it, and then you look back and it has lost its uniqueness. It's the fine balance Gilchrist and a loyal group of alumni are trying to keep as they ask for an $11.6 million expansion for the school. While the school was built for 80 to 90 students, it now has 120. It started with 10 teachers, and now it has 18. The need for a renovation becomes all too clear as you walk through the hallways and discover the special language teaching area is literally a desk pushed up close to the bathroom doors.
"It's amazing, but architecture matters," Gilchrist says. "If you want someone to feel bad, you put them in a prison. You want someone to learn, you bring them into this school. But we need a building that's going to match a kid's dreams and aspirations."
In case you're wondering, this is really how Gilchrist talks. He's half preacher, half teacher and a full believer in the small-classroom, each-student-learns-in-their-own-way methodology.
For example, there's that dead elk out back. That wasn't a joke. In the science room, there is a sheet hanging up that allows the students to track the decomposition of the animal in different stages.
• Oct. 10, 2011: Tongue, no antlers, no smell.
• Oct. 23: Giant hole in gut.
• Nov. 1.: Ribs, more jawbone.
"I wasn't sure what to do when I saw a classroom running out to see the dead elk," Gilchrist said, "but I went with it. As long as it is in the spirit of learning, I figured it wouldn't be too gross."
This is worth noting: Gilchrist does not have a door in his office, which is located nearly smack-dab in the middle of the school. This ensures two things: 1) When you're called to the principal's office, everyone knows about it, and 2) There is no way he can escape even the smallest details passing between his students and teachers.
Yet he does it without an iron fist. Contrarily, he built an iron expectation that the students take all this learning very seriously, and the built-in accountabilities not only keep the students on track but create a sense that the students actually want to be there.
"You're born, you learn, and then you're dead," Gilchrist says. "We're not dead yet, so we have to be learning."
Case in point: After the Friday morning meeting, he walks into a language arts class and asks a student what she was doing. He's so consistent at this approach, the student calmly answers and never even looks up from her work.
"Good," Gilchrist says before moving on. He hovers like a hummingbird hovers - in one place but never still.
But doesn't this drive the teachers nuts?
"It's not threatening," LaCroix said. "The feedback he always gives - 'This is great, this is great, this is great, but have you ever thought of doing this?' What he has to say is always positive and is always worth trying."
Gilchrist shies away from thinking all this is really that different from real life. As he explains, there are no classroom bells in life. There are no mandates or genetics that force us to be nice to one another. To understand life, he says, you have to be social, knowledgeable and confident - and someone has to teach you these things.
"We are the crazy school on the hill but only crazy because we believe small people and small groups can make a big difference," he says. "But is that so hard to believe?