It was President James Garfield who said a good education consists of Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other end. Garfield was referring to the teaching of scholar and then Williams College president Hopkins, but his greater point was that the best education is centered around great teachers and rapt students, not just expensive buildings and rows of modern computers.
Forty-two years ago, a small group of parents in Aspen set out to invent a new school. They were a mixed bunch of idealists and risk takers, tremendously strong-willed and intent on redesigning kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. Wittingly or not, their philosophy matched Garfield's description of good education, where what mattered most was good teachers with the wherewithal to cultivate and enervate young minds. Thus the Aspen Community School was born.
With a shaky start and some tough criticism from a town still rooted in the mining-and-ranching mind set, the school lurched forward. Its early years were experimental, to put it generously. Perhaps fittingly, the school was first housed at the Aspen Center for Physics (a place also meant for the theoretical and experimental). Through a donation of land by George Stranahan and a building designed by the still unknown architect Harry Teague, the school moved to Woody Creek in 1974.
And it was there that things took off. With the glorious mesa setting, the pioneering spirit and a whimsical log building, the small group set out to innovate kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. The good teachers began to show up and join the founders, a veritable who's who of the valley's soul and spirit: Mike and George Stranahan, John Katzenberger, Deb Jones, Rett Harper, Annie Teague, Tom and Cathy Crum, Polly Whitcomb and many more.
Since then, hundreds of kids have made the journey from clueless kindergartners to shockingly capable eighth-graders up on the Woody Creek mesa. The school went through various iterations and sometimes teetered financially, but some things stayed the same: the view that learning is a joy, that school should be something great, not something to dread, and an example of lively community that is the envy of many.
Its alumnae have gone on to do good and great things ranging from artists to engineers, mechanics to mystics, scientists to farmers and everything beyond and between. In full circle, some alumni have become great teachers here in the valley.
Now, 42 years later, Harrison's vision of a teacher and student on just one bare log is perhaps too apt at the Aspen Community School. The log school upon the Woody Creek mesa has been outgrown and worn down. While the students there continue to excel and rank academically at the very top of their peer group state-wide, the facilities lag far behind and are in dire need of an upgrade.
The Aspen Community School is in the midst of a campaign to rebuild its campus for the next era of students, teachers and community, and it could use your help. The school has won a $4.2 million grant from the state of Colorado with one hitch: It must raise $5 million on its own by May 1. And it's an all or nothing deal. When you think of what $5 million buys in Pitkin County, a new kindergarten-through-12th-grade campus is positively a steal.
As an alumnus, I've made a contribution to the campaign - an investment in the imaginable and unimaginable. I hope you'll join me.
To make a contribution, contact Virginia Newton at 970-923-4646, or visit www.ibelieveacs.org.