Aspen Community School: A learning community |

Aspen Community School: A learning community

ASPEN ” On a Monday morning at the Aspen Community School (ACS), a towheaded kindergartner writes in his journal. Head propped on an elbow, one leg sprawled out from his tiny table, he slowly writes one letter, then shakes his head and erases it. He tousles his own hair and then tries another, and erases that one too, scowling at his journal.

“If you’re ready and you know it, clap your hands,” sings his kindergarten teacher, Annie Teague, and the boy smiles and begins clapping.

A fixture at ACS on and off since 1972, Teague is an energetic, lithe, organizing force in the innate chaos of a room full of 5-year-olds. And the journals her students keep could be a metaphor for the school itself.

Rather than have the students learn to write by copying her sentences, Teague instructs her students to figure out, with the tools she has given them, how to form the words they want to say. So mid-year, a sentence in a student journal might read something like “I am plaaing on the muneabraz” (Translation: “I am playing on the monkey bars”). Before writing, students always draw a picture to help them choose a topic (and to help Teague to translate later).

The product, while still precocious, is a far stretch from perfect. And traditionalists might argue that students should learn spelling before journaling. But observers of journaling time in ACS’s kindergarten will find a room filled with kids who are focused, engaged and learning problem-solving right alongside writing.

For nearly 40 years, ACS has existed in Woody Creek as an education alternative for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. But in the process of transforming from the dream of a few parents into a viable charter school, it has had to adapt to today’s educational realities ” in everything from its business model to its educational model. In some ways, like the kids it teaches, it has grown up.

And even though its students now take standardized tests, its teachers now have pay scales, and pure student-centered learning has given way to a curriculum driven by both teachers and kids, Teague says that at heart, the 2008 version of ACS is the same as it was in 1970: A small community of dedicated kids, parents and teachers that focuses on the whole child and includes progressive pedagogy like experiential learning, outdoor education and social justice.

As a second-grade student walks by, teacher Chris Faison asks how high a frog jumps; “30 inches,” says the boy, without pause.

Faison explains that the student studied frogs last year during the “explorer’s club” ” which, if we’re looking for metaphors to describe ACS, could be another.

In kindergarten, first and second grade, students study a subject of their choosing ” last year’s projects included frogs, lighthouses, hockey, Indonesia and the Ice Mummy ” for eight weeks. During reading time, students read books about their subject. During writing time, they journal about it.

Whenever possible, guest lecturers visit ” recent talks discussed driving heavy equipment and being a veterinarian. The teachers also arrange field trips for each student; those studying animals might go to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, those studying planes might go the airport.

“Our hope is that they go into the world with an inquiring mind,” explains teacher Missy Prudden.

In its first iteration, ACS was a progressive public school dreamt up by Aspen philanthropist, educator and physicist George Stranahan and like-minded community members.

According to Stranahan, the “hippies” of the early 1970s believed traditional schools had contributed to problems like segregation and unjust war. They began starting alternative schools “by the bucketload,” he says.

But after two years, the Aspen School District decided to drop the school from its system, according to Stranahan, “because it was a bunch of hippies and kids running around.” In 1972, ACS became a private school.

But by the mid-’90s, tuition had risen to roughly $6,000 per child, making the school inaccessible to a lot of parents. So in 1995, it became a public charter school ” a school that receives public funds but does not have to meet all district requirements as long as it continues to meet certain standards.

Stranahan says the decision was, in hindsight, a good one ” and those currently at the helm reiterate how lucky ACS is to have a good relationship with the Aspen School District. Rarely, they say, is this true for charter schools.

“[The Aspen Community School] gives parents choice in the educational system they want for their children,” explains Aspen School Board member Fred Peirce. “And we believe in choice and providing the best opportunities available.”

After 1997, when ACS began taking the CSAP, Colorado’s standardized test, the school started to make changes in its curriculum. The new data showed that the pedagogical strategy of encouraging teachers to teach what they liked ” while it had created good learning ” had left some educational holes.

Today, ACS Principal Jim Gilchrist stresses that his students, on the whole, score well on the CSAP. In the most recent school ratings based on the scores, grades one through five were “average,” grades six through eight were “excellent.” In the last two years, the school’s growth rates in reading, writing and math have been the highest in the Aspen School District. And the school continues to respond to test data; recently, it adopted a new K-8 spelling program after realizing that the school’s test scores were lowest in written grammar and usage.

When Gilchrist describes the school he uses the word “my” in every other sentence ” as in “my” students, “my” library, “my” school. Wiry, energetic, omnipresent and deeply invested, Gilchrist is, quite literally, the center of the school; his office is a corner of the community space at the school’s center. The workplace has a wood stove and a couch, a computer, even a telescope and a set of paper dolls from the “Wizard of Oz” ” but no door.

It’s 10 paces from the kindergarten class, 15 from the first- and second-grade students, and a stone’s throw from the rest. Parents say they can always get in touch with him (or any ACS teacher, for that matter).

Asked about the school’s curriculum, Gilchrist begins by stating, as principals often do, that teaching is based around four core subjects.

“Math, language arts, wellness and the arts,” says Gilchrist, as if those are the four obvious options. Subjects like history or a foreign language are known as “spiral” subjects because they are meant to spiral around the core curriculum.

As much as possible, learning is interdisciplinary. In math class, students write explanations of their problem-solving. In language arts, they might use collage techniques to make newspapers. By coming at a project from a variety of angles, students can dig deeply, explains Gilchrist. For example, in a recent election unit, students read books by Barack Obama and John McCain, analyzed political cartoons, studied candidate tax proposals and created their own political newspapers. Then a student proposed a real all-school election, and the teachers jumped on board.

Throughout the school, students formed political parties (calling them Demoplicans and Republicrats so as not to get mixed up in their parents’ politics), and held primaries, debates, speeches and a general election. There were 18 candidates. The winning ticket has promised to create an all-school buddy system and institute peer tutoring. (But Gilchrist noted that even at ACS, politicians make pork-barrel promises, so students are now also anxiously awaiting a ping-pong table.)

But perhaps the most important philosophy at ACS is community. The school has only 122 students between kindergarten and eighth grade, and it keeps a 10:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Like a rural schoolhouse, the students learn in multigrade-level groups called “learning centers.”

At the center of the school is a community space where students interact with one another countless times in a day. Weekly community meetings bring the students together more formally in the space. Twice a year, all the students act, sing or dance in an on an all-school performance about a subject ” the Wild West, say, or Einstein ” that they’ve all studied.

Everyone at the school knows everyone else’s name. And on any given day at ACS, students can be found singing, acting, dancing, throwing pots, making prints, publishing books, studying Frida Kahlo or weaving baskets. Roughly one-third of the school plays the guitar.

Art teacher Hilary Forsyth says she focuses not only on technical skills and creativity but also aesthetics and art literacy. By the time they graduate, students are familiar with the work of at least 30 professional artists.

She also insists that they learn to sew. Students have the option of taking embroidery and quilting classes, but at minimum they must prove they can sew a button back on a shirt.

But it takes more than classes to make a school successful. And in the 1980s and ’90s, COMPASS ” the nonprofit organization that oversees ACS ” grew at an aggressive pace, adding the Early Learning Center preschool (1989) and the Carbondale Community School (1996), in addition to seven other arts and education programs, including the Wyly Arts Center and Sustainable Settings.

“It takes a village to educate a child,” says Stranahan. “So we built a village there.”

Then 9/11 happened, and the bottom fell out of the philanthropic market. Simultaneously, enrollment at the Aspen Community School dropped. Finances tightened, said COMPASS Executive Director Skye Skinner, and the nonprofit took a hard look at what it could do to survive.

“We were at a point where we were on the threshold of having to close [ACS],” she explains. “We looked in that dark hole.”

So COMPASS decided it was time to pare back to its core mission. It kept the Early Learning Center and the two Community Schools, but spun the other projects into their own nonprofits. It also developed systems to hold itself “much more accountable” in its business practices, Skinner explained.

“The community rally through that [period] was unbelievable,” she says. After two years of spending moratoriums and frozen salaries and what she terms “pretty hard times,” nobody left ” neither families nor teachers. Today, both the Carbondale and Aspen schools are fully enrolled, with waiting lists of between 80 and 100 kids. (New students are accepted into the school through a lottery, with siblings of current students receiving first priority.)

But Skinner fears the worrying isn’t over yet. Although COMPASS’ two charter schools receive funding from the state, it’s not enough to cover the expense of the very small teacher-student ratio. Just to meet its annual budget, the nonprofit needs to raise approximately $350,000 per year. So far, it’s been able to do so, but right now she worries it doesn’t have enough savings.

“Our challenge is this: our daily, annual operating budget is healthy,” says Skinner. “What we don’t have is reserves.”

To create them, COMPASS has put part of its Woody Creek property up for sale in two large parcels. The proceeds will go to make outstanding infrastructure repairs on its campus and pay off a $2.3 million bond on its Carbondale school. The balance ” between $3 million and $4 million ” will go into an endowment.

“That will really make me sleep easy at night,” says Skinner.

As for the looming economic downturn, Skinner says she hopes the lessons learned after 9/11 will serve the school well this time around.

Just before the Monday afternoon snack, several second-grade students walk around, instructing the kindergartners to clean up their work.

“Do you want to miss snack?” one of the second-graders scolds, addressing

two slowpokes.

Each day, two students from the first- and second-grade class return to kindergarten to help the students with their reading. It’s part of the school’s focus on community, and it might stand in as another metaphor for the school.

Here’s another example: At the end of every day, the school suddenly breaks into a chaos of brooms and vacuums, while students do their chores. Gilchrist jokingly speculates that chore time might almost create more of a mess than it cleans up. But more seriously, he notes that it’s an important community piece ” and that it cuts the school’s cleaning bill in half.

When asked, those involved with the school are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the school has its drawbacks ” and that it may not be for everyone.

“The smallness has a Catch-22. There’s one class. There’s no place to hide,” muses parent Emily Ransford, who is extremely positive about her children’s experience at the school. “But the good news is you can’t run away. You have to learn to solve problems and get along with people who aren’t necessarily your best friends.”

To make sure her children are engaging with communities outside ACS, Ransford has enrolled them in outside arts and sports.

Wendy Steckler has done the same thing, though she chalks her son’s decision to play on the Basalt Middle School basketball team simply to ACS’s lack of after-school sports ” the only thing she can think of that a child has to “give up” to go there.

Indeed, there are no organized after-school sports at ACS, but there is kid-friendly yoga.

Wednesday morning in the school gym, teacher Shannon Jones shows a group of fifth- and sixth-grade students a partial handstand along the wall.

In a chaos of arms, legs and giggles the kids use their “belly strength” to move their legs up the wall. The boys take turns thwaping down on the yoga mat as loudly as they can.

Jones reminds them to breathe.

Of course is a student isn’t happy at ACS ” and sometimes they aren’t ” Gilchrist will suggest they try the traditional Aspen schools. He notes that the principals at Aspen Elementary School and Aspen Middle School do the same with ACS.

“One size does not fit all,” said Gilchrist. “It’s about choice.”

Of course the best metaphor for ACS may be the building itself.

It was 1972 when the school moved to its existing home in Woody Creek, on land donated by Stranahan. Aspen architect Harry Teague and his colleague Peter Stoner designed the school as a graduate architecture project. A group of Yale graduate students camped on the mesa all summer, and with the help of the founding parents, literally cut the logs and built the school.

In addition to centering the school around a common space and keeping everyone in close proximity, the goal was to make it kid-friendly. Thus, not only the desks, but the rooms themselves, are kid-sized. The result lends the building a charming treehouse feel, but also creates a head hazard in some rooms for anyone over 4 feet tall.

Over its 38 years, the school has grown. Today, a building meant to house 70 students holds 122. In every room, books and bins of labeled teaching supplies climb to the ceiling.

“It’s kind of like life on a boat,” says Gilchrist, gamely.

Skinner says the main building is now too small and not really designed for the education of today. So once COMPASS is done raising its endowment, it may be time for a community discussion about how best to remodel it or create a new building that will serve the students well into the 21st century, she says.

“Just as children need to explore and invent in order to learn, so do teachers,” Stranahan once wrote.

And perhaps, so do the schools themselves.

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