The foundation of my childhood education was not founded on a specific moment or person (although there were many), but in a system. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio in the early seventies where a program called ‘The Alternative School System’ launched. It included elementary, middle and, at the time, one high school.I attended a ‘normal’ elementary school in the first grade and my mother realized, that I was not challenged. From what little I remember, I wasn’t.
Enrollment in these schools was lottery-based and I was selected to attend Linden Park Elementary in the second grade. This school had no classrooms; instead, there were large spaces with workstations. Grades were not called ‘second’ or ‘third’ but instead were named after constellations and we were free to move from one to the other based on learning and progress as opposed to age.
Middle school was more mainstream with traditional classes although there were some exceptions. Specifically, accelerated math classes, non-traditional language classes and ‘mini’-courses. In the 6th grade I studied Italian and had mini-courses that I selected to study.
I was not admitted to the alternative high school my freshman year and realized immediately how different the alternative world was from the traditional school system. Because of the fluidity of my curricula and progress based accelerated learning, most of my classes were at the sophomore level.
As I entered my sophomore year, I entered the lottery for entry into the high school, and was not accepted, but placed on the wait list. I had to plead with administrators in my traditional high school to get into senior level classes because I had exhausted most sophomore and some junior classes. Fortunately, two weeks into the year, spaces opened and I was able to start classes at the high school and prepared my schedule. Not only was I able to get into classes that were challenging, I was also able to start earning college credit.
One of the most unique elements of the high school schedule were our internships. Every Wednesday, we had no scheduled classes, but internships at local businesses, arts programs, Universities and charities. Through that program, I helped PhD students catalogue ancient manuscripts, painted sets for a local theatre and toured elementary schools with an original children’s theatre production.
When I got out into the world and mentioned that I attended an ‘alternative’ schools, I was faced with very strange looks. Apparently in the northeast this is what reform schools are called. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth.
The Columbus Alternative School system shaped the way I think about problem solving, learning and growth even today.
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