By Bo Fisher
While the Upper Arlington Community High School is often criticized for its unorthodox methods, I observed a place where learning flourished with students who might otherwise be apathetic in traditional school
We stroll into room 119, five minutes late—myself and two Community School students, senior Sophie Lee and junior Sean O’Rourke. We take a few empty seats in the back of the room; nobody seems to notice our late arrival. Naturally, one would think our tardiness is accepted because of a regular occurrence; possibly students are late to community school all the time. Instead, a demanding voice from the head of the room leads me to believe otherwise. Human Anatomy teacher Lynn Reese towers over the classroom, arms crossed, a stone-cold expression frozen over her face while she berates a group of students, making her point clear. Most students are not paying attention, hiding behind their open laptop screens. I could feel the heat from her scowl at the back of the room as she was insisting that it should not be a daily routine for the teacher to ask their students, to begin class. But after a heated lecture about attendance that seems all too much like a worn-down habit, the students quiet as Reese eases and class finally begins.
A Different Brand
From the beginning, Community School has been structured around making something different for students who struggle in a modern school system. Community School english teacher Melissa Hasebrook made a point of researching other schools around the country that had experimented with unconventional learning methods in order to create their own enviornment.
“Many of the structures of Community School evolved from our very early research into other programs around the country with the same goal,” Hasebrook said. “We gathered research, put our thoughts on paper and envisioned ways that the school day could be different.”
The mission of Community School has always been clear—to give students an education option that is different from the traditional education system while fostering higher-level learning. The major difference between Community School and the Upper Arlington high school is the equality between teachers and students.
One of the original ideas was to give students the right to have a voice, but to also allow them to express it freely. The idea of giving students the opportunity to express their views and ideas in order to cater to their learning methods is something that Community School prides itself on. However, such a structure can also be construed as dangerous. With teachers and students on the same level, that leaves room for the students to take advantage of the privilege.
The Community School is run like a democracy with a judicial branch referred to as Fairness. The idea is that a Community School member can “take another person to fairness” where that person accused of wrongdoing and has the chance to defend themselves in front of a jury. Not only can students take other students to fairness, but students can take teachers to fairness, as well.
Reese recalled her first year as a teacher in the Community and explained how Fairness was one of her biggest fears.
“It was scary that students could take me to Fairness,” Reese said. “You just have to trust that the process works. I’ve been taken to Fairness a couple times. It’s not a bad thing, though. I like how the students have their own voice.”
But through exercising their rights, students may have the wreckless ability to alter an already unorthodox school. Hasebrook acknowledged that there is a line between democracy and when things get out of control.
“There are certain times when I step in as a teacher,” she said. “I reason with them rather than say, ‘Hey that’s the way it’s going to be.’”
While letting students express their opinions is not so radical when compared to any other form of modern day schooling, Community School does have its differences that separate it farther from reality. Students are given laptops, whcih are primarily used by the students to access the community school moodle page. But looking at their moodle page, one tab quickly catches my attention: attendence.
I could only guess what this meant when I first saw it, but I had to ask. Sure enough, I was right. According to Lee, this part of the moodle page is for the students to check themselves into class everyday, instead of the teachers doing so.
But wouldn’t students just be able to sign themselves in from their homes and skip class? She pauses and smiles, as if to concede to the problem.
“It’s kind of the honor system. Typically people respect that,” Lee says, confidently. “We’re in it together. Being a part of something really sets you apart. If you skip community school, it looks bad for us. The kids don’t skip community school if they are going to skip any classes at all.”
In conversations with both Hasebrook and Reese on the subject, they told me that two Community School students were caught skipping and it was the students who tried them at Fairness for their punishment.
“The room is pretty chaotic,” Hasebrook laughed. “It’s hard for a teacher to walk around the room and take attendance.”
After telling Reese that I had overheard one teacher warn the students that they would know if the students were not in class, I also mentioned the difficulty to notice who is where in a classroom full of fifty students, who at times, are all moving about the room.
“It’s glaringly obvious if you’re supposed to be there seventh period and you were there sixth,” Reese said. “We had a couple students skip this year and the other students were mad at them for giving the Community a black eye.”
Although incidents involving skipping class have happened before, the occurence earlier this year lead to a Fairness trial in which students punished other students. Reese insists that such incidents are rare.
“Once they know the Community, they want to come to class,” Reese said.
While the consequences given during Community School are unique and in most cases, they remain effective according to its members. For others questions still arise regarding their image.
Hasebrook said she realizes that there are, and may very well always be, varying opinions surrounding Community School. Instead of attempting to sway outsiders, she admitted that the few strange methods are not for everyone.
“We sometimes struggle because of the misguided perceptions of people outside our program,” Hasebrook said. “Community School doesn’t work for all students; often, people who are not a part of the program do not understand the goals or ideals of the program, which causes them to question its necessity or effectiveness.”
In Their Shoes
After hearing the many theories and stereotypes surrounding the Community School—some positive, some negative, some true, others just rumors—I wanted to know exactly what the alternative school was—what gets taught, how it is taught and how the students act in the different schooling environment. Their members—students and teachers—have consistently and confidently argued that no one should judge their methods until they spend a day in their shoes. I took them up on that offer and decided to sit in on their classes for two days during which I observed and studied the students, the teachers, their curriculum and how the community is run. Ultimately, I planned to find out, by way of observation, what Community School really is.
• • •
Back in Human Anatomy class, the students are beginning their presentations on the subject of AIDS. The project is to make an iMovie on a chosen subject that extends from the subject of the disease.
As the first student is presenting their video, Lee leans over and whispers, “Students get to make their own presentations and videos,” Lee says. “This project is a good example of how we utilize technology in order to elaborate on informal learning. We’re given the opportunity to make a video rather than take a test.”
Then quickly following the presentation, Reese calls on a student following the presentation, asking him about the themes present in the video. She cuts him off before his ‘uhh’ drags out too long, though, immediately blaming his indecision on the fact that his laptop had been opened for a good portion of the video. Yes, the laptop is no doubt a perk for assignments like this, but it serves as a serious distraction to students, as well.
Science teacher Lynn Reese towers over her students, picking students out randomly to quiz them over the video.
When talking with Community School students, there were no negative feelings around Reese’s strict nature. It is obvious that Reese works for that as well, as one student invariably referred to her as “General Reese” in a later conversation with me.
Before I leave the classroom of General Reese and head for the other science class of the Community, she reminds her students that they will soon be reading Survival of the Sickest, a New York Times Bestseller by Dr. Sharon Moalem.
When I talked to Reese the next day, I brought up how unusual it was for a science teacher to give their students a required book to read for class.
“Last year we decided to read two books instead of a textbook,” Reese said. “This year they will also read Indefensible Food.”
She proceeded to explain what they gathered from their required readings last year and how this type of learning is different from any other kind that students could experience.
“Last year when we were learning about environmental science they each were told to find a piece of garbage and give it a new use,” Reese said. “Learning in Community School is different because it’s more personal to each student. In the main school your teacher tells you that you have to learn something and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
As Reese releases her students for the rest of the period to work on their videos, I leave the classroom and head for Physics taught by Mr. Jeff Schuster. Before I even reach the hallway I can hear the science teacher’s voice carrying all the way into the Learning Center. Once in his classroom, I am immediately met with a boisterous greeting that seems to echo throughout the room. Interestingly enough, I did not even have to explain to Schuster who I was or what I was doing in his class. Instead, I was eagerly invited in.
Watching the first year teacher of Community School at the front of the room, every word seemed to roar out of his mouth and shake the desks. I lean over to Lee, who is sitting next to me and ask her for his name.
“That’s Mr. Schuster,” she laughs and says. “He’s so in love with teaching.”
She then tells me how the teachers of Community School are often a significant influence for students when they decided to join the Community School. Looking at Schuster—this big kid with a scruff of a beard—bouncing around and in between the isles of desks, involving students and basically acting out the lesson.
“All the Community School teachers teach regular classes too,” Lee says. “Most kids that join Community School join because of certain teachers that they’ve had. I joined because of Ms. Reese.”
Such relationships are not, of course, exclusive to the Community School, but many Community School students say that the Community has a way of fostering them.
Senior Chris Kabelo attributed his enrollment in Community School purely to the teachers.
“I joined because of the relationship with the teachers,” Kabelo said. “I had Yant my freshman year in Global History and Reese sophomore year in Biology and we’ve been talking about Community School ever since.”
• • •
As Lee and I sit at the back of Schuster’s room, he is teaching the students a lesson regarding car engines. He then draws in the class with a love story about an orange 1977 Buick that he once owned. As the class finally becomes involved, feeding off of his boyish enthusiasm, he romanticizes over the interior of the car, telling us that it had a shag carpet and leather seats.
At one point I raise my hand to ask what the name of the car was—the year and the make of it. Instead, the dazed teacher says: Bob. Not in a sarcastic way though, just caught up in the moment, as we can all understand.
“I’m very sad that I had to sell that car,” he says, choking up. “It was a beautiful, beautiful part of my life.”
As we move back to room 119 where the students from Human Anatomy and Physics are beginning to merge for Government and English, I stop and talk to government teacher, Scott Yant. Welcoming me into Community School, we quickly begin to talk about my observations thus far, I immediately bring up Schuster, the energetic big kid who appeared in an episode of Kickin’ it Live, preaching about a student participation, annual movement referred to as No-Shave November.
“Hey, that energy can be infectious,” Yant laughs.
It appears that Yant might be right, as the energetic students come pouring into the classroom, covering every square inch to the point where I begin to wonder how they fit every day. I find a seat right next to Lee and senior Adam Herbst. Government class begins with Yant at the front of the room asking everybody to “turn on their ears.” The students open their laptops and log into the Community School moodle page, displaying links to all their classes.
“Everything is on moodle for us,” Lee says, clicking on the Government link and bringing up the day’s assignments. “Even the small things.”
Following Government class, Town Meeting takes place, an event on Tuesdays and Thursdays in which the chairman and vice-chairman make announcements and teachers explain what they will be doing in the following days. Once Town Meeting ends, students begin working on their Letters of Intent regarding their Service Learning project.
The volunteer-based project, spread out for the whole school year, is comparable to the volunteer aspect of Senior Capstone. On Wednesdays, students are released from the Community to do volunteer work or partake in an internship. But with release time comes responsibility and consequences if time is spent inappropriately.
With a letter-of-intent due today, several students are unprepared and one of those consequences comes into affect. Reese and the rest of the Community School teachers decided it would be a fair punishment to hand out Saturday schools to students who either did not complete the letter on time or did not do it correctly.
“Student are released from their classes to work on [service learning],” Reese said. “In exchange, students are expected to learn from it. Some students have dragged their heels; they simply want the release time. And since it’s such a significant amount of our teaching time we feel it’s imperative to have a document for that release time.”
As Yant circles the classroom, stopping and talking with different students about certain topics and assignments, I cannot help but notice how tame the classroom is. Even though students are talking amongst each other, they are doing so quietly and calmly, and they are completing an online, open-internet quiz with little direction from Yant.
The bell rings and my first day in Community School comes to an end. As students pack up, the teachers are making last-minute announcements.
“If you are not on the Saturday School list,” she begins, “You will soon find yourself on it if you don’t turn in that memo.”
• • •
The second day of my Community School experience began much like the first. Students separated into their science classrooms for sixth period and then merge for seventh and eighth period.
As my time with Community School was quickly coming to an end, I wanted to try to get someone in the room to do the one thing everybody in Community School finds so difficult—define it.
Talking with a group of students during their English class, some tried, but found it to be more than just a few words. Chris Kabelo said he believes that people outside the Community have a difficult time relating to something that they make out to be so extraordinary in both opportunity and friendships. I tell him that it may be due to the fact that nobody seems to be able to explain it in simple terms.
“Nobody seems to understand why we’re so connected,” Kabelo said. “Community School is like my life.”
When Lee tried to explain what exactly Community School is, she could not stress the word “family” enough.
“We’re all in it together. It’s not just a class; it’s a community, it’s a family,” Lee says. “For most of us, Community School rescued us from regular school. There are a lot of people that say they were going to drop out if it weren’t for Community School.”
The students are not the only members of Community School who share an undefined affection towards the charter school and its alternative methods. Hasebrook and Reese had an easier time defining Community School, though they admit they do not know if their definition fits their understanding and their love.
“Students find a place where they’re comfortable being themselves,” Hasebrook said. “They can’t do that in the big building. The number one reason is because of the relationships between students and teachers.”
Reese understands why some outside Community School may steer away from something that is foreign to them. But rather than putting it into words, she said she likes to celebrate the schools unique features.
“You can’t sum it up all in one sentence,” Reese said. “It’s easy to misunderstand and fear what’s different.” •