Monday, July 20, 2009

A Beautiful Marriage of Open/Democratic Education and Public School Accountability - an Interview with Scott Bain of Jefferson County Open School

In the signature block of Scott Bain's email is a quote by John Dewey: "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." This quote is very much congruent with the methods and mission of Jefferson County Open School, where Scott is the Assistant Principal. Located in Lakewood, Colorado, the school is based on the Open or Democratic model, yet is a public school. Scott has worked as an Advisor, teacher and Instructional Coach at the Open School for the past ten years. A self-proclaimed education geek and passionate advocate of open education, he recently spared some of his summer to share with me the qualities that make this school an exceptional public school.

What makes Jefferson County Open School so different from the average public school?

The most noticeable element is that no one is anonymous here. There is a sense that you are part of a community and that you are part of something bigger. In our community there is a strong sense of connection which includes students, parents and staff.

While it has become a popular phrase in conventional schooling, JCOS is truly a “student-centered” program – there is no other public school as student-centered as JCOS. While there are other programs that provide elements of a Jefferson County Open School experience, none trust and support students to guide their own education the way JCOS does. No two students have the same curricular experience here.

We also “teach to the whole child” in a real sense. The program is defined by an equal emphasis on the personal, social and intellectual growth of each student. Our Graduation Expectations require that students demonstrate progress in each of those domains.

In his book Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch argues that content trumps process and those who are unfamiliar with a given set of facts would be unable to participate in our society. At JCOS, we feel that teaching students how to learn is more important than pure content or facts. We are not as concerned with filling the blank slate, rather we work to instill a passion for learning so that students are interested in and capable of finding information for themselves. Our practice embodies axiom; the literate of the 21st century will be those who can learn, unlearn and relearn.
What is the goal of education, according to JCOS?

Everything we do at JCOS is driven by the Five Goals of the school. Originally conceived by Arnie Langberg, founding principal of Mountain Open High School, the Five Goals are the criteria which we at JCOS would like our work to be evaluated. Students will be able to: 1.) rediscover the joy of learning, 2.) seek meaning in life, 3.) adapt to the world as it is, 4.) prepare for the world as it might be, and 5.) create the world as it ought to be. A detailed analysis of how our alumni have integrated the Five Goals into their lives can be reviewed in Fredrick Posner’s forthcoming book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, scheduled for publication this September.

How do you maintain a sense of autonomy and philosophical integrity yet are still part of a large traditional school district?

In my opinion, our relationship with the Jeffco School District has improved since Wendy Wheaton became our principal. She came to us with experience in the district and quickly became a liaison and advocate for the program. There are many people within the district that value and support what we do. However, there are some at the district level who don’t really understand us.

In working with the district and the community at large there is an interesting balance which must be struck. The pure open or free model of education has evolved throughout the years at JCOS. In his book Summerhill School, A.S. Neill describes a much more laissez faire style of education. While JCOS is still influenced by some of Neill’s ideals, we have continued to change in order to maintain a viable and sustainable program in the high stakes world of accountability. As a public-based open school, I believe we have managed the changes in a way that actually gives us the best of both worlds. It is still very much student-centered learning, but we also employ student goals, Graduation Expectations, and Self-Directed Learning work to create a balanced approach to learning.

I like how you refer to your teachers as advisors and facilitators. This connotes a positive relationship that enables a balance of independence and guidance. Can you describe what classrooms look like at various levels?

At JCOS all Advisors go by their first names. Some think that calling someone by their sir name is a sign of respect, but we believe that learning is not hierarchical; rather it is a cooperative process where Advisor and student share equally. Therefore, we believe it is a sign of respect to the student that we are all learners and all equals at JCOS. There shouldn’t be that much separation between students and teacher – we want to foster tighter relationships without anonymity.

At the elementary level advising ratios are approximate 22 to 1 and at secondary level they are approximately 16 to 1. From first grade to graduation, Advisors work with students and their families in three year increments. Advisors get to know the students and their families’ well, which enables them to help students design their own curriculum. As students progress through the program there is a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student directed learning. As students assume control of their education, it is fundamental that they have the support of an Advisor who knows the student well enough to help them design a meaningful and challenging curriculum. Most schools don’t include students in the development of curriculum; this job is usually reserved for district level administration. Empowering students in designing their own education requires a strong personal relationship with an Advisor.

Advising is also an integral part of creating a caring culture. Discipline is most often handled through meetings and positive dialogue with the Advisor. Rather than relying on detentions or punitive actions, we emphasize a trusting relationship with the Advisor. The more trust established with an advisor, the more freedom a student receives in order to achieve the goals of his or her curriculum. Trust is integral as a student’s curriculum often includes apprenticeships, internships, and domestic and international travel. If trust is eroded, freedom is diminished and must be earned again.

I know that classrooms with multi-age groupings are beneficial for a number of reasons. Can you describe the benefits?

One of the biggest benefits is the mentoring relationships that are developed between the students. The older students help teach the culture and norms of the classroom to younger students in a much more effective way than a teacher working alone can. The peer-to-peer teaching and learning is a great benefit to all students. Additionally, as Advisors get to know the students over three years, a nurturing atmosphere and an optimal learning environment is created.

How does your school honor the theory of Emotional Intelligence and multiple intelligences? For example, how would kids with different interests and talents in art, music, drama, gymnastics, history, math, etc. all thrive at your school and find their element?

At the elementary level there is choice time every day for the students to choose what they would like to do. It becomes more formalized in the Intermediate Area (4th through 6th grades) with their first self-directed learning projects, called Voyages. In Pre-Walkabout (7th through 9th grades) there are multiple Self-Directed Learning (SDL) projects and a Demonstration of Readiness, which is a transition curriculum and project that occurs during the 9th grade year. It is Open School 101 and is an orientation to the Passage process in Walkabout Program (10th through 12th grades). Walkabout, which was inspired by an Australian rite-of-passage, is the final phase of the program in which each student demonstrates readiness to function as an adult by doing six Passages, the actual transition to adulthood.

There are six focus areas to Passages: Adventure (A personally meaningful challenge or quest), Career Exploration (A broad investigation of a field of employment), Creativity (The development of a product of personal excellence), Global Awareness (Research, service learning, and education of others on an issue of global and local importance), Logical Inquiry (An investigation demonstrating an understanding of the scientific method), and Practical Skills (Development of skills for which one was formally dependant on others).

Students pick what they are interested in pursuing within these six Passages. One student who was interested in music built his own guitar, learned how to mix and record music, wrote and sang his own songs on a CD he learned to record. Another student interested in aviation got his pilot’s license through the Passages. Some students interested in drama have written, produced and acted in their own plays all as part of their Passages. Therefore, the theory of multiple intelligences and respect for one’s interests is built right into the Open School’s philosophy.

How are students’ work and progress assessed?

The Open School is a ‘non-graded’ school. Students do not track their progress using grades, nor is ‘seat time’ used to determine credit earned. Instead, students self-assess completion of each learning experience based on personal goals and Advisor criteria; feedback is given on their evaluations; these documents then go into a portfolio, which is the Open School Body of Evidence used to track progress on our Graduation Expectations rubrics. Our Graduation Expectations require that student’s demonstrate progress in the personal, social, and intellectual domains. Additionally, students complete the six Passages, twice-yearly self-reflections, coursework, participation in service projects or internships, and independent study plans.

The Passages and Self-Directed Learning Projects are truly an authentic assessment. Students must write up a narrative of their proposed course of study or Passage. In the proposal they describe what their goals are, what they want to accomplish, what they think they will learn, etc. They meet with their advisor and a community member/consultant who is generally an expert on the proposed subject matter (like a pilot for someone interested in aviation for instance) and a Triad, which is a group of their peers that are with them for 3-6 years. Once the proposal has been formalized, the student works on each Passage for anywhere from one month to three years, meeting with members of the original team along the way. At the end there is the wrap-up which is another narrative document that discusses what was originally proposed, what was learned along the way and how.

For more information on Jefferson County Open School go to:


  1. What a dream that our Government will actually invest in our children's Education? Many parents are simply forced to put their kids into deteriorated public programs, where kids loose their identity and where the learning process actually kills their creativity and love for learning.
    I would love to know more about the results in this fantastic Open School System.

  2. As noted in the interview we would like the results of the Open School program to be judged by how well our students attain the Five Goals of the Open School referred to in the interview. Dr. Fredrick (Rick) Posner’s new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, details exciting new research about Open School Alumni. Rick’s book is a study of graduates of the Open School program since it’s inception in the 1970’s. In it, Rick details the many ways in which JCOS alumni have continued to internalize and achieve the Five Goals of the Open School throughout their lives.

    The Five Goals of the Open School

    Students will be able to . . .

    Rediscover the Joy of Learning.

     91% of respondents have attended post secondary education.

     84% of those who have attended have completed degree programs. The national average is for completion is 45%.

    Seek Meaning in Your Life.

     A robust 97% of Open School alumni say they are happy with their lives as adults.

     95% of Open School alumni report that the school had a positive influence on their lives. 82% say the influence was “very positive.”

    Adapt to the World as It Is.

     82% of respondents reported a positive influence of the Open School in their ability to understand and adapt to the world as it is.

     89% of respondents say they are happy with their jobs. The national average is only 50%.

     84% say they think the Open School has had a positive influence on their work lives.

    Prepare for the World as It Will Be.

     80% of respondents say the Open School had a positive effect on their ability to prepare for a future they were not sure of.

     89% said the Open School had a positive influence on their college lives and their performance in school.

    Create the World as it Ought to Be.

     89% of respondents reported that the Open School had a positive influence on their ability to create the world as it ought to be.

     85% of respondents say they volunteer an average of six hours a month for local, global, and/or community organizations.

    Most respondents say they see no distinction between living their lives and pursuing lifelong education. Many simply say, “The Open School taught me how to live.”

  3. Thanks a lot for a bunch of good tips. I look forward to reading more on the topic in the future. Keep up the good work! This blog is going to be great resource. Love reading it.

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