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Lessons in success: Evergreen resident writes story of Jeffco Open School

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By Vicky Gits

In his new book, “Lives of Passion, School of Hope,” educator Rick Posner makes the case that an alternative public school without grades, grade-point averages, grade levels or academic credits can produce involved, skilled and self-motivated adults for the 21st century.

Posner is deeply entwined with the philosophy and the history of the Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood. The school has been in existence in various forms since 1970 and today is a public school open to all Jeffco students.

Now retired, Posner, 61, taught at the school for 19 years, and his only child graduated from the school in 2002.

“The school really changed me and saved me as a teacher and a human being,” Posner said.

He started teaching at the Mountain Open School in 1983 when it was in Evergreen on Highway 73. The high school existed in Evergreen from 1975 through 1989.

In writing the book, Posner contacted as many of the 865 Open School graduates as possible and solicited their responses to questionnaires and personal interviews. He surveyed or interviewed 431, or about 43 percent, of the total graduates from 1976 through 2002.

“Lives of Passion” explores “the effects on students of an educational program that is devoid of artificial rules, limitations and grades and that encourages young people to follow their passions, not just prepare for standardized tests,” Posner writes in the introduction.

“The long life of the school I think is due to a great track record with adults, people who really give testament the school really helped them and made them well-rounded, productive and happy as adults,” Posner said in a telephone interview. “We need skills like critical thinking, creativity, being able to adapt, being innovative, taking the initiative and being able to get along with different types of people.”

Passages to self-directed learning

The key to understanding the Open School is its reliance on experiential and self-directed learning. A student picks a topic like fishing, wildlife, geography or cooking and invents a course of study around it.

Some years there are as many as 30 trips organized by students, and the students spend a lot of class time planning the trips, many of which they pay for themselves. Posner once took a group of kids on a trip to the Mississippi Delta, where they studied the history of the Civil War, Southern barbecue and African-American music, among other things.

There are standard classes in math, science, social studies and English on the schedule, as well as courses like Film Noir, I Hate Reading, or Calculus for Poets.

At the high school level, students work through the Walkabout Program, which consists of six “Passages” such as practical skills, career exploration, creativity, logical inquiry, global awareness and adventure.

Every student is expected to develop a close, supportive relationship with his or her adviser, who acts as an advocate and guide.

The downside is that students applying to college have no grades and no credits. Instead, they submit a transcript or 50-page narrative description of their high school experience (classes, trips, Passages and significant learning experiences). Some kids go back to community or junior colleges just to get the grades and credits.

Throughout the book are many “success stories,” such as that of Russell Bowman, class of 1978. Bowman started out with an interest in photography, became certified as an emergency medical technician, and worked in a lab at a major hospital, all while in high school. He graduated from medical school and got another degree in health administration. He is now the medical director for a major clinic in Alaska.

The Open School was founded as the Open Living elementary school in Edgewater in 1970. A branch of the elementary school moved to Evergreen temporarily, where it was the near the building where the library now stands from 1973 to 1977.

The high school opened initially in Evergreen in 1975 as the Mountain Open High School under principal Arne Langberg and continued in Evergreen through 1989.

In 1989 the high school and elementary school merged in the old Lakewood Junior High School building at West 10th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, where it is today.

Posner has lived in Evergreen since 1971 and teaches part-time at Regis University.

Contact Vicky Gits at 303-350-1042 or vicky@evergreenco.com.