The sleek new high school at Denver Academy, a specialized private school for children with learning differences, is everything the kids could dream of. That's because students had input into the plans for the building.
The 35,000-square-foot high school opened its doors in September, showing off wide banks of windows, airy classrooms, and specialized lighting that encourages concentration. Founded in 1973 by psychologist Paul Knott and educator Jim Loan, the academy admits students of average or better intelligence who have a history of learning difficulties. Many had underperformed in traditional schools because a one-size-fits-all curriculum hadn't taken into account their individual learning styles. Others were labeled goof-offs because they did poorly in class.
Teachers at Denver use methods based on the work of educational and psychological pioneers such as Maria Montessori, Carl Jung, and William Glasser. Class size is kept small, with a 7-1 student-teacher ratio.
"We have a program that reaches kids," says Loan, the head of school. "Most are hungry for a positive experience. It's not that mainstream schools and teaching methods don't have merits. It's just that different kids have different learning styles. For them, a traditional, lecture-only format wasn't helping them learn."
"Since I attended Denver Academy, I've evolved as a student and a person," says 17-year-old Andrew Parks, a curly-haired, well-spoken junior with a skateboard in the corner of his bedroom. "I understand who I am now." Parks was diagnosed with AD/HD and started medication in the second grade. During elementary school, he struggled with reading but took honors math. By middle school, his grades plunged while the number of disciplinary incidents soared. Andrew often doodled or talked out when the teacher was lecturing.
"In a traditional setting, it would tick people off," said Parks's mother, Anne Comstock, who works in child welfare services at the University of Denver. "But Denver Academy was able to channel his strong opinions in constructive directions."
Upon admission, students at Denver are given a battery of tests - for IQ, personality type, and personal interests. Administrators then classify students into categories: "Answerers" prefer to take notes in a traditional lecture format; "Dancers" learn by doing, interacting with the subject matter whenever possible; "Relaters" keep journals and learn by discussing concepts; "Debaters" often question information, looking for flaws or cracks in what is being taught.
"The students come to realize, 'Hey, I just learn differently,'" says Mark Wood, the dean of the high school. "Any kid can learn if he is taught the right way."
To facilitate this approach, the 900-square-foot classrooms contain elements that support each style. On one side of the room, rows of desks provide an area for lectures. In the back, there is a couch on which students read or sit to make journal entries, and a table to work on collaborative projects.
Classroom amenities encourage learning. Special light bulbs brighten rooms with natural, not harsh, light. Unlike fluorescent lights, they don't buzz, which can distract ADHD youngsters.
As part of his course study, Parks worked in a Denver-area art gallery, learning the ins and outs of hosting art shows. He plans to attend the University of Denver, where he hopes to study art history and business. Park has also joined the student senate. His first order of business: Plan the school's first prom.
"It's cool to see how your input impacts what happens at school," says Parks. "I've never had an influence at school before, but here I do."