On a leafy street in all-American Ann Arbor, Michigan, Community High School looks like any other dreary, post-war public school building. But what goes on inside its walls is something special and unique — so much so that, 15 years ago, when admission was on a first come-first served basis, people waited in a line for up to two-and-a-half weeks (with tents, lawn chairs and other supplies) to assure a place for their kids in the 450-student "alternative" school.
"Alternative school" may conjure images of latter-day hippies or kids in serious academic or social trouble. In fact, it's the opposite. While admission is now based on a kinder, gentler lottery system (which is how Bruno Taylor got in), the standards for remaining in Community High are challenging and rigorous.
"Bruno was originally on our waiting list," says school Dean Judy Conger. "When someone dropped out, we called the family, and Bruno answered the phone. He got so excited, hollering for his mom and dad. We knew then that this would be a good match."
What is it about Community High School that makes it so good for kids like Bruno (70 other students have learning disabilities) — and for hundreds of kids without learning problems? Probably the creative learning environment, says Conger. Kids are expected to take classes at Community, but they must also gain experience in various fields of interest. What this means is that, while students adhere to curricular standards required for college admission, they are also expected to volunteer in the community at large and work with academic advisors to shape those experiences into high school credits.
"One of my favorite projects was when a bunch of kids interviewed senior citizens at an elder care community," says Conger. "A well-known playwright volunteered to help the students shape their interviews into dramatic vignettes." The show was given a production at a local community theatre, professional actors and all. Students turned this experience into college credits in English, drama, and history.
Another group of students volunteered to help a local silversmith. While learning the craft, they were also able to create some designs of their own. Then there was the student who, a few years back, trained for and participated in a dog-sled race to the North Pole. As for Bruno, besides his work as an assistant restaurant chef (on Sundays), he volunteers as a guide at the city's children's museum. Other kids participate in government and in political campaigns.
Many students come to the school specifically to participate in its renowned jazz program. "The kids play hundreds of 'gigs,'" says Conger with pride. "And that includes some travel." In addition, the school district allows kids from other schools to take classes — like jazz — at Community. Some advanced Community students take classes at the University of Michigan. "We didn't know how it was going to work with Bruno," who needed to attend school with an aide and required assistive devices to read and write. At first the transition was difficult, but this year, Conger says, "he's happy as a clam."
His new aide refused to be Bruno's "lackey" after he noticed that he was taking all the notes while Bruno just sat there. "I know that some of these things are difficult, but you have to do what you can," the aide told him.
"Bruno made a quantum leap after that," says Conger. "He's made a good adaptation, he thrives in the classroom and he participates." In fact, he's become the kind of student that Community High was designed for. Says Conger, "We want people who will grab hold of their own education and be a partner in designing their own curriculum."
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
This article appears in the Winter issue of ADDitude.
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