By Jennifer Sarkis
This past October, six of our board members from PCSI (Pagosa Springs Charter Initiative) had the privilege of paying a second visit to Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, CO, a suburb of Denver.
For over forty years, this school has provided a life changing alternative to conventional schooling. They provide multi-aged classrooms that focus on the development of the whole child.
Founded by parents and teachers in 1970, it established the following goals for its students:
- Rediscover the joy of learning
- Seek meaning in life
- Adapt to the world as it is
- Prepare for the world that might be
- Create the world as it ought to be
At Jefferson County Open School (JCOS), the walls were filled with beautiful artwork and projects and the school was centered around a large communal plaza/cafeteria which seemed to be the heart of the school. Their five goals are also proudly and artfully displayed throughout the school. Assistant Principal Melyssa Dominguez welcomed us and then we broke up into separate groups and were assigned different classrooms to observe.
Our group was first brought to Mrs. Mary Korte’s 1-3rd grade classroom (The Early Learning Center or ELC, as they call it at JCOS). Mary and her assistant teacher, Mrs. Anna Metler have been team-teaching and co-creating this teaching environment for the past fourteen years. Their philosophy requires the following conditions: an emotionally safe classroom community, a rich and inspiring curriculum, unstructured time and opportunities for choice, and open-ended materials.
At the start of the class, each child was warmly greeted as they walked through the door. They put their things away and sat down on the floor as a group of about 42 and got ready for their morning meeting (held at the beginning and end of each day). We watched in awe as their “Advisor” (the term used instead of “teacher” at JCOS) observed… while one of the classmates, a young girl, began leading the entire class through the schedule of the day on the board (read aloud by all), exercises, and classroom duties… without hesitation. It was clear to see their philosophy of self-directed learning shining through. Here, the focus is not on text, testing, and grades, but rather on the development of the child as a whole from pre-kindergarten through high school. Character building appeared to be a large part of what is taught at JCOS and it was exemplified in these students.
Every afternoon and Friday morning, the ELC offers a block of time called Choice Time. During this time, students have full control over the use of their time and have the opportunity to discover their passions, find out who they are, be inspired by their peers, and to deepen their learning through free play. This Choice Time continues through the upper level grades, alongside their normal studies — where students get one day out of the week to focus on their personal interests.
The PSCI groups observed additional classrooms and had a great tour of the rest of the school. Students were happy and eager to acknowledge us and even talk to us. There was even a young girl playing the piano as we walked through the halls. We were able to peek our heads in to some of the older kids’ classrooms where they sat around mostly large circular tables with small class sizes of about 10-15. You could feel the sense of community and excitement radiating from each classroom and hallway.
It is clear to see that Jeffco Open School seeks to do things differently and the result is extremely positive from many different aspects.
Pagosa Charter School Initiative hopes to implement as many of JCOS’ philosophies as possible into our upcoming public charter school.