11 March 2012

Pacific Crest Community School

I am on a quest to visit interesting high schools.

Last week, I visited Pacific Crest, a 6-12th grade school of 70-80 students, each of whom is free to design his or her own curriculum - within limits. Some forty courses are offered each term; students must take a certain number, and of those, a certain number must be math, or language arts, &c. The content is as original as the structure: it is not uncommon for courses to have curious titles like "Geometry of Gothic Windows" or "Physics of Superheroes" or "Take a Walk". (Just think, there is a high school - not a mussar yeshiva - that teaches how to take a walk... I'd like to know what the content of that course is.) A couple of classes are compulsory.

No grades are given; instead, students compile a portfolio, which they whittle down for the purpose of college applications, and submit in place of grades. By now the colleges are used to this.

Pacific Crest is a 'democratic' school: students meet once a week, sitting on the auditorium stage, to nominate each other's heroic deeds for applause, to make announcements, to invite visitors to stand up and say "Your name and your favorite movie character", and to raise issues for discussion (how shall we get each other to stop leaving backpacks on the common room tables?) I had the sense that although some of the students were a bit weary of the proceedings, all were glad to belong to the community of which such meetings are an important characteristic. Teachers are not exempt from being treated as equals in this democracy -- which I think is a pity; if nothing else, they have greater life experience. The school has an open campus: students are free to wander the city whenever they do not have class.

Naturally -- this being the city it is -- half the students wore what would be recognized in any other school as costume: Robin Hood was the first I noticed, but not every costume was that of a recognizable era or world. What, don't you come to school in a cape and fuzzy ears on an ordinary Tuesday?

I think some of this is great (e.g., the diversity of curriculum). But it is one thing to incorporate flexibility into a school as a pedagogical technique, and quite another to assume that sixth graders know what is best for them, and can motivate themselves to pursue it; and I am not sure (should've asked) which is the idea underlying the Pacific Crest democracy.

Anyway, it was a pleasant and enlightening morning; and thanks to the Pacific Crest administration for allowing tours of their school.

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