I believe that if you’re going to talk the talk you need to walk the walk.

You won’t see that with Obama’s choice of schools for his children or Gates for his children. Their talk is for other people’s children, not their own.

Some of the best graffiti artists in Seattle came out during the last days that Nova was in the Mann building to share their work.

My daughter attends a public school in Seattle, Nova High School, originally named The Nova Project. The Nova Project, along with several other alternative/option schools in Seattle, work. They have been successful over the last twenty years, time proven and continually growing and changing with each generation of students, graduating students who have a balanced view of themselves and the world with the academic and social skills necessary to successfully navigate the world we live in.

These schools were termed “alternative” because of the student centered, project based approach to education. These schools were not developed to be catch all’s or the safety net schools but schools that provided an alternative approach to teaching and learning.

How do I walk the walk? Over the years, while working as an architect full-time, I taught after hours at my daughter’s school and later on weekends an introduction to architecture and design incorporating what the students were learning in class, math, scale, physics, history, science and social studies with the history of buildings, how we live and how our art and the design of the built environment is a reflection of our values and aspirations from one century or culture to the next.

Would this fit within a standardized curriculum? Not at all. Could I possibly use a standardized test that reflected what the students learned and achieved throughout the course of their studies in my class? Possibly, but it would not accurately reflect all that they learned or how their critical thinking skills had developed or their ability to solve problems in a creative manner. How would I be rated as a teacher based on the performance criteria that our superintendent would like to use to rif teachers? I don’t think that I would have a chance.

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to teach full-time in a studio setting and in enrichment programs throughout Seattle, not through the school district but by invitation from individual schools and paid for by local PTA’s and the YMCA after school programs.

That gets me back to Nova, our alternative schools and programs that are successful within our public school system.

I am now co-teaching at Nova High School with a history teacher and an art teacher. Our focus is on the development of art and architecture through history beginning with Mesopotamia, going into the Renaissance Period and on to the Bauhaus School and the Modern Movement. We are looking at how what we create is a reflection of the social and political values and aspirations of the society and individuals of each period.

This type of exploration in graduate school is what got me interested in history and art and both subjects have become a passion for me over time.

What has made Nova successful over four decades is the flexibility that is provided to staff and students to create programs and classes that not only meet the basic requirements of math and English but can go beyond that and expand the student’s horizon.

Some of the other basics about Nova High School:

There are no grades. What that means is that “D” level work does not get you past “Go”. The students work is based on credits. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers, many times with student involvement, determine what needs to be accomplished by the student to receive either ½ credit or 1 credit. If the work is not completed by the end of the class, there is no credit given. That means that the student will need to take another class in that subject to receive enough credit to move on. This is not an easy task but not impossible either. My daughter is challenged intellectually and is expected to complete her work in a timely manner.

Most classes are seminar style and interaction is more like college level classes than a traditional high school usually offers. The students and teachers sit on a combination of chairs and couches, with tables or not, depending upon what the class prefers, and usually in a circle. There is information and direction given by the teacher with much interaction and conversation by all participants. For example, in the class that I am co-teaching, Joe Swaja, the history teacher, knows far more on the subject of history than I do. I will begin to show images of an Egyptian temple and describe how it was built and decorated and why and Joe will step in and provide additional information or answer questions regarding what was happening elsewhere during that time. It becomes a rich evolution of information sharing.

Because of this style of teaching and discussion, many colleges seek out Nova students. These colleges have found that Nova graduates are able to easily and successfully make the adjustment from high school to college because they have learned the ability and confidence to speak up, participate and feel that what they have to share is of value.

The other reason that colleges seek out Nova students is because of the student centered culture of the school. Students take responsibility of establishing and reaching their goals without mom and dad around. The parents at this point step aside and must allow their students to begin to make decisions on their own and they are held responsible for their decisions. The student is given latitude to work on projects, sometimes for extended periods of time, but there is no hand holding. This prepares the students for taking responsibility for themselves when they are in college or on another path when no one is there to tell them what to do and when to do it.

The students are responsible for determining their own social events, like the prom, where it will be and how it will be paid for. There is also budget committee made up of school staff, parents and students who meet weekly to review the school budget and determine priorities. Basically, the students begin to take on responsibility for what happens in their school. Of course, there are parents standing by who can’t wait to pitch in but we wait to be asked. We are called upon as needed. This can take a bit of restraint at first but after a while you appreciate what the principal and staff are trying to accomplish.

This development into a responsible young adult bodes well for all Nova graduates whether they choose college or another way through life.

Colleges also like Nova students because the SAT scores in the language arts are the highest in the district. This I believe is because of the exceptional teaching staff. A staff that is also working hard not to have to cave-in to “curriculum alignment” which would destroy some of the classes that have been of such tremendous value to the students.

There is also an emphasis on social justice at Nova with projects that the students decide to take on each year. One of the ongoing projects is the New Dawn project which provides job training for students in Guatemala’s Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn) community of repatriated refugees. The students raise funds each year to go to Guatemala and work with the families and students for two weeks.

Nova High School teaches all students. There is a strong IEP department within Nova and the school does receive Title 1 funds. It’s amazing to me to see a school not only survive but thrive even through the worst of times. I believe that the success of the school is based on the strong vision that was put into place by its’ early founders and each principal has not faltered in those convictions and the main edicts of student centered, project based learning with a place for all students.

Tomorrow night will be Exhibition Night at Nova High School and all prospective students and their families are invited to attend.

February 15th, 6 – 8:00 pm
7:00 pm Meet and Greet with Principal Mark Perry

300 20th Ave E

Seattle, WA  98112

Phone: 206.252-3500

I would recommend that any parent whose student might be interested in this program, please visit the school and hear from others about The Nova Project.

Nova, along with other alternative schools in Seattle, walk the walk and work.


Post Script:

Please share what works in your school.