Avalon School in St. Paul is a place of truly busy students. Once the lunch time ends, all of them leave the dining hall to continue working. Most of them do not have time to answer any questions, but Mali M. O’Neal, 16, agreed to relate her experience since last winter, when she transferred from Highland.“I really realized this was the place for me,” she said, “but I think it took going to a very traditional public school and studying for a while for me to figure that out.”
Students like Mali and their parents “really were looking for something different” when Avalon started 13 years ago, said Carrie Bakken, who is a program coordinator and advisor at Avalon. We talked while sitting next to students who were completing their projects at a nearby table. Those sitting there were some of the 185 students in grades 6-12. Avalon emphasizes personalized learning plans, student-initiated independent projects, seminar classes, public student presentations, and partnerships with parents and community, which Bakken said means that students “are prepared for their post-secondary life.”
Mali O’Neal affirmed convincingly that what she likes the most about Avalon is being able to choose what and how she learns: “Students spend an hour in every class everyday in most schools and not take anything from being there because either the topics are not interesting or the teacher is not teaching it in a way that may get students engaged, and it’s the complete opposite here.” As a 10th grade student, she is unsure about what to do after high school, but her school offers her an unique opportunity to choose among the“million things” within her life: “I can explore them all here and explore them on my own terms,” she said. But this freedom can be also frightening. “I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know if I could handle the independence here,” said O’Neal.
TC Daily Planet interns went to the author reading at Avalon School. Here’s what they found:
Avalon introduces their students earlier to a practice of lifelong learning, including how to manage their time. “We’re doing that very early and it’s definitely hard but it feels more rewarding,” said O’Neal. “Every day I go home and I feel so much better about the things I’ve done and how I’ve spent my time.”
Carrie Bakken said the school began with a group of parents who saw a need for a new type of high school. They wanted a school that was not “assembly line” methodology, and they were committed to the importance of being part of a community. Their main inspiration wasMinnesota New Country School, which was given a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Small Schools project to replicate their model.
“They are unique and they are teacher-based, as we are,” Bakken said. This explains why Avalon uses teacher owned governance — there is no principal.
Once again, O’Neal described how this looks in daily life: “When I personally have either problems that are happening in the school or just personal things that I need to talk about I either go to a social worker, Mandy, or I go to any one of the advisers.”
Everything is collaborative, everyone has a voice, and everyone is at the same level. Those who started the school know how difficult it was to make this idea come true.When asked if it is easy to start an independent school, Bakken answered “It’s a lot of work. Probably it was easier in 2001 but you have to do an extensive application and get it approved by an authorizer.”
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