Walking into Arcadia High School in Northfield, MN, the administrative desk and row of “waiting room” chairs flows seamlessly into a library of diverse fiction books. I grasped a pen capped with an artificial tulip and signed myself in as a “visitor.” The sound of 16 and 17 year old students exchanging ideas and banter registered as a constant murmur.
When I peered around the corner, the scene was straight out of an article about Google and innovative work spaces. Sprawling desks with red swivel chairs were clustered in groups of 2 and 3. Teenagers with headphone-plugged ears typed away on laptops–their feet propped on formica surfaces.
A group of middle school students in the corner added neon rubber tubes to a towering roller coaster construction project built in the name of physics. Two boys with faux-hawk haircuts sat together strumming guitars casually. On the cork board panels surrounding each workspace, photographs, hand-drawn cover art, and post-it note to-do lists were plastered.
Beginning our tour of Arcadia (formerly called ArtTech High,) the school’s Director pointed to a smirking teenager surrounded by the paper-strewn chaos of his desk; “Sometimes it looks like an office environment in here, and sometimes it looks like a teenager’s bedroom.” Working in a teenage bedroom may sound like a nightmare to most adult professionals, but Director Krominga embraces it. It is a piece of the unique structure and culture of a school with a population of 126. These students must manage their own space and time. There are no bells or tones to signal the end of a class period or lunch hour.
Meandering through the makeshift hallways of this warehouse turned charter school, computer labs merge into bean bag lounges, a black box theater, science and math classrooms, and a few more clusters of “office space.” Student art covers every surface. The evidence of Arcadia’s emphasis on project-based learning is tangible around every corner.
Students in grades 6-12 sign on to a school wide contract–engaged in a culture of collaboration, choice, and creativity. 75% of the school’s high school students also went to middle school in this building, and it is common for a student at Arcadia to have the same core group of teachers for 7 years.
Learning more about the dynamics of the school, I felt more and more as if I were touring a college rather than a building serving students ages 12-18. Mr. Krominga explained to us the intentionality behind this feeling. Throughout middle school, the day for Arcadia students is structured–split into more traditional time frames of class, art, extra-curricular activities, and time to work on assignments.
Once the students make the transition from 8th grade to the high school (a transition, Mr. Krominga admits, that means at least a handful of his students will leave for more traditional models of education,) members of the Arcadia cohort can expect to see their time spent sitting in class cut down significantly. Instead, hours spent working on individually tailored projects designed to meet a set of learning objectives and criteria are the norm. With only 18 students per grade level, it’s much easier to adjust assignments and schedules to each student and his or her intellectual curiosities.
Taking it all in, the prospect of following your own path of interests as a high school student was inspiring. But still, I wondered about the notorious stress of standardized test scores and “achievement” that comes with being a publicly funded school. How did parents feel about their children’s ability to compete for college spots at the end of the day?
Mr. Krominga nodded knowingly. He’d had this question before. To prepare students for MCA testing, a series of lessons, theories, and principles must be learned–all staff at Arcadia acknowledge this reality. Just as a college freshmen must navigate General Education requirements, students at Arcadia face the choices of which classes will fulfill requirements for subjects like biology, physics, science, and chemistry. This experience begins with a general survey course and is followed by quarters and semesters spent examining choice branches of a field–allowing in-depth study for students who discover a passion. Overall, Mr. Krominga is confident in the branching path his students take–proudly asserting that each grade level performs well on MCA tests.
When Arcadia kids reach senior year, it isn’t ACT scores they’re obsessing over (though they are a valid stressor.) Instead, students develop Senior Projects–representations of the journey that is high school life. Reflecting on coursework and personal growth, the projects have limited formal requirements. Mr. Krominga tells us about a few of his favorites–remembering with a smile that the projects that look like they will never work out are usually the best of all.
In 2011, students at Arcadia (the ArtTech,) began harvesting vegetables grown in their own campus greenhouse for delivery to 13 families who signed on to be part of the school’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project (northfield.patch.com) The greenhouse is only one piece of an impressive addition the school added–one that includes a science lab, art room, and multipurpose space. Both inside and out of the greenhouse, students learned the fine (and extremely practical) arts of community gardening and grant application. With grants and funds from the CSA families, ArtTech was even able to hire a farmer-in-residence.
Now a staple in the culture of Arcadia, the greenhouse is an interdisciplinary tool–calling on students’ mental and physical skills. The building is used to teach lessons in subjects ranging from biology to economics, government, and math (northfield.patch.com.)
This year, one senior student has adopted the CSA as her final project. Throughout the Spring semester, she will develop an operations manual to ensure that the operation continues to live on long after she graduates. We hope to invite this student (and a few of her passionate peers) to speak with a St. Olaf Environmental Studies class about their experiences with the CSA and Arcadia greenhouse.
Scribbling away at a notepad as Director Krominga rattled off a list of charter schools in Minnesota to explore, I was impressed by Arcadia’s model and history. After recognizing the title of “ArtTech” was a marketing nightmare (drawing in students and families who mistakenly believed the school was run entirely through flipped classrooms or dance classes,) the current version of Arcadia was born. Armed with the same goal to marry technology and the arts, the school is now more accurately known for its approach to project-based learning.
As Mr. Krominga fondly says; “students should really be allowed to play all the way through high school.” He is saddened by the way parents begin worrying about test scores and college entrance when students hit 7th and 8th grade. A switch flips, and the exploratory learning that was so acceptable for 6 and 7 year-olds suddenly becomes a setback to future success. In this sense, innovative charter schools like Arcadia are more readily approved when they are at the primary level. To open a high school like this one feels like a risk in a system that is cemented in so many of its ways.
On this note of education reform, Krominga has a firm opinion: the current system does not prepare students for the modern world of work. Rather, he believes that the traditional model of public education, equipped with bells and strict units and standardized tests, is a relic of the industrial era–a time when children were to be prepared for factory work. 2013 is the era of start-ups and flexible work hours and connective thinking, and Arcadia is preparing students for the future.
Listening to Mr. Krominga speak, I am inspired. I am also nervous. As the Director of Arcadia openly admits, charter schools by definition do not fit everyone. There are many children who need the structure that Arcadia lacks. Furthermore, the school operates well because it works on such a small scale. To expand or “replicate” this model could lead to failure. In the movement of education reform, this point is key and must be approached carefully. Building reform within communities is where success begins. The 20-year old charter school movement should not be seen as a replacement for our traditional public schools, but as an alternative and a supplement. To identify the needs of a specific community (as Arcadia students learned when they designed and built their own CSA,) is a complex and unique process. No two charter schools should be exactly alike.