Jacob Nagle, dressed to demonstrate his topic of prison abuse, checks his paperwork while Kelcee Bass gives her presentation on refugees during Peninsula Optional High School's Summit on Universal Human Rights and the Environment on Dec. 13 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
It's one thing to study human rights violations from the past. It's another when they're part of current events.
Peninsula Optional High School students got a lesson in compassion, as well as every major curriculum area during a summit on universal human rights and the environment Dec. 13 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna.
As students researched weighty topics like torture, racism and censorship in preparation for the summit, they found they didn't have to dig very far into the past for case studies.
"They were surprised. Some said, 'What, that really happens?' These are things that are going on right now. This isn't a history lesson," said Dawn Edward-Smith, a teacher at Peninsula Optional.
A better awareness of the world around them was just one benefit of the three-week activity, which encompassed learning in all curriculum areas. Reading, writing, social studies, research skills, technology, science, math you name it, it was involved in the project.
That's one of the benefits of a performance-based program like Peninsula Optional, where students graduate by proving proficiency in certain standards, rather than passing set classes. Students can get credit for meeting requirements in any content area at any time, no matter what context they're working in. If it's a science project that happens to involve writing, they can get credit for both.
In that vein the human rights summit gave students an opportunity to engage in multidisciplinary learning and be credited for all of it.
"There's a standard in every content area," Edward-Smith said of the project.
"It's so much more fun meeting standards this way as opposed to a checklist or doing a worksheet," said Peninsula Optional's other teacher, Tad Degray.
Project-based learning is a good fit for a performance program because the environment is so self-directed. Students receive instruction in subject areas at regular times, but there are no semester-long "classes" in the traditional sense. If they have a particular interest, students can choose to study it and learn the skills required for graduation that way.
"Whenever a student has an interest and comes up with a plan and runs it by us, our job is to say yes and find ways to make it happen for them," said Principal Gregg Wilbanks.
Students have a built-in incentive to pursue learning opportunities because they are the ones responsible for letting teachers know when they think they've mastered a standard.
"It's all about standards attainment," Wilbanks said. "If they're not working on a standard then they're wasting their time. Everything they do is to become proficient at a standard."
The program isn't about learning different material than a student in a traditional high school, it's about learning in a different manner. Students spend as much or as little time as they need to demonstrate they've mastered a standard before moving on.
There are close to 1,000 standards students must achieve in high school order to graduate, which works out to about one standard a school day, Wilbanks said.
"If you're not attaining at that rate you won't be done in four years. And that's fine. Who said a four-year high school career is the norm?" he said.
A student may demonstrate proficiency in reading and writing standards at a fast pace, but may need to spend extra time on math. That's what this program is designed for.
"If it's better for kids to slow down ... and take their time until they're proficient, then that's what we do here. It's self-paced, truly self-paced," Wilbanks said.
It's a different environment for teaching as well as learning. There are periods of regular instruction, then there's tutoring, advising, and in general keeping up with new and changing curriculum - like ever-advancing technology - to keep the education relevant.
"It's kind of emancipating for the staff to work in this environment, but it's challenging at the same time," Wilbanks said.
Peninsula Optional is settling into its first year of operation and hopes to expand to seventh and eighth grades, Wilbanks said. The school is housed in portables near Soldotna Elementary School, which used to be home to the Connections program. The usual beginning-of-the-school-year turmoil was amplified by everything being new - the program, the location and the students. But so far things are going well and the school is beginning to develop an identity, Wilbanks said.
Part of that identity is service, whether it's learning about how to fight human rights abuses, or the school's upcoming projects of decorating Parker Park for the holidays and recording oral histories of area senior citizens.
But even while helping others, students are helping themselves advance toward graduation, since things like politeness and good listening skills are two of the many required standards.
"They can't graduate without doing those things," Degray said. "That's what makes our school so unique."
Jenny Neyman is the communications specialist at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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