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TAYLOR: I Visited an ‘Unconventional’ School: Here’s Why ‘Normal’ Needs to Change
[IS] Opinions

TAYLOR: I Visited an ‘Unconventional’ School: Here’s Why ‘Normal’ Needs to Change

While driving in my hometown in Southern California in mid-May, my husband pointed across the way and asked, “Is that a prison?” to which I shot back, “No, that’s my high school!”

When I started high school, mine was the only one in our rapidly growing city; it had around 3,500 students — massive, yes, but it was enjoyable enough (well, mostly, other than being an overweight closeted gay kid that got picked on). Attending this sprawling campus (larger than my first college campus) with thousands of students conforming to the coolest clothing and music trends of the time was all I knew. But I will say, my guidance counselor and the assistant principal made quite a positive impression on me; I stay in touch with them to this day.

Recently, I had the chance to visit One Stone, an independent secondary school in Boise, Idaho. My Stand Together Trust colleagues champion unconventional education models, so I was aware of the non-public school space but had no firsthand experience. My limited foundational education exposure was from attending a huge public school and knowing some friends of friends who homeschool their kids.

What I experienced at One Stone was transformational. A unique educational environment grounded in human-centered design and built around learners’ individual experiences and aspirations. The school, with 107 students, has no rigid curriculum, no set schedule, or bells to push students from one class to the next (or take the 12-minute hike from one class to another as I did in high school).

Importantly, students, not adults, shape what and how students learn. The environment is so unique that students must comprise two-thirds of the board of directors!

Talk about a lesson in self-agency and directedness.

Students have access to various learning environments and experiences — arts, music, recording room, commercial kitchen, learning pods and open community space — to explore their passions and develop the aptitudes and skills aligned with their learning preferences and career interests. At its core, the school creates an environment tailored to the needs of students, not the needs of administrators, teachers or a system that prioritized seat time.

It was inspiring to hear that the school provides a toolkit for life. One Stone takes a holistic approach; they look at the individual, their experience, and those they want to gain, and measure progress against a student’s individual journey, not averages.

I’ve long argued this is what needs to happen in education: educators need to be more explicit about the connections between discipline and curriculum and its relevance to the world outside the classroom.

As someone who had a career in higher education and worked in multiple roles — dual credit advising, student affairs, faculty, alternative credit and quality assurance — I was interested in the connections between One Stone and higher education. The list of colleges and universities offering admission and scholarships to One Stone graduates includes over a hundred recognizable institutions, including more than a dozen public Ivy and flagship universities. As impressive is the intentionality with which the school prepares students to be successful after graduation, whether their pathway includes college, a career, or other civic engagement.

I wanted to know how One Stone communicated evidence of learning and mastery. The school uses The Growth Framework to organize and assess learning and mastery; this includes the “Disruption Blob”, or Bold Learning Objectives arranged in four quadrants: knowledge, mindset, creativity and skills. Each student has a “Growth Transcript” in which coaches document learning and mastery across several learning objectives within the four quadrants.

We asked the students if anyone could be successful at One Stone; after all, it is very different from the one-size-fits-all education model most students are exposed to throughout their lifetimes. From their answers, it was clear the students embraced the out-of-the-box mindset that sets the school apart.

So why aren’t more students experiencing the type of transformational education like One Stone? Well, our education system just isn’t built that way. But students deserve a system that embraces their individuality along a path toward discovery and allows them to experience learning in different ways and at their pace to develop the skills and aptitudes aligned with their aspirations and achieve their fullest potential. We should think of One Stone as a stepping stone to a better and different future for all children across the country.

One Stone operates in the permissionless innovation space. What does that mean? Idaho law has no rules, regulations or restrictions to guide or govern what One Stone does. While they don’t receive state funding, recent changes to Idaho law make it easier for them to consider doing that through programs like Empowering ParentsExtended Learning Opportunities and Innovation Classrooms.

Rather than see One Stone as an innovative anomaly, more educators and organizations should be empowered to embrace this type of transformation in their communities. One Stone is scaling its framework to in- and out-of-school networks through their Growth Seriestools for real-world learning and assessment and rural learning innovation labs.

Policies and other home-grown innovations in Idaho make the state a ripe place for even more of the student-driven models embodied by One Stone. Geography shouldn’t dictate a student’s educational opportunities, and educators and policymakers in other states can look to Idaho for innovative ideas about how policy can create room for experimentation and make transformative education a reality for more learners.

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  • Steven Taylor

    Steven Taylor is a senior fellow on postsecondary education at Stand Together. He wrote this for

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