Education

The UnSchool: A cure for the common classroom tedium?

Students taking a summer school class at Kit Carson Middle School fight to stay awake and engaged during class. San Juan Unified is preparing an antidote to traditional education for the bored, disengaged student – an “UnSchool” opening in fall 2017.
Students taking a summer school class at Kit Carson Middle School fight to stay awake and engaged during class. San Juan Unified is preparing an antidote to traditional education for the bored, disengaged student – an “UnSchool” opening in fall 2017. lsterling@sacbee.com

San Juan Unified is preparing an antidote to traditional education for the bored, disengaged student – an “UnSchool” opening in fall 2017.

There will be no school bells, no traditional classrooms and, backers say, no tedium.

The alternative school, which students will rename later, will exist at the site of the former Fair Oaks Elementary School. There, students will direct their own learning based on their interests. Some online courses and college classes may broaden learning. Add to that beaucoup technology and community-based projects and internships.

“We need to be able to blow up the system and then go to the edge, where you could have your best learning take place,” said Gabriel Cooper, San Juan principal on special assignment and the UnSchool lead. “Let’s create an UnSchool where you can hack an education.”

Unschooling, while little-known, has been around for decades and taken multiple forms. A common thread is that it calls for students to self-direct and take ownership of their learning.

Cooper describes himself as the “chief education deviant.” That is, he said, someone “willing to deviate from the norm.” His team includes San Juan’s lead counselor, Scott Evans, and Jon Leister, teacher on special assignment for technology integration.

Leister offered a practical example of how a passionate pursuit might adhere to academic standards.

“If students figure out they want to do an intensive project – maybe a student is interested in poetry and wants to publish a book of their own poetry – through that process we’ll be able to work in English arts competencies,” he said. “We may have advisers say, ‘How do we get history in there?’ The student may have to do research and look at poets of the 18th century, for example.”

A student passionate about robotics, on the other hand, may incorporate math and physics into the project. Leister said the question then becomes, “How are you going to get your English language arts” integrated into the work?

Leister said the team is planning exhibition nights four times a year in which students can present and explain their learning.

An independent study program, El Sereno, will continue to operate at the campus at 10700 Fair Oaks Blvd., as will district offices.

San Juan Unified has two upcoming information nights for interested students and families, on Tuesday in Fair Oaks and again on Jan. 12 in Sacramento. Open enrollment, the process for entry, closes Jan. 20.

The school will start by enrolling 100 freshmen and sophomores in fall 2017. Over a four-year period, the school is expected to grow to 250 students in grades seven through 12.

“I think engagement in the actual learning is the big thing that we’re trying to get to,” Evans said. “We’re talking about passion-based learning. If kids know their passion, they can charge right into it.”

Cooper said the mission of the school is to create an environment in which students can discover their creative genius.

“We’re acknowledging right off the bat that school does not mean a place of learning,” Cooper said. “We’re saying that as a human, all learning is going to go through you,” whatever the setting.

More on UnSchools

Enrollment: UnSchool starts in fall 2017 for 100 freshmen and sophomores at 10700 Fair Oaks Blvd. in Fair Oaks. Students sign up through open enrollment, which runs through Jan. 20. If more than 100 apply, admission will be via computerized lottery. Out-of-district residents can be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis if slots remain available following open enrollment.

Informational meetings:

  • Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Will Rogers Middle School Library, 4924 Dewey Drive, Fair Oaks.
  • Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the Arden Middle School gymnasium, 1640 Watt Ave., Sacramento.

Questions: Email UnSchool leaders at unschoolhs@sanjuan.edu

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