Today’s children enjoy multiple options on road to education

Alex Drake poses with his mother, Catherine Johnston, June 6 after graduating from Avanti, an alternative high school in Olympia. (Photo by Tony Wadden)

Brian and I fill suitcases with diapers, documents, tiny clothing and dreams. An airplane like a magic carpet carries us 6,000 miles into the night over the Brazilian rain forest. Once in Paraguay, we adopt our infant son, Alex. In a 1994 Asuncion courthouse, we take an oath to love Alex, care for him, and provide opportunities.

At home, I watch Alex close his toddler eyes tightly and jump on top of a book.

“I want to get in that story!” he explains. “And I left in the night. The Moon Horse came and got me and took me into the sky, Mommy. So, when I’m gone from my bed, don’t worry. I am with the Moon Horse.”

I almost believe him.

“Alex is the most creative child I have ever known. He has an amazing imagination,” his preschool teacher says.

“That should make school easier for him,” I say.

I could not be more wrong, but as we pay attention to Alex’s creativity and learning style, we match him with schools that seem to fit.

In first grade, parents gather around Alex’s family picture, laughing.

“You look great, Cathy!” one mom says. Instead of drawing, Alex cut up family photos and attached them to bodies, clipped from magazines. But the unhappy teacher says, “He didn’t follow my directions.”

And while we read to him every day, he struggles to read. Instead, he creates his own alphabet and writes magical stories he “reads” to us.

“Alex seems to be a kinesthetic, multisensory learner – he needs to move and use his body to really learn,” explains a reading tutor.

As a successful, traditional learner – educated in the 1960s and 1970s in classes filled with baby boomers all expected to learn in the same way – I have no idea what she means. Don’t you just read books, learn, and take tests?  

With the tutor, Alex traces letters in sand as he pronounces their sounds and puts in order cards with consonants and vowels written on them, making words. Soon, he asks, “Mom, if I clean my room, can we go to the library?” 

While the classroom confines Alex, the stage does not. He joins Creative Theatre Experience in Olympia, where he sings, dances, and rehearses his iguana role in “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.” In the fall of his second grade, we dump Catholic school for public education with its experienced teachers and diversity. Teacher Donna Kilburg reads stories about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Mom, have you ever stood up for justice?” Alex asks. I tell him my employer now offers other adoptive families paid time off – just like birth families get – because I stood up for our family.

“But did you ever talk to Rosa Parks?!” he asks.

For Alex, meaning comes from relationships – not theory. History, science and numbers must have a context. So when I teach him math, I create a story.

“Alex, pretend you have 10 pieces of candy and a mean kid comes along and takes two pieces. How many pieces of candy do you have left?”

He thinks for a very long time and answers, “None, because a mean kid would take all my candy!”

We find a math tutor.

While math brings dissonance, music offers harmony. Alex dances and sings and performs his way through elementary school summers, free of confining desks and math formulas. When I hear him practice the viola – his orchestra instrument – I ask to see the music.

“I don’t have music for this song. I just know the notes,” he says.

Faced with middle school options, Alex wants one with “nice kids.” We choose an Evangelical-sponsored school with nice kids, small classes and kind teachers.

When his math teacher calls and says Alex has cheated on a math worksheet, I am stunned.

“Well, I have never received a call like this one, but I will certainly ask him about it and call you back,” I say.

Alex explains: “Yeah, he gave me the worksheet and said, ‘Now go find the right answers!’ And I knew I didn’t have the right answers, so I asked other students for their help!”

He did follow directions exactly and the teacher could only laugh.

At the Evangelical school, Alex discovers his own spirituality when he leads music with the worship team, praying with heartfelt conviction at each school assembly.

However, his teachers acknowledge neither music nor art accomplishments at the spring awards ceremony – only exceptional achievement in core academics and sports.

Watch Rebecca Nappi talk about this story with Ken McGrath of KHQ
Spokane, North Idaho News

“School assesses only a small part of human talent, Alex,” I tell him. “You have many gifts like music and performing, but also kindness, deep faith and an intuitive understanding of people. You have a compassionate heart. Your gifts will serve you well.”

I give him an award from the trophy store: an eighth note atop a treble clef, with his name, the year and “Worship Team” engraved on a brass plate. He places it in the kitchen so guests can see it.

In high school, Alex joins a sophisticated summer theater program where the director casts him as Ethiopian King Amonasro in “Aida.” We run lines in the car, in the house; he sings in the shower and while he vacuums. He performs on a community college stage in the heat of July and August.

“Mom, thanks for not making me play baseball in the summer, like some parents,” he says.

“Alex, you need to follow your passion,” I say.

I must live according to my words when Alex chooses School of the Arts in Tacoma for high school. He rides a city bus an hour each direction, arriving home at 5:30 p.m.

His team’s rap video on the Krebs cycle meets a biology requirement. He passes “evil” algebra one problem at a time, and joyfully dances and sings with fellow theater geeks. He earns a varsity letter in community service for service work at church and at migrant camps.

Junior year, when a regional theater announces open auditions for the musical “Fame,” Alex delivers a well-rehearsed line: “Don’t worry, Mom, I know school comes first; I am just auditioning for the experience. I won’t get in.”

“I got in!” Alex screams, when the visiting Broadway director calls.

We could say no to “Fame,” but we will not let school trump his passion. He travels from the bus to rehearsals, eating sandwiches in the car. Home at midnight, he falls into bed. His grades suffer, but Alex does not. The cast plays to sellout crowds.

At school year’s end, he is weary of the commute, and transfers to Olympia’s Avanti High School, with its standards-based learning.

“You can’t fail, Alex. You study the lessons until you achieve 80 percent mastery. You can choose topics to focus on. You will be successful. It’s education that makes sense,” I explain.

“Cool!” he says.

Alex could graduate in June 2012 with his class. Then, the phone rings.

“Alex, this is Dwayne. I am in “Footloose” and we need another male cast member. Interested?”

Two months later “Footloose” finishes on schedule, but Alex’s school work does not. He needs to complete .75 of a required history credit.

“I’m just not ready,” he says.

While singing in “Fame” and “Footloose” and “Phantom,” Alex finds his own voice. His courage to listen to his own spirit taught me to listen more closely to my own voice.

So when friends ask, “Aren’t you upset Alex is not graduating on time?” I remind them he is graduating on time – his own time. A self-confident choice we support.

Alex spends the next year completing the history credit, taking more AP English, electives and voice lessons. And on June 6, 2013, Alex graduates from Avanti High School, confident and proud.

Brian and I kept our vow made in a Paraguayan courtroom because we listened to Alex’s creative spirit, instead of our own experiences, allowing him to flourish.

Soon that Moon Horse will return, leading Alex on adventures where he will jump into his own story. For now, summer brings easy conversation and relaxing weekends. At Sunday Mass, Father Jim announces the altar flowers came from Purdy, a women’s prison. The inmates arranged them for our parish.

Alex says: “I like the flowers, Mom. They show that no matter who you are, if you are in the right circumstances, you can really blossom.”

Catherine Johnston is a health care professional and writer from Olympia.

Boomers helped start and support alternative schools

Though most baby boomers did not attend alternative high schools, because they were a new concept when boomers were in high school in the 1960s and 1970s, the boomer generation saw the need for alternative schools for their children, created the demand for them and supported the schools, according to Claire McGibbon, who has worked 30 years in education as a teacher and now counselor at Avanti High School in Olympia.

“The boomer generation has sought out alternatives, such as online, magnet, charter and Montessori schools. Online schools would not exist without the demand,” McGibbon said.

The term “alternative school” used by many boomers decades ago may evoke images of drug-addicted students or teens with serious learning challenges, seeking to retrieve credits.

However, many nontraditional schools, like award-winning Avanti High School in Olympia, offer creative options, such as collaboration through integrated learning and arts projects. These schools often attract highly creative teens who like independent learning plans they create for themselves on topics they choose.

McGibbon encourages letting go of the alternative-school stereotype. For instance, she describes Avanti as a “small school, publicly funded, that honors independent learning and is recognized as intelligent design by the University of Washington.”

One Avanti student, contacted by Harvard University, was asked if the “alternative” school was a place for druggies.

The student replied: “We have some students who deal with drug issues, but we don’t see them that way. We see them as human beings who need support and our community supports them.”

The student crossed Harvard off her list of possible colleges.

When parents know their child’s communication style and their various forms of intelligence – such as musical, digital, interpersonal, naturalist, existentialist – they can support those strengths.

McGibbon said parents need to ask: “What else is possible? How much better than this does it get? What is my child’s truth?”

She added: “School does not define our kids. Do not let public education own your child. School is a tool, a place students go. Parents need to take full responsibility for educating their child.”

Letting go of our own expectations and experiences may be the widest open door we offer our children. When we seek paths that fit their unique talents and ways of being in the world, we free them.

“We don’t own our children. Instead, they are our responsibility and our gifts,” McGibbon said.

Catherine Johnston

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