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Community School caters to creativity

Community School student Simone Ferguson, 16, shows principal Cindy McMahon a sheep brain she is learning to dissect in her anatomy and physiology class. (Colin Mulvany)
Community School student Simone Ferguson, 16, shows principal Cindy McMahon a sheep brain she is learning to dissect in her anatomy and physiology class. (Colin Mulvany)

Personalized approach motivates students through projects

Something “dramatically different” changed the campus – and mission – at Havermale High School.

Havermale, an alternative high school since the 1980s, had helped struggling students graduate. In the fall of 2010, the school, 1300 W. Knox Ave., launched a new self-motivated project-based education model. Now known as the Community School, the school offers students an alternative to traditional high school.

“Traditional high schools don’t work for a lot of kids,” Principal Cindy McMahon said. “It’s not a one size fits all.”

At the Community School, students complete individualized projects designed to nurture creativity and curiosity – while still meeting educational standards – based on their interests and real life experiences. In this model, teachers take on more of an advisory role, offering assistance as needed.

“It’s a big goal of the school,” McMahon said, “that our kids reignite the curiosity they had when they were little. We want kids to see themselves as learners.”

McMahon describes the school as an option for those students who are self-motivated, self-managing, and looking for an alternative to the traditional six-period-a-day structure.

“Kids are so alive, so engaged in their learning here,” McMahon said. “The culture of this school has completely changed.”

After enrolling this past fall, Alexei Poe, 16, found his passion in robotics. He and a group of seven students are preparing for a robotics competition at Eastern Washington University in April.

Poe struggled to get through high school. After attending Shadle Park High School for a year, he tried an online course.

“I was behind in my work and barely passed a lot of my classes. It was just hard,” Poe said. “If I wasn’t here, I would have no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go after high school.”

Now, Poe plans on attending Evergreen State College after graduation.

McMahon, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a teacher, was teaching at Shadle when she was introduced to the idea of a project-based school while attending a seminar in Rhode Island in 2004.

“I met kids that blew me away,” McMahon said. “They were so passionate and engaged in school.”

When she moved to Havermale in 2005, she recognized the opportunity to bring this innovative model to Spokane. McMahon got her opportunity to apply the curriculum when she became principal in 2010.

A typical day has the students meeting in advisory, where they develop learning plans around personalized projects. They also work on required reading and spend time with ALEKS – an online math program. The curriculum includes four-week seminars and wellness classes.

The seminars explore in-depth feature topics such as “bringing order to chaos” and “exploring mysteries of the universe.”

The wellness class offers a student-generated list of options such as yoga, dancing, volleyball or guitar.

“Four-week sessions keep things moving fast,” McMahon said. “Something is always changing.”

Acquiring an internship is another required part of the curriculum.

The school takes a whole-student approach, and students are exposed to core values: that every individual has infinite worth, how to use one’s mind well, democracy and equity, and building supportive relationships between adults and students.

“We do a lot around helping students feel secure, supported and academically challenged,” McMahon said. “We have high aspirations for our kids when they leave school.”

The school’s more personalized approach is helped by its ratio of 14 students to one advisory teacher.

“It feels like a family here,” sophomore Simone Ferguson, 16, said. “It feels like everyone is on an equal level.”

Last year, while attending Lewis and Clark High School, Ferguson was ill and frequently missed school.

Even though she was in AP level classes and had a high grade-point average, she was encouraged to look for alternative schooling.

“I missed an average of three weeks each month,” Ferguson said, who underwent jaw surgery and suffered from various medical issues. “They said it was either the Becca Bill or online school.” (The Becca Bill is a state truancy law to ensure children ages 8 to 17 attend school.)

When she came to the school in late November, Ferguson discovered a key reason for her absences was stress. Today Ferguson says she is excelling, and she misses only a couple of days each month.

“I’m like a miracle baby coming here,” Ferguson said. “This is definitely the place I want to be.”

Since the Community School’s founding two years ago, McMahon boasts it averages a 90 percent attendance rate, with quiet halls and a student body that wants to attend classes.

“This is not Havermale,” McMahon said, referring to the former school. “So many kids would thrive in this small, supportive, personalized setting that is also challenging.”