On a chilly Tuesday morning, teenagers entered a one-room school in intermittent clusters and inevitable explosions of backpacks, jackets and conversation. A “Periodic Table of Juicing” was lying on a piano, plants were growing in the windows and kids were explaining late homework. They are like any other group of youth: a combination of noise, fashion statements, awkwardness and unlimited potential.
Their education, however, is not the status quo. The first sign was that they each dropped their cellphones in a bag before class starts. The next was the whir of an electric pencil sharpener from the back of the class. These 11 children are the first at Nova High, a new school for the arts and outdoors in Sandpoint. The founders are Waldorf-trained, but the school follows its own curriculum.
“We’re tapping into the needs of human beings right now,” said Jessica Prentice, a teacher and founding member.
Those changing needs are what inspired Prentice, along with Michele Burkey and Natalie Britton, to launch the school as a place to serve everyone. They share the concern that the public education model offers a more narrow path for those primarily focused on going to college.
When Prentice speaks, it is clear she is passionate about providing education on how things in the world work, from the construction of clothing to the purchase of groceries, the gutting of fish to the growing of gardens. This tactile knowledge is part of a comprehensive, project-based program. The students will learn about thermodynamics in a classroom setting, affirming those science lessons in cooking classes during which they wear aprons they’ve made and use the groceries they bought.
On that chilly Tuesday, the morning began with their physics teacher, Michael Seifert. Before the lesson, he instructed students to move their chairs around in a disorganized manner and proceeded to teach them a game of movement. For the next 15 minutes, the kids hustled between chairs, yelling and laughing until their cheeks were rosy.
Only then did Seifert have them rearrange the class again for a review and the day’s lab experiment: liquid nitrogen.
The potential for explosion had the kids rapt as Seifert worked his hands into a giant pair of white laboratory gloves and unscrewed the lid to the canister. Silver wisps of gas floated into a silent room that burst into excitement when he froze a tennis ball in an instant then used a solid banana to hammer a nail into a wooden handle.
Teenagers are difficult to impress, but Seifert has easily done so.
Seifert speaks about the difference between information and knowledge, and the importance of going beyond the presentation of concepts. His goal is to present a phenomenon and wake up the thinking process, actively engage students in the understanding. He wants students to have a knowledge of subjects that allows them to use those concepts in their lifetime.
“Kids are put in such a box these days,” Seifert said. “This education provides students with the ability to go out and master the world, not just fit into it.”
While the U.S. has seen a growing trend of demands for project-based schools and alternative learning models, improved awareness around neurodiversity coupled with the impacts of a pandemic have drastically increased that demand. It’s not only about those who benefit from a different learning environment than traditional public education. Many parents are wanting their children equipped with a broad set of skills or the ability to pursue career paths different from college if they choose.
Prentice was disillusioned by the public education system, having taught first there, then at a charter school, and eventually directing a Waldorf school before moving to Idaho.
While many public schools are staffed with competent teachers, they are trying to overcome challenges that appear faster than they can adapt, with less funding and resources than they need. While Nova High could use both funding and resources, it has the agility and freedom to collaborate in unique ways with a community that has an affinity for its cause.
Other founders, Britton and Burkey, lean heavy on the importance of community throughout their curriculum. Many of the expert lessons provided to the students happen outside of classroom, at local farms, businesses, woodworking shops or on homesteads. Their hope is to purchase property and have the students collaborate with the community in designing and building their school as part of the program.
“Community is important to understanding self and belonging,” Britton said.
Prentice echoed her: “This is a supremely social education.”
What they don’t have is computers or more screen time than they get outside of school. The founders note that high school students today are digitally native, adept at these skills and acquiring them quickly. While cyber civics and digital literacy are woven into the education, it is not a curriculum focus. At Nova High, they submit assignments in handwriting until 11th grade. They also learn cursive.
Yet one has the impression it is not just dying arts these students are offered, but a path to navigating a changing world in a sustainable, meaningful way.
As they began their morning lesson, the classroom walls filled with their voices in a unified recitation of a verse by Rudolf Steiner: “I observe nature, where the sun shines, where the stars sparkle, where the stones rest, where plant life grows among the sentient beasts, and humanity is steward to the Soul.”
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michael Seifert.