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Learning by Doing at Ferguson High School

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By Dr. Jason Germain, Principal, Ferguson High School, Thompson School District in Colorado

Water bubbles gently in glass carafes, coffee grinders whir, a barista shouts completed orders.

The coffee shop sounds are familiar. So is the alluring aroma and cozy setting. But this coffee shop is tucked inside Ferguson High School and the customers are teachers and students on their way to class.  

The shop is called Grounded. It was dreamed up by Ferguson students. They developed a business plan, earned a green light from the principal, and put in the time and physical labor needed to transform an old library to a gathering spot.

The coffee shop doesn't look like a typical classroom, but the students who run it earn course credit. Like any good business, it's not standing still. There are plans to expand the line of offerings and upgrade the equipment. There are plans to secure a business bank account so the shop can take credit cards instead of the cash-only requirement today.

Learning by doing is one of themes at Ferguson, one of Colorado's longest-running alternative schools and one of 91 Alternative Education Campuses in the state.

Ferguson High School was the fifth stop on Thompson School District's "Seeing is Believing" tour this year. The tour gives district staff and district partners an opportunity to see how classrooms are being overhauled under the districtwide reform toward personalized learning. Other stops on tour included Thompson Valley High School, Turner Middle School, Loveland High School, and High Plains School. At Ferguson, the implementation is on a deliberate pace.

Personalized learning upends the traditional model of a teacher standing in front of a room and imparting insights and guiding discussions. Under the personalized model, classrooms look more like comfortable living rooms with a variety of seating choices and desk configurations. And personalized learning encourages students to pursue their interests in specific ideas and topics.

As such, I am not rushing Ferguson High School into the reform. The school is in the middle year of a three-year journey to adopt personalized learning.

The first year was used to outline competencies, work habits, and content expectations for each learning unit. This school year is being used for assessment planning. And next year the work will focus on adjusting the instructional practices in class.

Most Ferguson students are dealing with challenging circumstances outside school. Those issues create barriers to learning in a traditional high school setting.

Ferguson students are at high risk for dropping out--or already have dropped out once or twice and are on the road back. Students who attend Ferguson might be balancing school with a full-time job. They might be young mothers. And the school is familiar with the idea that not every home prioritizes learning or has provided a stable family foundation. Many students have been exposed to child abuse, neglect, alcoholism, drug use and more.

No matter the reasons behind enrollment in the alternative setting, the typical Ferguson student is "over age and under credit." We strive very hard to offer a comprehensive high school experience, while also recognizing that each path to a high school diploma may follow a unique route.

Ferguson downplays the grind of classwork, homework, and test scores. Instead, we make sure students know what they're supposed to know, and set a course of learning to acquire the needed knowledge and skills.

Students attend classes at Ferguson, usually with small class sizes, and they may also access a variety of district-run online and expanded opportunity programs that happen to be housed in the same building. The options include SOARS (Secondary Options for Achievement Resulting in Success), Thompson Online, and E3, the district's Expanded Learning Opportunities program.

Student plans for the future are as varied as the myriad pathways to a diploma--a welder, a psychologist, the Navy SEALs, a special effects makeup artist, a veterinarian, and a computer repair technician.  

No matter the learning style or the journey being pursued, students rave about Ferguson's special touch.

"Amazing teachers and great facilities," says a fulltime Thompson Online student who spends half his year on the rodeo circuit in Texas.

For another student the flexible schedule allows him to work shifts that run until midnight. The fact that Ferguson doesn't ask for homework means he doesn't fall behind.

Another student, who recently transferred to the school, lauds Ferguson's intake program, called "Scholars," for orienting students to Ferguson's climate, culture, and expectations. Students may arrive at Ferguson from a variety of backgrounds and different schools, she says, but they really watch out for each other.

"It's really nice being able to work at my own pace," another Ferguson student shares, "If you're able to work independently," she adds, "you'll be successful."

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