Highlands Micro School: A Conversation with Anne Wintemute
Q&A 15 March 2018
By Anne Wintemute, Highlands Micro School
I dug deeply into the research and asked myself, “What would school look like if it didn’t have to look anything like school?” Highlands Micro School was born.
Founder and Director, Highlands Micro School
Q: What is your professional background, and how did it lead you to opening Highlands Micro School?
A: I don’t have a background in education. That often comes as a surprise to people, and it’s something I’ve always been transparent about. I feel like it’s actually been an asset as I’ve sought to deviate from what schools typically look like and, instead, to pull something together from the evidence of what schools should look like.
My background is all in business. This is my fourth or fifth “business,” but it’s the first that has married my particular skillset with a real passion. In the past, my businesses were about making money, whereas this one is about making a change.
My philanthropic background was in advocacy for evidence-based maternity care. Education and maternity care may seem like very different things, but there are so many common threads in all of the factors that have led us to a crisis point in both industries. In both, we are facing questions like: “Who are we serving?” and “Are we basing our practice off of the evidence available to us?”
Are we serving the hospital, or are we serving the mother? Are we serving the school, or are we serving the student? Both will say they’re serving the individual, but if you sit down and look at the policies, systems, and stakeholders, it becomes very clear that’s lip service.
I don’t think [Highlands Micro School] is the best way to do it. I had to marry it with my business background, so there’s a friction between what is marketable, fits within the loose confines of non-public education in Colorado, and is best for the students.
Founder and Director, Highlands Micro School
There has been a tremendous amount of research done on both education and maternity care, and this research tends to measure things we would agree with—we all want kids to learn and mothers and babies to live. But, despite the available bodies of evidence, both industries continue to operate in direct contradiction to them. They produce schools and systems that don’t honor these kids, and they produce hospitals and policies that are not set up to most benefit the mothers.
When it became time for me to look for schools for my three daughters, I saw all these troubling parallels. That was the chance for me to wrap up another business and begin a school. I had the business background to be able to pull it off and was able to marry it with that passion for change. I dug deeply into the research and asked myself, “What would school look like if it didn’t have to look anything like school?” Highlands Micro School was born.
An important thing to note is that I don’t think this is the best way to do it. I had to marry it with my business background, so there’s a friction between what is marketable, fits within the loose confines of non-public education in Colorado, and is best for the students.
Q: If you didn’t have to battle that friction, what might be different in what you’ve created at Highlands Micro School?
A: If I didn’t have to worry about parent anxiety, I would have to do much less work demonstrating on a piece of paper what their kids are learning. We would allow that to be expressed more naturally. And, I can’t blame parents for this. We live in a culture that is continuously concerned about judging parents and how they’re doing their job. We have spent a good amount of time honing what that communication with parents looks like. How do we convey the learning that happens on a piece of paper, four times a year? If we were freed from that, we could spend even more time with our kids exploring the things they’re interested in.
If we were less constrained, we’d also be able to spend a little less time focusing on weaknesses and let kids run with their strengths. At Highlands, if little Rebecca really struggles with math but is an exceptional writer, we let Rebecca run with the writing and try to keep her on pace with math. But, I think there are plenty of cases where kids could “get by” knowing very little about what they aren’t particularly good at so that they have time to focus on these exceptional skills they do have. I think that better reflects what adults look like. If we assumed every subject carried equal weight in our lives, we’d tend to carry quite a few deficits. We’re specialists, and we adapt and figure out how to get by with those deficits, rather than letting them hinder us.
If we were less constrained, I wouldn’t have had to build the school quite like we did. Even as an independent school, parents still have an expectation of what school should look like. We have to balance what parents need to be comfortable in sending their kids here—what makes this a viable school from a market sense—and how we can still do what’s best for these kids.
Q: Assessment is a topic many learner-centered environments are battling. The question is often framed: How do you prove, in a way that can be interpreted from the traditional paradigm, that this type of learning is producing the outcomes we want for our kids? What system have you devised at Highlands Micro School?
A: One of the big questions, as I mentioned, is how do we convey this learning to parents? How do we do it in a way that doesn’t negate the value in how we are doing school? If we’re doing school in a way that is best for the kids, but we evaluate them in a way that is best for the parents from a traditional sense, then we’d be fools to think our kids wouldn’t pick up on that. These kids are deeply invested in their education, and because we—the human race—are all naturally insecure, we want to know how we measure up.
We try to use a system that makes it very difficult to compare from student to student. Even though we’re in an environment with a very low competitive nature and a lot of collaboration, when these kids work as hard as they do, they want to know how they measure up. We try to make it as individualized as possible. With that said, our parents still want to specifically know where their child is in relation to grade-level standards.
I think it’s just as damaging to show a kid he or she is beyond their grade level as it is to show them they are behind. I think showing a kid who is “on target” is damaging. Because you have taken away everything that is “them” about their learning. You have reduced them to a standard.
Founder and Director, Highlands Micro School
We just finished a progress report session with our teachers, and I told them to go forward with whatever system they felt was the best way to measure their students. I compiled their progress reports, I looked at them, and I watched the students look over them. I watched the students immediately look at the color-coded charts to see where they were on a color-coded line that was specific to grade level. I wrote all of these things down, drafted a five-page progress report that highlighted the things I could tell were good about the various progress reports—bringing some universality to the process—and built something.
My very first page on this progress report is three paragraphs on how the parent should look at it. In those three paragraphs, it speaks to the anxieties and fears parents have because they went through traditional schooling environments. I try to reinforce that we focus on the growth of the student, regardless of where they are in relation to traditional grade-level standards.
The second page is a Featured Growth sheet, which is similar to the work coming out of the Mastery Transcript Consortium without the credits attached to it. Each kid has three things their teacher has seen exceptional growth in, whether it’s advancing a weakness or a strength.
The next section is more academically focused, like reading performance and what we expect to see next. These are not grade-aligned—”this is where we’ve seen a lot of growth, and this is what we expect to see next” is the only way we speak about where the kids currently are.
Buried in this report is “relative to grade level, in conventional terms, where is this student?” If we don’t tell parents, they’ll ask. And, if we make them ask, we’ve given them an opportunity to become anxious. In very small print, here’s where they are in reading, writing, math, etc.
I’ve actually considered putting this in an entirely separate envelope and saying, “If you’re curious about where your kid measures up respective to grade-level standards, here it is, but we would strongly encourage you don’t show this to your child.” And, here’s the thing, I think it’s just as damaging to show a kid he or she is beyond their grade level as it is to show them they are behind. I think showing a kid who is “on target” is damaging. Because you have taken away everything that is “them” about their learning. You have reduced them to a standard.
We also have a habits section that every kid self-assesses on. It takes a look at their work and social habits and is something we focus quite a bit of our attention on, so it gets an entire page in this report. The environment here is so independent that it’s critically important that our kids are learning what those skills are. For a kindergarten-aged student, we have them ask: What does it mean to choose your best thought? What does it mean to choose people to work with who won’t distract you from your work? What does it mean to take care of your body and use the restroom when you need to? For a student who’s 11 and is about to leave our school, they should be fully employing and demonstrating leadership on a variety of workplace skills.
Q: With the dynamic set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions you are looking to develop and evolve in your learners, how does this play out at Highlands Micro School?
A: We do passion projects here, spending almost the entire last third of the year on them. Last year, we had a student who really capitalized on marrying those habits of what we look to develop with her academic pursuits.
She became interested in how the neural networking in the brain predicted how people experienced emotions. One would expect, based on the topic of exploration, that she would produce work that was heavy on science jargon, but it wasn’t. It was thorough in terms of the information presented, but it was presented visually. This first grader is an exceptional artist who pours her heart into her art. She made the most amazing medical illustrations of the processes going on in the brain that cause the experience of emotions. It was absolutely outstanding.
And, I can’t imagine another learning environment where a first grader would get to spend so much time detailing these scientific drawings, bringing out the information with so many fantastic colors, scrapping the first attempt, and coming back to do it better—holding such a high standard for the work she was producing. We see this in all of our kids. They will edit, revise, and edit again. They compile all of the skills they’ve been working on throughout the year and combine them in this final project.
Q: Given that Highlands Micro School currently serves elementary-aged learners, what does that transition look like for parents who are deciding where to send their kids next?
A: This is a dynamic issue and one that keeps me up at night. Honestly, I’d rather a student go from a learner-centered school to a school-centered school than to have spent all of their years in a school-centered school. I think their better sense of self—understanding who they are, what they want, how they get what they want, their independence and inquisition, their ability to stand up and ask difficult questions, their lack of anxiety when called to answer a difficult question—will allow them to maintain it regardless of where they go next.
I think the benefit of being in a pro-social, low competition environment with a tremendous amount of agency and independence will only set you up better for junior high. And, we need to be honest with ourselves in that it’s a very difficult time—junior high—no matter what.
We always feel like there are ways to better our work. The first year was simply, “Can we do it? Yay, we did it!” The second year was about putting the proper systems in place so that this is replicable.
Founder and Director, Highlands Micro School
While I can picture our students experiencing a transition to a traditional middle school in the same way a student from a traditional elementary school would, we need a great option for our graduating fifth grade students to stay in this model of learning. That’s why I need $2.5 million to buy the property next door so we can build our middle and high school.
I would also like to be a need-blind school. Something that has never sat comfortably with me is that you need $12,000 to send your kid here. We all know these kids stand to benefit from this model of schooling, but the vast majority of kids—those who can’t afford to go here—stand to benefit the most.
Q: What’s on the horizon for Highlands Micro School?
A: We’ll continue to get better. We don’t have any major holes anywhere. We have happy parents and happy students. But, we always feel like there are ways to better our work. The first year was simply, “Can we do it? Yay, we did it!” The second year was about putting the proper systems in place so that this is replicable. We want to be able to provide resources to other organizations and schools that want to do something similar. Putting those kinds of systems and policies on paper without losing the flexibility is really critical. That can be something hard to articulate—how do you do it?—without producing a bunch of clones.
Moreover, I have a fear of our model and work being transplanted into a “school-centered” environment and being declared unworkable. I think about it this way: What if we all decided that the best environment for kids was to just lay in the grass. Let’s all imagine this lush green grass. Then, traditional schools come along and say, “We can do that.” They rip up that grass and stick it inside their building, using it as their carpet. Then, they realize the grass is starting to die—it’s very difficult to keep alive—and nobody knows what to do. They haven’t even realized they took the grass out of the natural habitat it needs to grow. They’ve eliminated the sunshine, rain, and pollinators, and now their grass is dead. They’re going to say, this doesn’t work, and they’ll rip out the grass and put in Astroturf. They’ll look out into the world and say, “Look! We have green grass.”
In an attempt to apply great policies and practices, they’ve removed themselves so far from what was originally good about them, they don’t work. If you want to take an alternative learning environment and then measure it by the same metrics this artificial environment is using, absolutely, your grass is going to die. Given this, I want us to be very careful as we share more about our model and partner with those interested in understanding how it works.
Finally, from a directorship standpoint, where I stand, our biggest next step is to delve into the feasibility of developing this out so it can go beyond fifth grade. That’s a big thing on the horizon.
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