Down the hill on Bates Road, off Liberty Road in the suburban farmland south of Salem, Oregon, you will find the former site of Rosedale Elementary School. The Rosedale building, along with a row of portable classrooms behind it, is now occupied by Abiqua Academy’s pre-K to Grade 8 students and teachers. West of the old school is a gravel parking lot, and behind it a new concrete path leads up to the unassuming, pre-fabricated square building where a remarkable new program opened its doors in the fall of 2015.
This is Abiqua Academy’s High School. No athletic teams. No pep assemblies. No cheerleaders. No long hallways lined with a double stack of metal lockers. No noisy cafeteria. No bells announcing the beginning and end of each lesson. No fixed daily schedule of classes. No assemblies in which the vice principal admonishes students about the importance of adhering to the school’s dress code. No sessions with the school counselor about what to do when you are bullied, or see someone else being bullied.
Inside the front doors, you see a small lounge area with sofas and a coffee table, a larger table for lunch or discussions, and a kitchenette in the corner. In the opposite corner, a photocopier sits next to the usual supplies of staplers, paperclips, sticky-notes, etc. Beyond this entrance area, a screen blocks from view the rows of study carrels that fill the remainder of the central space. Along the left-hand wall are the science lab, two restrooms, the janitor’s closet, and a mathematics classroom. Along the right-hand wall are two more classrooms, the office of Lily Driskill, our Academic Director, and a small meeting room. The two full-time teachers, Jo French (mathematics and sociology) and I (English and history), have our desks in the main area with the students’ study carrels.
In this inaugural year, we have just four students: two freshmen, one sophomore, and one junior. They follow highly personalized programs designed to meet their immediate needs and help them to achieve their future goals. Some of their coursework is completed online. Often the online curriculum is modified or supplemented by Abiqua teachers. For PE, three of the four go to a local fitness center twice a week to exercise under the supervision of a personal trainer; the fourth attends a CrossFit class on his own time. Two of them study Spanish, both online and with Abiqua’s Spanish teacher. The other two study German and Latin, following online courses supplemented with biweekly lessons with tutors. A part-time teacher comes in for lessons in biology. One student studies Anatomy & Physiology with the help of a senior at Willamette University. Another WU student visits twice a week to tutor one of the freshman in creative writing.
Anyone who works with teenagers knows that, as a rule, nothing is more important to them than friends. As we prepared for the start of school, I wondered how our four students would cope with the social isolation they were bound to find at Abiqua. I kept thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, in which Hell is imagined as four people locked in a room together. In December the students were interviewed, without their teachers being present. They loved the program, the teachers, the flexibility . . . they loved everything, in fact, about their experience so far, with one major exception: they wanted more students!
Now as we near the end of January, I see so many signs of growth. The students who lacked confidence are gaining it as they see that they can, in fact, be successful in areas where they had given up on themselves. Those who had learned to see teachers as the enemy and to regard schoolwork as drudgery imposed on them, have learned to trust their Abiqua teachers and are beginning to take ownership of their own education. And these four young people, so different in ages, personalities, interests, and backgrounds, have grown to trust and tolerate each other to a degree that I find remarkable. Their mutual kindness achieved a peak moment just a week ago when one of them, without the slightest prompting by any adult, offered to help another with his writing. I held my breath when they moved into the small meeting room for their first session, waited apprehensively, and then had no words when they emerged smiling and happy after forty minutes.
So here is my first-semester report card for Abiqua Academy’s High School program:
Comment: A great beginning, with the promise of much more to come. Bravo!