The Importance of Human Connections in Creating Change

Arnie Langberg shares stories from two of his public alternative schools

Earthville EducationEditor’s note: Visionary educator Arnold Langberg served as Principal of Jefferson County Open High School (in Evergreen, CO), originally and more commonly known as “Mountain Open” (and later merged into the Jefferson County Open School) until 1986, when he joined Denver Public School District as their Administrator of Alternative Education and then proceeded to found High School Redirection, another groundbreaking public alternative school.

In this article, Arnie shares stories from both schools that illustrate the critical roles that human connections play in creating effective learning communities.


Stories from Mountain Open High School

Early in our second semester at Mountain Open High School (MOHS), a school that was radically different from the conventional high schools, I received a call from an assistant superintendent inviting me to a meeting to discuss an evaluation scheme that they were planning to implement. The model that they wanted to use was similar to that used by the North Central Association, the organization that was the official accrediting agency for the district, and for schools in nineteen states. As it was only our first year, we would be doing an informal version of this process.

Our job was to do a self-study, responding to questions and guidelines that the district borrowed from the formal process, and then a team of three, whom they would choose, would visit our school and compare the actual functioning of our program with our stated mission and description.

The three men who had been chosen for the visiting team included two members of the central administration, the director of research and the director of staff development, and one education professor from Colorado State University. I suggested that, because our school was so different from any other high school that they had evaluated in this manner, it might be a good idea to expand the committee. Because we were a district-wide school located in a particular community with its own high school, we had some political issues that were unique. I wanted to include someone from Evergreen who was not connected with our school but who was an influential person in the community. I was also aware that a number of school-within-a-school alternatives existed in some of the conventional high schools, and I asked if a teacher and a student from one of those programs could also be included on the team.

The assistant superintendent said that he would have to discuss this with the cabinet because there was no precedent for it, but that he would recommend it to them. He asked me if I had any suggestions for particular people, and though I had no recommendations for the teacher or student, I did know of a woman in Evergreen, Luanne Hazelrigg, who had chaired the district’s committee on students’ rights and responsibilities, and I wondered if he thought she would be a good choice. He said that he would mention her as a possibility when he met with the cabinet.

One week later he called to tell me that the expansion had been approved, that he would contact Luanne Hazelrigg, and that he would find the teacher and student as well. With this, we had created an alternative means of evaluating our alternative program.

While it was true that I had never met Luanne, I knew that she was a neighbor of one of our students and that student and her family had been among the group that hired me. When I checked with the team after the first day of their three-day visit, Luanne said to me that the only thing she came away with was a headache, and that she would come back the next day dressed in jeans and she would just get down and dirty right with the students. Observing an open school is a very different experience from observing a conventional school.

At the end of the second day it was obvious that the team was enjoying the experience and that they had developed personal relationships with students, teacher and parents. The team spent that evening at Luanne’s house discussing the visit and writing a draft of their report, which they delivered to the entire school the next day. It was a very positive and supportive evaluation of our program.

It was in the days following the visit that some interesting stories emerged. Luanne told me that one of her daughters had wanted to go to MOHS but the principal of Evergreen High School had dissuaded her, telling her that she wouldn’t want to go to school with “those animals!” In a similar vein, when Luanne had been at the central district office to be prepped for the visit, one of the central administrators had also made a disparaging remark about our school. Luanne later became a member of the board of education and, eventually, president of that board.

The Director of Research for the district, who had also been on the team, arranged to meet with me to share his own personal experience. He told me that when the lower school had been created five or six years before, many district employees had been enthusiastic supporters and sent their children there, and he had been on the first evaluation team for that school. He summed up that visit by saying that it was total chaos. The people who had started it had good intentions but little-to-no teaching experience, and the district folks took their kids out at the semester or the end of the first year. So when he was asked to be on our visiting team he wanted to decline rather than find himself in another fiasco. He happily told me that, rather than a fiasco, he felt that our school was a model for the reform of secondary education.

We invited the professor who had been on the team to speak at our first graduation ceremony, and he reiterated the above statement: “MOHS is a model for the reform of secondary education!”

Many of the best moments in my memory of MOHS happened in relation to accreditation visits. In anticipation of our first formal evaluation, I presented our self-study to the head of the Colorado chapter of the North Central Association and she convened her assistants to share her enthusiasm as she read through the document. She said, “This school really puts the responsibility for the students’ education on the students, just where it belongs.”

The chairman of that visiting team, who was Colorado Coordinator for Gifted and Talented Education, while speaking at that year’s graduation ceremony, said that MOHS was not an alternative school; it was the future!

My final story about outside evaluators and Open School took place in 1986, the first school year after I had left to take a job in Denver. The school district decided to do an evaluation of all their alternative programs, with Mary Ann Raywid as overall leader and Vern Smith as the chairman of the Open School team. Although I was no longer affiliated with the school, I was invited to what is called the “exit interview,” an informal reporting by the visiting team before filing their official report. Vern, who is a sort of curmudgeon, began his presentation by saying, “You don’t see a lot of teaching going on at Open High School.” He paused for a bit and then added, “But there is a hell of a lot of learning going on!”

Parallels from High School Redirection

There are similar stories that I wish to share about High School Redirection (HSR), a school within the Denver Public Schools that was funded by a grant from the US Department of Labor with matching money from the school district. Two board of education meetings, one of which took place before the school began, will help to set the stage for the stories.

The first of these was the night that I was officially hired by DPS to become their Administrator of Alternative Education. I had been told by the man who would be my immediate supervisor that I should attend the session, but that it would just be a formality and that it would be unlikely that I would have to do more than stand and wave when my name was called.

When the superintendent announced my hiring, he told the board that I was in the audience and he asked me to come forward and take ten minutes to tell them about my Evergreen school. I said, “Ten minutes?” and it was forty-five minutes later before I had finished answering their questions!

Only six of the board members were there that evening, and Ed Garner, the president of the board, who had missed the meeting, called when he got back into town to arrange a personal meeting with me. Ed is a black man, and, after expressing excitement about the work that I had done in Evergreen, he asked me how I, a white guy whose previous schools were all in predominantly white suburbs, would deal with an urban setting in which the majority of the students were black or Latino. I told him that I wanted to be evaluated on two dimensions, each equally important. My goals were to help each of my students develop the skills to be able to swim with the current of the existing society but also the strength to choose to swim against that current when necessary.

The second meeting took place toward the end of the first year of HSR, when I was told that the board wanted a progress report on the school. My supervisor said that he would make the report but I told him that I wanted a group of my students to do so. He initially refused but I told him of my meeting with Ed Garner and that I was sure that Mr. Garner would agree with me that students were the better choice.

At a school-wide meeting, I asked if there were any students willing to make the presentation. Everyone wanted to do it, so the staff and I chose a representative sample of four because we would be having a limited time to speak.

At the board meeting, our kids did a better job than I of sitting quietly through hours of boring business before finally being called upon. Chazz Garcia, wearing a jacket, open over his undershirt, and a porkpie hat, thanked the board for inviting us. He told them that we had had a meeting, sort of like their “little” board meeting, to choose who would make the presentation, and he introduced his fellow presenters. There was Ron, a six-foot-five black male, Michelle, a white girl with a foot-high green Mohawk hairdo, and Mike, a short white male who was probably the most “normal-looking” of the group, although I knew that the school system had labeled him “emotionally disturbed.”

Chazz proceeded to describe the school, emphasizing the sense of community, and he described how Ron had defended Michelle when someone had made fun of her hair. Ed Garner, who was present at this session, stood up, peered over his glasses at Michelle, and said, “Why would someone make fun of her hair?”

Two years later, Michelle decided that she was ready to graduate after completing only three years of high school. At HSR, graduation occurred when the student and her advisor determined that she was ready to present her case to a personal graduation committee. The committee had to include the student, her advisor, her parents, at least one other teacher, at least one other student, the principal (me), and someone from the community. Michelle invited the wigmaker at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, with whom she had done an internship, and I suggested that she should also invite Ed Garner, with whom she had had a memorable encounter.

Michelle presented her case and each of the committee members responded, with everyone on the committee being supportive. I agreed that all of the work that she had done was of the highest quality, but I thought that there were additional challenges she could pursue by staying with the school for another year. And Ed Garner, the president of the school board, disagreed with me. He convinced me that she had, indeed, earned her diploma!


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