Focus on schools part 6 – Flexing for the highest potential in school

• Homer Flex projects teach self-sufficiency and team work in a supportive environment
By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final segment in a series offered by the Homer Tribune on school issues. We take a look this week at Flex High School’s unique program.

Part 6

Part 6

Homer Flex High School on a Friday morning seems remarkedly quiet with no lecturing teachers or disengaged students making noise. The peace of a library populated by scholars might be one comparison, or a shelter for self sufficient youth might be another.
“We build our own bookcases, grow our own food. We’re each working on our own assignments. Sustainability is a big thing here,” explains Colby Wells on a tour of the school.
In his own case, Wells grew up in Minnesota, then moved to Kenai last year, while being home schooled. “I was a big loner, and I found out I was a big slacker. Then, I looked at graduation at the age of 21, and realized I really didn’t want to do that,” he said. He enrolled at Flex last year, picked up his pace, and in a few weeks, will fulfill all his high school credits by the age of 18.
“If you really bust it out, you can get it done,” he said. “You can do 10 assignments a day, or six or one. It’s up to you to get it done.”
As Principal Karen Wessel states it, “students own their education here.”
Flex is an alternative high school program supported by the Kenai Peninsula School District. It’s a school where students must apply and be interviewed by staff and by students. They must be proficient in each “standard” with at least a B grade, or revisit the assignment over and over until they achieve a higher score. It is not a charter school. In 1989, it was launched by then-Homer High assistant principal Mike Bundy, funded by a Carls Perkins Grant.

Karen Wessel

Karen Wessel

Five years ago, the school was invited to be one of the first of two Alaska schools to pilot a standards performance based curriculum. Its academic subject areas, Career, Technology, and Personal Expression and Community Connections standards, were compiled looking at successful standards-based secondary schools. Using performance assessments, a student must display proficiency of a standard. Each course has a set of standards.
The school has evolved over the past 22 years, Wessel said. “We are now attracting students who want to go their own way in a different way. We’ve grown from a place where we had a just at-risk population to where we have students who have straight A’s when they transferred,” she said. “We meet them where they are and help them to succeed. Every kid is here for a reason. Some have family issues and others feel this is the way they can have ownership in their education.”
Flex’s mission statement says, “We believe that it is important and essential for each student to achieve the highest personal level of success in an environment that challenges, inspires, and supports him or her. We encourage self-motivation and self-direction, respect for self, respect for others, and respect for the world in which we live.”

Size counts

In this smaller school of 38 students, 20 boys and 18 girls, there isn’t time wasted getting to and from the locker, changing classrooms each hour, taking breaks. It is fashioned after a real work environment, Wessel explains. Time to do those tasks in a big high school environment amount to – 30 minutes taken from learning time. “Students here are in tune with what they need to get done. It simulates a workplace. If they get behind, they take work home.”
One recent enrollee, freshman Jessica Jones, said she grew up at McNeil Canyon School, then was bussed to Homer Middle School where students were more cliquey, because they had gone to earlier grades together. By the time she went to high school, she felt distracted by the bigger-populated school, the harassment of boys and the meanness of girls, she said.
“I came here because the environment was right for me. I wasn’t doing as well as I usually do, and knew I needed to make changes,” Jones said. “Here I’m confident. I chose what I want to do based on the standards, and I’m never struggling or feeling not good enough.”
Her parents both graduated from Flex High School, and encouraged her to apply.
The independent work isn’t solitary learning. This isn’t home school with supervision. Jones describes the many ways students interact. One is through oral presentations.
“We have to give a presentation to others at the end of something, to show you can teach others,” she said. “We support one another in our projects.”
Flex also has established many community partnerships. Students do community service projects. In their joint agriculture project, where vegetables are grown in the greenhouse, experts in the town’s Sustainable Homer movement help out. The bottom floor of the school opens to a fully equipped workshop where students make ceramics and build furniture. This is exhibited at a First Friday in May and sold year-round at Moose Run Metal Works. A tank of salmon fry are growing in the science lab that will eventually be placed in a lake off the Old Sterling Highway, pointing to a partnership with Fish and Game.

Not easy

HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Flex students study individual assignments in the science lab.

HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Flex students study individual assignments in the science lab.

Flex is a poorly understood school that is often mislabeled. Though the school hasn’t had a pregnant teenager for the past decade, it’s thought that would be one of the reasons a student might seek out the school. The students here are college-bound or set to attend vocational-technical school. Some will walk straight into jobs, prepared for them by their high school program.
“Some of us might be too slow, or some of us might be too fast,” Octavia Doner-Pond said. When she was interviewed by the students before being accepted at the school, the prospect was at first daunting, she said. But they quickly put her at ease. “They asked questions to help them get to know who I am, how responsible I am, and other questions. Everyone here is friendly.”
The interview list is 12 questions: How do you deal with authority figures? Describe an ideal teacher. What factors caused you to come to our school? What are your goals?
Wells is an inquisitive learner on his way to college to earn a degree in business after he graduates this spring. He already is enrolled in a Kachemak Bay Campus program. He writes the narratives for comic books and draws the illustrations, and thinks one day he might open his own comic book store. One of his interests, upon moving to Alaska, was to better understand Alaska Native issues, since he is part Choctaw Indian.
“I wanted to look at ANILCA (the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act) and ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), so that’s what I did for my history project. When you do it yourself, you can learn something valuable,” Wells said. “I was intrigued by a number of things I learned about how they were basically making them corporate people.”
Teacher Chris Brown said the curriculum is strongly driven by individual subject interest. Students are able to pursue a line of inquiry in their assignments. Teachers collaborate to build projects around the students’ areas of topic interest.
“One student was really interested in the 1964 Earthquake, and gathered pictures to make a powerpoint presentation. There’s a science standard in it when you talk about plate tectonics and there’s a social studies standard in the history of the area,” Brown said. “Then we decided what if we brought in people who had lived through it and let the students interview them.”
Another interest was in World War II. The teachers brought in four veterans for the students to talk with. “I can tell you, when they left it was more powerful hearing it from them than any book.”
Each year the school brings in an artist funded through the Bunnell Art Street Gallery’s Artists in the School program. This year, Art Koeninger came to teach how to work with different metals to make jewelry. Freshman Alana Campbell photographed the individual pieces and put them on the school’s Facebook page. The jewelry will be on exhibit along with other works of art at First Friday in May. There will also be pieces from the Flexwood business. Students receive half the proceeds and the rest goes back into supplies.
All together, the academic projects teach self-sufficiency and team work in a supportive environment.
“We’ve had people tell us, they wish they had known of this school years earlier,” Wessel said.

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Posted by on Feb 29th, 2012 and filed under Headline News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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