Imagine a school so integrative that as students are reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, they’re also building a full-sized replica of the cabin where he lived.
At LiHigh School in Poultney, this is not just a nice idea but an example of the unique style of learning available to students.
Administrators describe their school as one that “offers personalized learning in a community-based setting, which means we build an entire learning plan around the passions and interests of your child, and then connect that learning plan to experiences in the real world.”
A couple of years ago in May, owner Greg Rosenthal and co-director Zohara Zarfati decided to expand the special education center they were running into a regular school as well. By September, the LiHigh School was open and operating.
“All of the students benefit from their own individual plans. Students are individuals with interests and passions. We want them to take ownership and be the architects of their own learning,” Rosenthal said.
One student, for example, wants to be a pilot. He has the option to dive into that world by doing an internship at various local airports. His advisor, Kyle Callahan, is teaching him history as related to planes and is focusing on relevant mathematical skills as well. Next week, the student will build a model plane from scratch.
“You need the skills, not just the content, and then the knowledge comes,” Callahan said.
Internships are a big part of education at LiHigh, which models itself after the Big Picture Learning design. Students spend two days a week with various members of the community getting an idea of what their dream path really entails.
Logan Patnaude is a senior in his second year at LiHigh. During his first year he studied alongside a professional photographer and a videographer. He had the opportunity to write, film, edit and produce a documentary using the knowledge and mentorship he had gained. This year he has been interning in a recording arts studio where he has had the opportunity to work on a soundboard and help record bands.
He has recently been accepted to Hampshire College, where he will use this experience to combine visual arts with music.
“At college I’ll continue to branch out. I can combine the knowledge I’ve learned and create a learning plan like I did here,” Patnaude said. He made the decision to transfer to LiHigh because the Long Trail School, which he was attending, was too traditional and was simply not working for him.
Coming to LiHigh, “I was making the move forward to becoming the person I’ve always wanted to become,” Patnaude said. “I love this school; what it’s done for me and how I’ve grown over the past two years is just phenomenal.”
What Rosenthal, Zarfati and Callahan strive to do is to expose their students to the real world through gaining critical thinking skills and learning how to work collaboratively and think outside the box. They want to prepare them for the 21st century.
“It’s authentic and relevant life skills, and they’re engaged. You design your own education; everyone is very individual and very different and we allow that,” Rosenthal said.
“The hardest thing to do is to teach them to think intrinsically,” Zarfati said. “They think about what they want to do, and they actually explore and experience that.” Once these students move on to college, most of them will have a pretty solid grip on what they want to do in life.
Patnaude said his favorite aspect about education at LiHigh is taking classes at Green Mountain College, and the broad resources to which he constantly has access. He does not feel that he is missing out on a ‘normal’ high school experience.
“If anything, I feel like I’m gaining more than at a traditional high school. In a traditional high school you’re stuck in school all day — here the town is our campus. You get more social interaction than you’d think,” he said.
Through internships, classroom lectures and other avenues, the students approach the school’s five learning goals, which include empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, social reasoning, communications and personal qualities. Many of these overlap with basic life skills like math and technology that one might learn in a traditional school, but are geared towards students’ specific interests.
At the end of each of the school year’s five terms, students will present a public exhibition of whatever they are working on and will also go through a portfolio defense. The audience will include the student’s parents, their instructors, mentors and other involved community members.
There will also be a narrative evaluation from their internship mentors, and instead of a report card, Callahan will send parents a long letter addressing the students as a whole person.
The program has been approved as an independent school by the state of Vermont, and graduating students receive the same diplomas as their public school counterparts. Additionally, tuition is at the Vermont state average rate, and is a School Choice school.
As parents have recently showed interest in a middle school counterpart to LiHigh, Rosenthal said he is looking into starting a similar program next year.
Those who are interested in finding more about the school are encouraged to stop by for a visit. For more information, visit www.lihighschool.org, or go to an informational meeting at the elementary school in Middletown Springs at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 7.