For years, I’ve been hearing about the coolness of School One via friends and acquaintances who, more often than not, are fluent in the arts, thoughtful, expressive, intellectually engaged and generally awesome, make-your-life better people. When I would find out that they had graduated from or taught at School One, I’d think, “Yes! That totally makes sense.” Yet until last month, I had never spent a moment in the building. Thanks to principal Jennifer Borman, I happily addressed that long-standing oversight and spent a wonderful couple of hours getting to know the school. I left feeling gratified that the East Side has an option for high school that demonstrates that it’s possible to have a school that not only accommodates a wide range of learners but also creates an incredible community from that diversity.
Founded in 1973, School One was first housed in what is now Fox Point’s French-American School of Rhode Island and is now located on University Avenue near Wayland Square. An independent school, School One goes to extraordinary lengths to raise significant amounts of financial aid so that it can be an option for students no matter their economic circumstances. A third of the school’s operating budget is devoted to student financial support, and half of School One’s current students benefit from some level of financial aid. Those students come from all over Providence. Some seven commute from Massachusetts and Connecticut. The school also serves a small cohort of Chinese students who reside with local families.
As I spent time in School One’s classrooms with Ms. Borman, I felt a sense of peace and expansiveness, qualities that are rarely associated with high schools. In the constant classroom battle between breadth (coverage) and depth (understanding), I sensed a real commitment to depth in School One’s classes, which ranged from five to twelve students during my visit. This commitment to thoughtful intellectual exploration, combined with small classes and other supporting structures, allows School One’s faculty to know students well and to collaborate with them and their families to chart their high school journey and post-secondary destinations.
I talked to a student who had transferred into School One, as many do (the school’s population actually expands after ninth grade, a phenomenon at odds with many high schools) who said that he is able to think clearly for the first time while in school because he feels connection and continuity along with far less chaos.
Nearly always, if the fit is bad between student and school, the school isn’t able to change to accommodate the learner. School One is organized to find ways to engage students’ internal motivation and initiative. When students enter the School One learning community, they work with an advisor to choose classes that support and challenge them. Class assignments are determined by skill level, not age or grade level, which allows significant flexibility for students who may, for example, be accelerated in math but need extra work in writing. As they progress through School One’s curriculum, students have the opportunity to supplement their learning through online classes, local college classes and internships. “We want kids to make choices to focus on what they’re passionate about,” said Ms. Borman. “So we want to be as flexible as possible while also maintaining high standards for every one of them. We are less concerned about how long it takes than we are about finding the right way to support their learning.”
If you (like me) have students near or at high school age, you’re probably already deeply into the process of determining which school options will be the best fit. If your young people may benefit from a high school experience that simultaneously holds high expectations and allows all students to learn in the ways that suit them best, check out School One. And for all of us who are School One’s neighbors, it’s worth remembering that School One represents the celebration of individuality and intellectual engagement that makes our neighborhood and city great.