School Within a School fosters a supportive community

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CONTRIBUTED BY SAHARA CURRY

The School Within a School (SWS) program prioritizes a close, centered community where students and teachers have the opportunity to further create the space and curriculum they desire and foster relationships with their classmates.

The first three floors of the high school are flooded with the hustle and bustle of hundreds of students every day. Unbeknownst to many, the fourth floor is a cozy, small hallway home to one of the oldest communities in the high school: School Within a School (SWS).

Founded in 1970 by a coalition of students and teachers at the high school, SWS is one of the two alternative education paths the high school offers to its students. It offers students a democratic say in their education and a wide assortment of English and Social Studies classes.

According to Kiera Flynn-Carson, the longest working educator among SWS faculty, the beginnings of SWS were complicated as the program was met with backlash early on.

Flynn-Caron spoke about the program’s beginnings and the early stigma surrounding the path.

“Being in SWS, were considered hippie freaks and they felt judgment from the main school because of how they were creating this other space,” Flynn-Carson said. “So many misconceptions are still are out there in the world, but it’s really an academically rigorous place without the red tape of school.”

This academic rigor is often misunderstood when students hear about the “alternative education” it provides. Many students enter SWS hoping for an easier educational environment, but Flynn-Carson said that this is not the case, and instead, the program offers a much more collaborative environment.

“There are people that are a little bit of slackers and then they get here and the classes are really challenging. Then, they meet people who are really motivated academically, and instead of shaming them, they are offered help and support,” Flynn-Carson said.

Students vote to decide which Social Studies and English courses are available, and then choose which ones to take.

Ben Berman, an English teacher at SWS, said he feels like the democratic environment helps engage and support the students.

“I think it gives students a great chance to design their own experience and to be lead participators in this job. I’m interested in my mainstream classes of thinking about student empowerment and how to get opportunities to design their own learning experiences,” Berman said.

Senior Kiko Lancastre said he joined SWS his junior year because of the diverse opportunities given in course selection.

“Sophomore and freshman year, I really enjoyed school but I didn’t feel a lot of passion for the classes. I felt as though I was only getting good grades to keep a good GPA, but I didn’t like classes as much,” Lancastre said.

The structure of classes is also different in SWS. Classes avoid quizzes and tests, and focus more on discussion and seminars revolving around books and major course questions.

Students in SWS at their weekly meeting to go over future class and greater community planning. (CONTRIBUTED BY SAHARA CURRY)

According to Lancastre SWS also provides a unique and smaller community inside of the larger high school population that creates enjoyable memories.

“The fourth floor is like a summer camp in school. You can go to any room and even if you don’t know the people, everybody’s super welcoming and it’s very easy to meet people from different grades,” Lancastre said.

SWS is also home to its committees, different groups within SWS that help build its community. Flynn-Carson said committees help run the program and also help students bond over activities outside of school.

“We have music and art shows and things like that, then there is the governance committee that helps run some jobs in SWS,” Flynn-Carson said. “Other times there are ones that students are running just for fun, like clubs.”

Despite the opportunities it provides to students, it can be difficult to truly get a sense of the environment and culture of SWS. This is where English teacher Zac Brokenrope comes in.

For the past year, Brokenrope said he has been developing a website for SWS with information regarding its history, curriculum, and other important and relevant details.

“I think that this program is so special and I wish that more schools around the world and country had programs like this so I wanted to make a website where we could gather information from our alumni and help support those people, and also articulate the vision, program goals and who we are as teachers,” Brokenrope said. “I think there are a lot of students out there who have heard about the program who don’t really know what we do up here; I want this to be a resource for those people.”