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School Within a School (SWS) and Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) provide students with a safe community in which they can thrive.

SWS & ACE programs create inclusive environments and offer different learning experiences

June 30, 2022

Going into high school can be a confusing and scary experience, but deep within the jungle of high school is an oasis. ACE and SWS aren’t easier alternatives. They are diverse programs that offer a different type of learning experience and a welcoming space where students can be vulnerable.


It’s tough in high school to find an identity or a peer group. In a bigger environment than middle school, many students may feel lost. However, students in search of a camaraderie or alternative style of learning can find it on the fourth floor of the high school where there is a democratic, inclusive and welcoming community called School Within a School (SWS).

SWS is a democratic program within Brookline High School where SWS students build supportive relationships with teachers and peers. SWS has a tightly knit community that encourages communication, values respect, embraces diversity and promotes social inclusion. It practices direct democracy in its weekly mandatory Town Meeting, where each member has a direct vote and voice in the decision-making of the class curriculum or events.

Dan Bresman, the SWS Program Coordinator, believes that SWS is a good alternative for some folks because it has a more democratic and closely knit environment than what the mainstream curriculum offers.

“Some people join because of our democratic practices where they get to vote on rules and policies, and that appeals to them. Some people join because they’ve got some social and emotional challenges. And being in a program like this is really well suited for them,” Bresman said. “It’s a lot smaller than the main school. And so just being in a smaller community is meaningful for them.”

Bresman said one of the advantages of SWS was that it provides more opportunities for students to interact with the teachers and develop relationships with them outside of the conventional classroom setting.

“Your teachers are in your advisory as advisors, those teachers are in the weekly Town Meetings where you might vote on stuff and those teachers are advising a committee or a club that you’re doing,” Bresman said. “When you do have a class with [these teachers], you already have a relationship established.”

In SWS, students are given multiple options of how their English curriculum will be structured and can vote on what books to read or projects to do. Instead of tests, SWS students have projects or reading papers to complete, in which they can vote how many points each will be worth. Junior Tina Li said she appreciates the SWS structure because she can express her voice more often, and the caring community provides a space where she can be vulnerable and express this voice.

“After we finish a paper, we will go around and everyone reads theirs. At first, it can be super intimidating, but it’s really special because it builds an emotional connection through our work and everyone is vulnerable in their papers,” Li said.

SWS English teacher Keira Flynn-Carson thinks that there are a lot of misconceptions about how SWS is an easier academic program. However, Flynn-Carson knows that it’s a much more profound and diverse program.

“There’s really no one definition of SWS,” Flynn-Carson said. “If people think they know what it is, they’re probably taking some mental shortcuts and don’t really understand how many moving parts and how much complexity and diversity is here.”

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In a short hallway off of a side stairwell on the second floor sit the ACE classrooms. ACE is a program that promotes diverse learning and provides a tight knit community.

ACE strives to allow an environment that focuses on collaborative student growth and understanding of content rather than grades and amount of content. Students focus on individual comprehension and achieving competency benchmarks, rather than letter grades.

Amy Bayer, the ACE Program Coordinator, said that ACE’s approach to learning is unique in the sense that it focuses on the understanding of a few specific concepts at a time and allows students to showcase their knowledge through many different applications.

“ACE is a small, competency-based program. It is a very different approach to instruction, curriculum and assessment that really allows students to move at their own pace by explicitly showing them what they’re responsible for learning and giving them a lot of flexibility in how they demonstrate their knowledge,” Bayer said.

A unique feature of ACE is that students focus on two classes at a time within the program for a period of around six weeks. This allows students to focus on the topic of learning in much greater depth.

ACE math teacher Julie James said that while the class still teaches the standard Algebra two and Pre-Calculus curricula. The concentrated structure allows students to fully understand key concepts, especially in math, that they will build upon throughout their entire education.

“It is really clear that Algebra two has a six-week moment in which the overriding goal is to understand what a function is and how to manipulate it, which is a big conceptual question that you deal with the rest of your math life. We use those concepts to do lots of things, but we are always coming back to the fact that this is a quadratic,” James said.

Senior Isobella Farone said that ACE provides a safe space for students due to its small community and lots of group engagement.

“In ACE we have the same teachers for sophomore, junior and senior year so you get to know them really well which is really nice. ACE is such a small community, so I’ve made a bunch of friends for it and the teachers are super nice,” Farone said.

Another unique feature of ACE is the student-to-teacher relationships. Within the 2 hour class periods, teachers are able to better understand how their students learn and have more one-on-one instruction when needed, Bayer said.

“The other thing we do intentionally is we take a strengths-based approach to how we do instruction. We look at each student individually and what their strengths are and we really try to play to those strengths and give them choices that will allow them to work from that place of strength rather than a deficit,” Bayer said.

As a whole, ACE provides a non-competitive high school experience in which students are accepted by their teachers and classmates for learning differently and wanting a more flexible structure. Bayer said that the program’s fundamental grading system discourages students from adhering to such rigid standards and helps students view school as an opportunity rather than a burden.

“Ace is really about helping a student get to a place where they know enough of the content. We want students to eventually learn content and it may take them longer. And they shouldn’t get dinged for needing more time. They should get another opportunity. I think the fact that students know that they can’t get a D or an E frees them up to really think about school differently and feel like there’s nothing to lose,” Bayer said.

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