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LOCAL Interview :: Education

Confluence High School opens this Fall

Shawn Evans, organizer of Confluence High School in Richmond, which opens this Fall, says "the most common question I'm asked is 'where is the school,' but we don't yet have a location."
Evans plans for "the students to be involved in choosing a location." But the school does not have any students yet either, though it has had "about a dozen inquiries so far." If the school opens as planned this Fall--and Evans's committment to it is very strong--it will represent a unique experiment in this city that foisted the Standards of Learning on the students of the Commonwealth.

In the late nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century, anarchists associated with the Modern School Movement took an anti-hierarchical approach to education. They deeply impacted secondary schooling, supporting the spread of freer classrooms and curriculums. With its emphasis on student driven discovery and democratic administration, Confluence High School is a close cousin of these efforts. And it would be a first in Richmond.

Below is the text of an interview with Evans, conducted by email, in January:

Question: Who are Confluence High School's influences? How is it different from, say, Montessori, the Modern School movement, or other forms of "radical schooling"?

Answer: Confluence is consciously an outgrowth of the 60's free school movement (Sudbury, for example), itself an outgrowth of the Modern School movement started by the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer, who believed that education is not preparation for life, but is life itself, and that one should find one's own truth. Like the Montessori schools, Confluence acknowledges an innate thirst for knowledge, fosters learning from the environment rather than from the teacher (though with close relationships among teachers and students), and admits multiple learning styles, but the Montessori schools are not democratically governed, and---although Maria Montessori did some work on approaches for the high school years---most Montessori schools today serve only the 3-12 age group.

Question: What is the teaching "philosophy" of Confluence High School? How is it different from mainstream schools? Maybe you've already answered some of this question, but could you describe the projected curriculum further?

Answer: Young children yearn to learn. At the very least, Nature has encoded curiosity into us as a means of survival, but many schools quickly turn learning into tedious labor, limit the types of questions that can be asked, and the number and variety of activities that can be participated in. Some argue that by the teenage years that desire has been eradicated (and the regimentation of early and middle school certainly doesn't help), but I think (based on being something of a perennial teenager tempered by good and bad worldly experience) that it is reborn with the onset of puberty. If something positive and productive can be effected in those years, then all is not lost for either the teenager or the later adult she or he develops into.

It has almost become a cliche at this point that one learns best by doing and by doing something one is interested in, but much education today still tends to focus on rote memorization of facts and material set by---well, I'm not certain by whom---school boards? textbook publishers? the government?---and measurement of that material through standardized tests.

Confluence has an emphasis on interest and activity, and we believe any interest can be developed into fruitful study and activity---fruitful not only for the individual but eventually for society as a whole. For example, the recent, probably pranksterish, Bellevue Boomers' interest in blowing up a soda bottle could lead to the study of history through the development of explosives and firearms, pyrotechnics/fireworks, engineering, physics, etc., or---as I saw it, though that probably wasn't the intention---performance art (though, as it turned out, tiny earthquakes caused the rumbles; I find it telling that many people in the Ginter Park/Bellevue area who experienced the booms were quick to damn the kids).

I imagine many people have stories of learning in their youth... learning driven more by curiosity than a school environment of berating and limiting teachers.

Examples of projects I've heard of from other schools or that immediately come to my mind include building a greenhouse or starting a working organic farm, studying the different functions of music for different cultures and giving live performances of that music, studying and demonstrating the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western cultures through cooking, evaluating alternative energy sources, exploring gender roles throughout history, etc. If a student comes to us with, say, an obsession for Lord of the Rings, we'll eventually manage to link it up to everything from language to leptons to laptops.

Question: What do you say to parents who view High School as preparatory for college?

Answer: They may wonder if such a free experience will have any value to college admissions officers, but colleges are increasingly giving as much consideration to practical results (i.e. projects and work/volunteer experience) as to test scores and GPA's. Plus, Confluence has a core set of requirements in place across the humanities and sciences, though students---as always---are free to propose and follow courses of their own design to fulfill those requirements.

Question: You say the school is democratic and student driven, does this play-out in the administration of the place too?

Answer: In addition to the open curriculum, the other major emphasis at Confluence is on democratic governance. Everyone attending or involved with the school runs the school, and everyone---students, faculty, parents, friends---gets one vote in making decisions ranging from buildings and grounds to administration and finance to development and public relations. Obviously, much time has to be spent on this process---in research, debate, decision-making, and effecting the decisions---but we don't believe in a single authority figure dictating solutions to problems, for we respect individual autonomy and views, we believe that problems present learning opportunities and make for more meaningful or invested solutions, they encourage responsibility and self-esteem, and they prepare a young person for participation in American representative democracy.

For some reason---perhaps the name---some Richmonders are under the impression that Open High is such a school, but it surely isn't democratic, and, while it does a good job and has some interdisciplinary courses, it isn't nearly as adventurous as we hope to be. Lynchburg has an all-age school on the even-freer Summerhill model, but to the best of my knowledge, Richmond does not.

Question: Do you have an opinion about homeschooling? It's independent education and is often similarly student driven, isn't it?

Answer: I have no problem with homeschooling or multi-family homeschool groups. Confluence too strives for a comfortable, less anxiety-ridden environment. If the parent or parents are insightful and positively responsive (as opposed to merely concerned about possible negative influences in the public schools), then the student should be served well. The only point of attack anti-homeschoolers seem to have is the possible lack of socialization for the student, and yet homeschoolers are constantly interacting with others after "school," on trips, on sports teams, etc.---without the distance or bullying of the traditional school environment.

Question: Will the school have a social or public mission for itself, for its students?

Answer: Volunteer work is required of students--unless everyone votes otherwise--not only for the experience and introduction to public service in the hopes of a life-long affection and commitment (and we are going to do our best to dovetail individual curriculum with collective service), but also in recognition that we are part of a larger community and, indeed, are shaped to some large or less large extent by that community. We want to be as diverse in our population as in our educational approach---indeed, one can't really have the latter without the former---so we don't merely welcome racial and ethnic diversity; we seek it out, and the financial aid program should serve anyone who will benefit from the school but can't afford it. Also, we are making a point of letting everyone know that we are GLBT-friendly.

Question: How large a staff are you planning? How will the staff be compensated?

Answer: Right now, I'm doing most of the prep work for the school, and upon opening I'll probably cover most of the inquiries and projects involving the humanities. We are looking for another full-time person to be the science and math facilitator. Many people--college professors, carpenters, journalists, hair stylists, social workers, artists from visual to musical to theatrical--have already agreed to make volunteer guest appearances as needed. As the school grows, we'll add more full-time faculty. Our working figure for full-time faculty salaries is 27K. But Confluence is definitely an overtime venture and labor of love.


Tuition: "our working figure is $5,000/yr."
Financial aid: "based solely on need."

"Once we are up and running, we'll see what we can do with grants and donations to defray tuition costs or even eliminate them entirely."

For more information contact:
Shawn Evans
Confluence High School
P.O. Box 15850
Richmond, VA 23227
ConfluenceHS(no spam)aol.com

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