Exploring education differences: Life inside Avalon School

Illustration by Mai Xiong Chang, Thomas Edison High School
Personally, I learn best when something is explained to me by somebody interesting, someone I like. Whether I’m listening to a lesson from my quirky Spanish teacher, memorizing the quadratic formula song, or having a friend help me with my schoolwork, that happens at Avalon.

It’s a small place, down off University Avenue in St. Paul. The building is a converted warehouse full of all the kids who refuse to fit in anywhere else.

You’ll see people come to school wearing Santa hats in January, or carrying around plastic ponies, or sporting a new hair color weekly. We come from a variety of situations and backgrounds, but this is a place where everyone’s accepted, welcomed and hugged a lot.

My high school is called Avalon. It’s different, weird almost, a tiny charter school with no principal. It’s kind of a new wave education thing, and the students pretty much run the show. Overall, it’s a great place, and I wouldn’t return to a traditional public school for anything.

For middle school, I went to a place called Cyber Village Academy, a school that was half online, half on campus. We’d spend the first three days of the week at school, and then the remainder working online. It was great, but I never had enough time with my friends, and there was way too much homework. I’d been looking around, and I found Avalon. I shadowed, and it was about two bits off of the best thing I’d ever seen. I came home that day and demanded my mother sign me up immediately. In my opinion, it’s the best choice I’ve made yet, school-wise.

It’s a project-based school, which means that time at Avalon is split between going to classes and doing projects that we design. We write proposals, meet with teachers, get approved, do the work, and reflect on what we’ve done. There’s a set of standards everybody has to complete by the time we graduate, as well as a requirement about how many credits we need.

The standards set expectations about what we need for graduation. They’re things like, “Art: Creation and Performance” and “American Literature: Realism.” In a traditional high school, I’d demonstrate completion of these requirements by taking classes. But we don’t always learn by having classes.

Instead, we get credits by logging the hours spent working in a day. We need forty credits to graduate; each credit is 100 hours of work. It’s a bit of a confusing system at first, but I’m halfway through my freshman year and doing fine with it.

We also get a lot of freedom, and sometimes it’s tempting to just spend hours talking to a friend or wandering the halls. But in the end we have to sit down and get stuff done, just like at any other school.

We don’t do normal school activities all the time, though. We can get really creative with the projects, and do crazy things and be ourselves. I know a couple of guys in my advisory (like a homeroom, but closer-knit) who’ve built a collection of sculptures out of stacked empty soda cans. It started as a joke, but with some encouragement they turned it into a project, and actually got credit for it. It’s pretty cool. They have mechanical elevators, ski lifts, and a seven-foot model of the Empire State Building. That they get to do something so awesome, but for school credit, is pretty astounding to me.

Yeah. We’re pretty cool.

I know that kids in America are slipping in standardized tests, but I think that’s partially the fault of public schools. The teacher/student ratio is so big that some kids can just fall through the cracks. Avalon has a tiny teacher/student ratio, so if you need help in anything, you can just ask. The teachers care enough to make the students want to try, and that’s something all schools really need. Personally, I learn best when something is explained to me by somebody interesting, someone I like. Whether I’m listening to a lesson from my quirky Spanish teacher, memorizing the quadratic formula song, or having a friend help me with my schoolwork, that happens at Avalon.

And every weekday morning I wake up wondering what’s going to happen next.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mairead DeBruin, a freshman at Avalon School, is a graduate of ThreeSixty Journalism’s fall after-school NewsTeam class. She enjoys reading, writing, drawing and listening to music (ask her about The Killers sometime.) As stated in her essay, she also has an appreciation for creative learning environments and a nifty Santa hat.

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