Discussion of peak school achievement usually involves certain educational buzzwords:.
Rigor. Grit. Discipline. Order.
Imagining these traits in action often conjures up a vision of tidy children, clad in sensible navy blazers over khaki uniform pleats, filing into classrooms with neatly-rowed desks, fronted by teachers utilizing every second of available instruction time by precision-planning, down to the nanosecond.
But coming in 2017, Denver will open an all-boys charter school that will look very nearly the opposite of the above description. Known for now as simply The Boys School of Denver, its founding philosophy will be akin to its successful sister schools, GALS (Girls Athletic Leadership School).
What immediately stands out is their emphasis on movement. Just like GALS, rather than demand bodily compliance a la desk-sitting, The Boys School of Denver will give students ample opportunities to increase heart rate, stretch, and exercise. From stationary bikes to standing desks to periodic breaks for a quick jaunt outside, physical activity is worked into the entire day’s curriculum. The first period class for all students is simply “Movement,” a forty-minute module, rotating through multiple exercise opportunities of students’ choosing (running, yoga, kickboxing, etc.).
Head of The Boys School of Denver, Nick Jackson, believes there is much more to their curriculum than just the emphasis on physical fitness and freedom. “We take the time to really focus on overall wellness of our girls and of our boys. And that doesn’t just mean physical wellness, it means emotional and social wellness, too. We want our students, and our teachers, to thrive. We want them to simply be well.”
His guiding question: “How do we teach our kids to be well?”
Beyond physical activity, part of the school’s answer is in the BOYS Series classes, an acronym for Be Only YourSelf. Along with the four core subjects (English, Social Studies, Science, and Math), the BOYS class also gets its own 65-minute daily block. Some topics covered are pretty standard (media literacy, Sex Ed, nutrition).
But other subject matter is not often found on a middle school syllabus. 6th graders do intensive work to mine the inner self, seeking to answer the question of “Who am I?” In 7th grade, the BOYS class will focus on teaching boys how to relate to and interact with family, friends, and classmates, the “You” step in the series. And as 8th graders, the emphasis arrives on the communal “We.”
I – You – We. The theory being that if young men know themselves, and are able to empathize and connect with the individuals and community around them, they will understand how they fit into a bigger picture, and the best ways to utilize their uniqueness for everyone’s benefit.
Worked into BOYS is an appreciation and acceptance of the different cultures represented by a diverse range of kids. Dean of Students, Tony Pigford, feels this is a key component for The Boys School of Denver success. “In a small school environment, the biggest part of the culture is getting to know the students and their families.” Which helps answer an oft-overlooked question: “What lens do they see the world through?”
To that end, character education in the BOYS class pulls from uncommon sources. Students will learn about the “Circle of Courage,” a Native American philosophy founded on four key components: Belonging, Independence, Generosity, and Mastery. Boys will also be taught the African philosophy of Ubuntu, understood here as “I am because we are.”
The Boys School of Denver hopes to offer one more major divergence from traditional public schools. And that is a full-time community liaison for each grade, whose sole role is to reach out and engage the families of enrolled students.
This includes everything from phone calls to home visits. Additionally, every Wednesday a community meeting is held, where parents are invited to come and celebrate student presentations, and learn “House” updates. (The Boys School of Denver will be divided into Four Houses, which serve as smaller families within the school where boys will experience a strong sense of belonging. Think Harry Potter, but without the cool-to-geek connotations around Gryffindor and Hufflepuff).
Additionally, parents will be invited to join their sons during 1st period Movement class.
All of this is done with the goal of empowering young men to succeed academically, yes, but also to thrive beyond graduation and into adulthood. As Jackson put it, “From our perspective, boys need to be empowered. They need to learn how to be compassionate, empathetic, relational.”
An all-boys environment might better serve young men in learning how to do just that. Pigford added that male students need to know “it’s okay to be good at reading and writing, and that’s a good thing.” But they also need to learn “how to connect with other people and express love. We are empowering our boys for a dignified next step in life.”
The numbers on male-to-female academic achievement all show that boys are falling behind girls at every grade level. But the disparity does not stop at graduation rates and test scores. Boys are much more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, and unemployed. Pigford commented thus on our society’s failing with young men: “The issues with our boys and young men have reached a crisis level. We must start creating school environments that help our boys thrive.”
So young men at The Boys School of Denver will be free to move during class instruction. They will be given time and guidance to discover their own personalities, all those unique strengths and weaknesses, and how to “be well,” whether in solitude or in community.
Still, for many in the K12 world, the most important question remains: Does this approach yield results in improving “traditional,” core subject student learning?
At GALS, the answer is a resounding yes. Open for six years, GALS has stood as the only single-gender Colorado charter school to date. Without any focus whatsoever on standardized testing, GALS students have far outperformed their district counterparts, scoring in the top 5 – 15% of test takers, in every core subject.
Beyond academic success, if you talk to enrolled students, there’s little question as to why GALS has been such a hit at the student and community level.
Their female students use one noticeably recurring word to describe GALS:
One expects the young men who attend The Boys School of Denver will experience a similar support of their freedom to be and express themselves.