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School Within a School

December 8, 2009

Published by the Boston Globe

Nearly 100 students cram inside Room 403 of Brookline High School. They sit in, on and under the desks, Indian-style on the floor and up against the artwork cluttered walls. Though they look like typical teenagers in a typical classroom, they discuss atypical topics here at their weekly “Town Meeting.”

“We’re here to take responsibility for ourselves and our community,” says one girl. A handful of her classmates pump their fists in silent support.

“This is really about democracy,” adds a boy, emphasizing his words like a political candidate giving a speech to his supporters. “If we really care about community and equal rights we should vote for the proposal.”

The students are part of Brookline High’s School Within a School (SWS), an alternative learning community housed on the fourth floor of the school. Together in “Town Meeting” the 115 sophomores, junior and seniors propose, debate and vote on everything from attendance policies and admissions procedures to course curriculums and new staff additions, say students. Everyone has one vote in SWS’s democratic system.

“It’s a very long process,” says 17-year-old Maya Tamir of the meeting’s system. “But the process is most important. The fact that I can say what I think is amazing.

Today, they discuss requirements for their upcoming admissions cycle and what it means to be in SWS. Despite misconceptions – Google “alternative learning” and advertisements for “troubled teens” pop up – SWS students and staff don’t define their program by the type of people in it. Instead SWS exists as a community for students to have a direct voice and responsibility in their education.

“You can’t say SWS is anything, because it is what we make it,” says Tamir, a junior in SWS. “And the people to come can change it.”

In an era of over-involved “helicopter parents,” the SWS philosophy seems rare. For example, students manage their own attendance. When sick, they call the office themselves. If they cut class, no administrator will report it to parents, says SWS Coordinator Dan Bresman.

“We treat the student as the primary agent of the education,” says Bresman. “I still call parents when there’s cause for concern, but I go to the students first.”

Entering SWS students don’t innately have the ability to handle such responsibilities, says Bresman.

“As long as they have the capacity to learn and integrate that into the way they operate, that’s fine,” he says. “If they can’t acquire it once they’re here, then they probably shouldn’t remain with us.”

In those cases, a Review Committee of mostly students, but also staff, discusses and votes on whether that student should stay in SWS. Other committees include an Agenda Committee, which runs “Town Meeting,” and an Attendance Committee. When a new SWS staff position opens up, students also form the majority in the Hiring Committee. They review resumes, applications and conduct interviews.

Students in SWS are required to participate in “Town Meeting” and in SWS English classes. They take the rest of their courses through the main school, according to Bresman. This is the key to SWS’s success, he says.

Brookline High School students formed the SWS in 1970, when similar alternative education programs all around the country opened as well. Many of the others failed when they tried to become independent schools, says Bresman. SWS never did.

“This program…doesn’t mean these kids have to choose not to do a lot of stuff,” Bresman says. SWS students can still take AP and art classes and participate in varsity athletics and other extracurricular activities.

SWS doesn’t appeal to all Brookline High students. Some students learn better in a more structured environment and wouldn’t do well with the reduced level of supervision, says Bresman.

“SWS is a choice. In a big school like BHS, having meaningful choices – in curriculum, and in programs – is important,” saysDr. Robert J. Weintraub, headmaster of the high school, in an email.

Many current students say they joined SWS because they wanted more freedom in their education; others craved its sense of community. Senior Niki Von Krusenstiern says he applied because he wanted to take SWS’s Creative Writing English class, which wasn’t offered in the mainstream school.

“Now the thing that I really value about SWS is the community aspect,” says the 17-year-old. “It’s nice to have something like that in this huge place where there’s 1700 kids.”

Tamir agrees, and also cites the student-teacher relationships as a program positive.
“I feel like in the downstairs school I’m more like a number, another student,” she says. “Up here I’m Maya and people will listen to me, people will care.”

Some don’t consider SWS because of stereotypes associated with the program.

“My brother said he’d kill me if I joined SWS,” says Zach Reckling, a non-SWS senior at the school. “He said they’re all a bunch of hippies.”

David Kaim’s parents didn’t want him to join because of what they’d heard.

“When I applied my parents were like ‘they’re going to make you smoke and you’re going to dye your hair purple and you’re not going to learn anything,” says the SWS junior.

Tamir says that SWS was originally formed for people who weren’t doing well in the mainstream school.

“Now it’s a variety of people. People who are struggling, people who are doing really well,” she says.

“People who just want to have a voice in their education,” adds Kaim, nodding in agreement.

Reckling, the non-SWS student, acknowledges that his brother might have been wrong.

“You think there’s a stereotype but you take classes with them [in the mainstream school] and you can’t even tell who’s in SWS,” says Reckling.

Despite the stereotype and the extra responsibilities synonymous with SWS, its students aren’t that different from regular high school students, according to participants. They are still expected to turn in homework and arrive to class on time.

“If we’re not paying attention in class that’s not a reflection of SWS, we’re just not paying attention that day,” says Tamir. No matter what non-SWS students, and even teachers, may say, she reaffirms that there is no “SWS type” of person.

Due to space constraints not everyone interested in joining SWS can. Freshman who apply are admitted through a lottery system. SWS students decide in “Town Meeting” how they will run the lottery.

“We want to balance genders, have diversity, balance race,” says Tamir.

Bresman says that about 100 students apply every year and about half of them get in. He emphasizes that students in SWS are not superior to those who are not.

“It’s just a different approach to the same set of goals,” he says. “Everyone wants their kids to be smart and educated and push themselves and take ownership of their learning.”

When Faina Rozental, a 2007 graduate of SWS, was first accepted into the program, she worried that its lack of structure would affect her education.

“I would not be who I am today without SWS,” says Rozental, now a Boston University junior, in retrospect. “It really brought me out of my shell – it helped me become more outspoken and taught me how to express myself.”

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