Though considered an objective process, selecting classes at TPHS is more of a multiple choice test than an open-ended question. Students choose from a list of stock classes, which limits personal control of their academic careers. Sierra Casper (12), however, refuses to let this restrain her. Abandoning her textbooks and leaving her lab goggles behind, in her estimation, her most effective educational experience was underwater in the Florida Keys, with nothing but scuba gear and a newfound passion for restoring coral reefs.
Casper works toward her goal of a career in the veterinary field by regularly visiting her uncle’s practice to observe surgeries and gain experience working with animals. She took AP Biology at TPHS and found it interesting but did not feel that it was practical for her purposes. Her interest in the field carried her out of the classroom and to the Florida Keys, where she worked closely with the Coral Restoration Foundation.
“It [was] definitely more [effective] than learning about [the coral reefs] in a classroom,” Casper said. “You can actually see the effect you have on the environment.”
Casper worked through The Road Less Traveled, a company that offers a variety of summer community service, language and adventure programs for students around the world. Program leader Emily Silver believes that when students learn in an unconventional fashion, they gain experiences that cannot be fit into a standardized classroom curriculum.
“It gives [students] an opportunity to apply skills that [they] have learned in the formal structure of education, and then apply it to the real world,” Silver said. “It allows them to connect with real people and form relationships that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do.”
The experience will help Casper in the long run, but it also has an immediate impact.
“I used some of the knowledge [I received during the volunteer trip] and applied it to internship interview questions, because they ask about your past experience,” Casper said.
Alternative education does not always take the form of a service trip, however, and can offer many simpler benefits, too. For Sonja Spain (12), a 19-day summer writing course at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., provided her not only with educational , but also with life experiences that will follow her into college.
“I do my own laundry at home, but one time [during the trip] I accidentally dried my own clothes first and then washed them,” Spain said. “It was really a tough time. I guess I realized it’s actually hard living on your own.”
Surrounded by miles of cornfields in every direction, she was forced to focus more on her peers and her education than the rigid curriculum she is used to at home. She found herself immersed in an intellectual community of people from all different walks of life, which provided her with an ethnic and social diversity less present at home.
“At TPHS, [there is not] that much diversity, and I never really understood the importance of it,” Spain said. “But when I went to Carleton, a lot of my classmates came from inner-city Chicago schools. There were foreign people too, so [I] got up close with many different lifestyles, [from] straight-up inner-city school kids from New York [to] the Minnesotan farm kids.”
Similarly, Lauren Bickford (12) spent her summer at the University of Cambridge in England with Oxbridge Academic Programs. While she learned the basics of photojournalism and advertising, she also realized that each field has shortcomings, and ended with a better understanding of her own aspirations.
“You have to dive in headfirst to get a real sense of it,” Bickford said. “For example, anything I could take at [TPHS] wouldn’t give me a totally accurate depiction of what the job market for that kind of a job is like. I felt like these classes [at Cambridge] were more similar to how it actually would be, because the professors teaching were experts in their fields. The teachers [at TPHS] are just trying to get through the curriculum.”
History teacher Matt Chess sees the value of firsthand experience in furthering comprehension, but says a classroom education is intended to do more than cover a prescribed set of information.
“Teaching the curriculum is what we’re paid to do, but we’re also paid to nurture, encourage and help our students learn,” Chess said.
Students like Spain, who frequently reads unassigned work by poets like Allen Ginsberg, pursue higher education out of passion and interest, but may find that their alternative pursuits can help them in applying to colleges, too. Frances Nan, an admissions officer at Pomona College, says that while Pomona looks for academically balanced applicants, demonstrations of passion for a particular subject or subjects do not have a negative effect on a student’s chances for admission.
“I’m still looking to see that [students] are strong across the board and not just in their areas of interest,” Nan said. “I think when a student is interested in a certain area, it would definitely be my first step to see that they’re strong in that area, but I do still look to see that they’re taking a well-rounded curriculum. I think that the student should make sure that they are going to be academically competitive by choosing classes that they are very interested in, but also choosing classes that are the most challenging ones available to them at their schools.”
Bickford’s experience at Cambridge may help her in the college admissions process, but she said that the most valuable aspect of the Cambridge course was not what she gained from it academically, but rather the knowledge that will follow her long after her stint abroad.
“The people I was surrounded with gave me motivation to work even harder,” Bickford said. “When I came to Cambridge, I was with people … who are going to pursue things in ways I’ve never seen before, and it really opened my mind to different and new ideas, which was really inspiring. If anything, it’s what I gained from the program that will give me an edge.”
Casper feels that no class she has taken at TPHS has taught her what the ocean did, and as Bickford said, when it comes to education, you just have to “dive in.”