No teachers, no grades: ‘Unschool’ is coming to Idaho

Imagine a high school driven by student decisions. It’s coming to Boise.

It’s called “unschool”— a place with no subjects, teachers, grades, classrooms or tuition. Instead, the school features projects, coaches and the design-thinking process.

“Our challenge is explaining to people that this is real,” said Teresa Poppen, the executive director of One Stone. “Some parents are excited and others are skeptical.”

One Stone, a student-run service organization, is creating this new school and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation is donating $2.1 million to help its launch, along with other private donors.

“This is a trend that is established, but hasn’t reached Idaho,” said Charla Cooper, a special project coordinator at One Stone.

For the past year, a team of One Stone high school students and staff conducted research, including two 24-hour think challenges, and traveled across the country from the Silicon Valley to Boston to study next-generation learning approaches. The team talked to founders of micro-schools and education experts.

“The more we pursued the idea, the more we understood it was a logical next step for One Stone,” Poppen said.

The unschool

One Stone plans to start school on Sept. 6 with 32 sophomores — and will add a grade a year over the next two school years. School will be Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. One Stone plans to be year-round with students serving internships in the summer.

“We want to allow students to still participate in sports and activities at local schools,” Poppen said.

One Stone staff is in the process of renting a building in Downtown Boise. The organization will move its after-school program to the new school location.

There will be no desks. The interior of the building is expected to have a startup office-design look — an open environment with tables and project spaces.

“Every space of the building will be for everyone,” Poppen said. “We want the student to experience real-world learning and Downtown is a hotbed of connections.”

Students will have the option to lunch at Boise’s Downtown eateries.

The learning process

One Stone won’t have a teaching staff, but will rely on coaches to collaborate with students to help them find their passion in life whether that be pursuit of a college degree, a trade, the military, internships, apprenticeships or starting a business. All projects will be student-led with coaches as the advisor and instructor.

“The coaches will guide students through the projects allowing for fail-forward moments,” Cooper said.

Students will do online learning, blended learning and interdisciplinary project-based learning. Projects will incorporate literature, history, math and science. In online classes, students will have to show mastery before moving on to more difficult lessons.

“Students will decide what project they want to do and how they will pursue it,” Poppen said.

One Stone hired a certified teacher and is looking for three more coaches to join the team.

Instead of grades, students will have a digital portfolio that shows what they’ve done. Students can take college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT to gain college acceptance.

“College counselors do look at these portfolios,” Poppen said.

The school is undergoing an accreditation with the Northwest Association of Independent Schools.

“Whether students want to go to Yale or start a business, we are going to help them get to where they want to go with the expertise and experience,” Poppen said.

The admission process

Students interested in attending this new school must apply. Staff won’t ask about grade-point averages or academic history. Instead, applicants will be asked these nine questions:

  • Why you?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What would people find surprising to learn about you?
  • Tell a story about a time when you had an awesome learning experience?
  • If you taught other students, what would you teach?
  • What five things make you most excited about learning at One Stone?
  • If you were to design a T-shirt, what would it say?
  • Describe yourself in six words?
  • How do you learn best?

Applications are online.  Parents and students both fill out questionnaires and are interview by One Stone staff. Students also need a letter of recommendation.

“We are looking for a mix of students and we know that there’s not one demographic or student profile that this school meets the needs for,” Poppen said. “Design thinking is made for diverse groups.”

You can learn more about the school at a “pop-up experience” informational night on Tuesday, June 14, at 6:30 p.m. at One Stone.

Note: One Stone and Idaho Education News are funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.