Alternative 'Commie' High Mellows with Time

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Community High School i

Community High School has offered students Ann Arbor, Mich., an alternative to traditional high school since 1972. Here, Peter Ways, the school's dean, stands in front of Community, which is housed in a well-worn former elementary school Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR
Community High School

Community High School has offered students Ann Arbor, Mich., an alternative to traditional high school since 1972. Here, Peter Ways, the school's dean, stands in front of Community, which is housed in a well-worn former elementary school

Larry Abramson, NPR

Principles at Community

Teacher-designed courses. Rather than taking a set course, students can pick from a menu of classes designed by teachers. The list looks like a college catalog, but of course it must fulfill state curriculum requirements. For example, there's no mandatory English class for sophomores or juniors. Instead, students pick from a catalog that includes Women's Literature and a class called Ultimate Questions.


Community-based learning. Students enroll in internships in Ann Arbor, Mich., and audit classes at the University of Michigan.

Intimacy. "Forum," Community's enhanced homeroom, is a required course. Teachers use this time to build close relationships with and between students.

Small, alternative high schools are like butterflies: They're unique and colorful, and they don't survive very long.

Experimental high schools are often born in a burst of enthusiasm, then disappear when the budget gets tight. But amid all the changing flavors of education reform, one school has hung in there. Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., has offered children in this progressive city an alternative to traditional high school since 1972.

For a high school, Community is small — 450 students housed in a well-worn former elementary school. But if you want a quick glimpse at what really makes Community different, don't go to a regular class. Go to what Community calls a "forum."

Teacher Robbie Stapleton uses the forum — an enhanced homeroom — to teach values and to encourage students to bond deeply with their peers, who will spend their entire four years in high school meeting with the same group.

Students share tragedies, talk about their problems and celebrate their triumphs, Stapleton says. The forum reinforces the intimacy that Community prizes.

"It's a family. It's a support system. It's an academic environment where we learn things. It's a place to learn about values. It's a place to do all those things you really should do in high school, but they're not taught in traditional classes," Stapleton says.

'Commie' High

Community — or Commie, as it came to be known — got started as an alternative to the two big nearby high schools, Pioneer High and Huron High, also known by some as "the factories." Community students had to be recruited. And while it attracted some individual thinkers, it also drew a lot of goof-offs.

Stapleton says that when she arrived 20 years ago, Community really wasn't an "alternative school" — it was "an alternative to school." But as the country turned more conservative, she says, Community similarly became more mainstream.

These days, any rebelliousness is carefully channeled into work.

For example, students in Elena Flores' arts studio seize the freedom to blast music while they work.

Students choose to be at Community — they have to enter a lottery to get in — and that makes a huge difference. Flores says that teachers wait just as eagerly for their chance to join the school. She says jobs at Community are among the most coveted in the school system.

Like many alternative schools, Community loves and hates its reputation. The school wants to be known as a place for students who think for themselves, but it fights the widely held notion that it's a hangout for dopers and slackers.

Ambitious students like Jessica Rampton say that once they got past that prejudice, they found that Community is just as rigorous as Pioneer High, which has 3,000 students.

"I was like, 'Oh, this is a slacker school. I need to be on the accelerated track. I need to get into a good college,'" Rampton says.

If she had attended Pioneer, Rampton says, "I would have definitely blended into the crowd ... and would have done a lot of stuff to deal with all that pressure. I'm so happy that I came here."

Unlike Pioneer and Huron schools, Community has no pool and no stadium, and students have to go off campus to take advanced placement courses. Instead, they get a menu of classes that teachers design.

In a course called Philosophy in Literature, teacher Brian Miller discusses The Dead Poets Society, a film that depicts life in an uptight prep school, the polar opposite of Community. It's the story of a teacher who unmasks his students' conformity and inspires them to find their own path in life. The teacher in the film leads his students to liberation — and to trouble.

The connection to Community is never far away from the discussion.

"I don't think we teach kids to be nonconformists. We don't teach them to seize the day," Miller says. Instead, he says, he teaches that there are prices to pay for nonconformity, and that it's not easy.

After three and a half decades, Community is more popular than ever. For every three kids who apply to the school through the lottery, two are turned away.

So if this small school is so popular, why has Ann Arbor decided to build a new high school that will eventually have room for 1,600 students? The reason is money: It's considered cheaper to build big schools. Not everyone agrees that's true. But the perception that alternative schools are more expensive means they must constantly fight to stay alive.

That feeling of being endangered has bred a fierce loyalty that has kept Community going for a long time.

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