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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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

They are often born in a burst of enthusiasm, then they disappear when the budget gets tight. But amid all the changing trends in educational reform, one school has hung in there. Since 1972, Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has offered kids in that progressive city a nontraditional education.

NPR's Larry Abramson traveled to Ann Arbor, as part of a series on alternative schools.

LARRY ABRAMSON: For a high school, Community is small - 450 kids 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 forum.

ROBBIE STAPLETON: Okay. Good luck.

Unidentified Woman: Good luck to you.

STAPLETON: Good luck to you on this game.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

Woman: (Unintelligible) for me.

ABRAMSON: Students at most schools make a perfunctory visit to homeroom but Community's forum is a required class.

Teacher Robbie Stapleton uses it to teach values and to bond deeply with kids who will spend their entire four years meeting with the same group.

STAPLETON: (Unintelligible) is one of our best, most beloved teacher's daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia this week, and she's in seventh grade. I'm going to unwrap this present. And I would like to say that they're from our forum.

ABRAMSON: Students share tragedies here. They talk about their problems. They celebrate their triumphs. Stapleton says this meeting makes sure that kids feel the intimacy that Community prizes.

STAPLETON: 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 that you really should do in high school, but they're not taught in traditional classes.

ABRAMSON: Community got started in the 1970s as an alternative to the two big high schools, the factories as some referred to them. Back then, supporters of Commie, as it came to be known, had to pound the pavement to recruit students. And while it attracted some individual thinkers, Commie also drew a lot of goof-offs.

Robbie Stapleton says when she arrived 20 years ago, she thought to herself - this isn't really an alternative school

STAPLETON: These kids are talking about an alternative to school. They no more want to learn here than - they'd rather just come and sit and smoke cigarettes and, you know, as the country has gotten, if you will, more conservative, I think our school has gotten more conservative or more mainstream.

ELENA FLORES: Hey, can you do me a favor. Just turn it down a little bit.

ABRAMSON: These days, any rebelliousness is carefully channeled into work.

FLORES: Everybody...

ABRAMSON: Kids in Elena Flores' arts studio seize the freedom to blast music while they work. Kids choose to be at Community - they have to enter a lottery to get in - and that makes a huge difference. Flores says teachers wait just as eagerly for their chance

FLORES: Well, it was like a big deal because it's one of the coveted jobs.

ABRAMSON: Everybody in the other schools is waiting for their chance to get in here?

FLORES: Yeah. It was like - it was really competitive.

ABRAMSON: When you're at the other schools, did you play rock music during your studio?

FLORES: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLORES: And I just love it. You know, it's kind of cool, like, you know, kind of feel like this is your space and this is a safe place and...

ABRAMSON: Like many alternative schools, Community loves and hates its reputation. The school wants to be known as a place for kids 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 once they got past that prejudice, they found that Community is just as rigorous as Pioneer High, which has 3,000 students.

JESSICA RAMPTON: I was like, oh, this is a slacker school, you know? I need to be on the accelerated track. I need to get into a good college. And that I finally, I would've definitely blended with the crowd. It's tinier and done a lot of stuff to deal with all that pressure. And I'm so happy that I came here.

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

There's no mandatory English class for sophomores or for juniors. Instead, kids get to pick from a catalog that includes Women's Literature and a class called Ultimate Questions. Or there's Brian Miller's course on Philosophy in Literature.

BRIAN MILLER: And one might even go farther and say we have multiple societal selves, but philosophically, we're going to try to find out what this means. What is this true self?

ABRAMSON: Miller's Philosophy class is discussing "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 sparks them to find their own path in life. He leads the boys to liberation and to trouble.

The connection to Community is never far away.

MILLER: What's our icon? You must - the zebra. Right. And which zebra is it?

Unidentified Group: The rainbow(ph).

MILLER: Yeah, the one that isn't like all the other zebras, right?

I don't think we teach kids to be nonconformists. We don't teach them to seize the day. We don't teach them to do things. So what I like to do is I like to demonstrate that - you know, here's something that sort of fits in with our school - this whole notion of nonconformity but there are prices to pay and, you know, it's not easy.

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

NORRIS: 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.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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