No Grades, No Tests, Lots of Learning
Ariel Miller aced high school chemistry.
“I got a 100 on a test, but didn’t learn a thing,” she admits.
Early on, Miller discovered that a keen short-term memory could get her passing grades, and not much else.
“I was participating in something that had no meaning for me,” she says. “I was participating in a system that didn’t meet me on the soul level.”
By her junior year, she had withdrawn from her Massachusetts public high school and had begun homeschooling herself. And all of a sudden, learning became exciting. Two years later, Miller enrolled at Hampshire College, a place with student-designed majors and no grading system. Out of that experience, Miller emerged with an entrepreneurial impulse that led her to work in management for Disney and later to start a publishing company with her husband. But it wasn’t until her son reached junior high that she took her enterprising attitude to the education arena. Up until then they had tried a combination of home and private school, but “nothing that he was ecstatic about,” Miller says.
So, in the fall of 2011, Miller teamed up with educational entrepreneur Michael Strong and concocted a school, which was really much more than just a school.
Walk inside Skybridge Academy on any given day and you won’t feel like you’re in a school. That’s because when they relocated to the 20-acre Stunt Ranch (property they share with The Soleil School) in Austin, Miller hired an interior designer to make the space as welcoming as possible. There is no institutional furniture, but rather, pieces you would find in a home, dining room tables, comfy chairs, couches.
“Having a beautiful space makes the kids feel really valued,” Miller explains.
Of the 42 students (grades 6-12), some are cooking a meal, others are filming a movie outside, while others are curled up in big chairs reading.
Everything—from the furniture to the teachers selected—is chosen to create the best possible environment for students to discover their unique interests and affinities and cultivate them toward a lifetime of learning and a meaningful career. Instead of letting kids wait until college to decide what they want to hone in on, Skybridge helps students start specializing in junior high.
One of the ways this happens is through the attention of 11 staff members who view themselves more as personal coaches and advocates than instructors. Miller describes them as “zealots.”
“I don’t [necessarily] look for certified teachers, but those who are professionals in their field . . . they don’t have to convince students of anything because they’re so passionate [about what they’re teaching].”
For example, the head of the art program is an active artist. The head of the music program is a working musician. The English teacher is a practicing poet. These teachers provide the raw material, and then sit back and allow a child’s natural curiosity to lead them to discovery.
To help students discover what they want to delve into, the school offers a palate of classes that looks more like a college catalog than a secondary education course load. Among others, Forensics, Culinary Sciences, Fantasy Writing, Digital Storytelling, and a class called “Activating yourself within a community.” As well, every day there is a “Socratic discussion” in which students discuss “idea rich” texts, such as classical literature and philosophy, or contemporary articles on science, anthropology, culture, etc.
A different measuring stick
Miller is very clear on one thing: Skybridge exists to create lifelong learners, not memorizers or even “good students.”
“We try to have students never checking off boxes,” she says. “We can tell if they’re doing that and then we work to help them rewind and figure out where they lost a connection with their learning. This creates a culture where you’re never just going through the motions.”
One of the ways they safeguard this culture often shocks newcomers: there are no grades or standardized tests.
“What are standardized tests measuring, really?” Miller asks. “They measure that students can jump through hoops and learn a certain a way . . . They show that good visual learners are good at literature and math. But what if you’re a kinesthetic learner?”
Instead, each student at Skybridge is personally evaluated at the end of the year based on criteria such as group cooperation, completion of assignments, and engagement in discussion.
“You get a much, much better representation [of a student’s real progress].”
The result of this approach is individuals who are eager to learn, highly motivated, and competitive in the “real world.”
“[Our] kids have time to personalize their academics, develop that relationship with being a lifelong learner, and take those lessons and apply it to being a global citizen,” Miller explains.
“By the time they’re ready to graduate, they have a pretty good picture of how they learn and engage. They often start businesses or take college level courses in high school. They pick colleges based on specifically who they are versus just going to school because that’s what comes next.”
For junior Chloe Taylor, Skybridge has given her the freedom to pursue what she loves most: horses. Since coming to Skybridge as a freshman, Chloe, has been training to become an Olympic equestrian rider all the while working on a business plan to start her own horse breeding company. For someone like Chloe, whom Miller describes as a kinesthetic learner, Skybridge is making sure she has the skills she needs to operate a business.
“She’s out there functioning as a real life adult,” explains Chloe’s mom Gail. “My daughter is able to ride for several hours a day. She’s really focused on business math. She’s not doing math that’s useless to her.”
For Taylor and her younger brother, Skybridge has been a life changer.
“To see my children expressive, non-repressed, connecting with all ages and all people . . . it’s just been amazing,” Gail says.
A new kind of ‘learner-centered’
Skybridge is a member school of Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), a consortium of alternative schools around the country and the world. Founded in 1989 by Jerry Mintz, AERO’s goal is to advance learner-centered education in its various forms, including such models as Montessori, democratic, homeschool, Sudbury, and Indigo. Miller says that Skybridge doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories.
“I think what we’re doing is unique,” she explains. “It’s both individualized and a rigorous education. Usually you don’t find that combination.”
Despite the emphasis on individual growth, community is big at Skybridge.
Students frequently work in groups, often with students of different ages. Because so much depends on each student pulling their weight, peers keep each other accountable.
“If someone doesn’t do their work, it throws the whole thing off kilter,” Miller explains. “[Recently], a kid hadn’t done his work. I got an email from two students telling me how unacceptable that was. Everyone has to participate to keep pump fueled.”
In addition to the impact of positive peer pressure, there are universal norms that pervade the Skybridge culture and contribute to its rigor.
Everyone must have subject mastery of practical math. Not everyone has to take calculus, but everyone must know how to create an Excel spreadsheet, how to do their taxes, and understand enough math principles to run a business. Everyone must take at least one science class, and everybody must be able to express themselves through writing. Everybody is required to make at least one Youtube video before they graduate. Typing well and efficiently is a given.
“These are the requirements to be a global citizen,” Miller asserts. After all, “we’re teaching technological natives.”
One of the most unique aspects of Skybridge is the freedom it gives families to engage with Skybridge as much or as little as they want. Parents have the option to enroll their children in the full five-day program at $9,000 a year or select classes and activities a la carte. Miller has seen this as a popular option particularly among homeschoolers who, for instance, might opt to take three days a week at Skybridge and then supplement with learning at home or at a community college.
Miller is currently working on a business plan to turn the Skybridge into a franchisable model that can be easily replicated by other educators.
Flourishing by ‘unlearning’
For many students coming out of a more traditional school background, there is actually a season of “unlearning”—even healing—that is required for them to embrace the Skybridge culture.
“It takes six months to unwind from the trauma of being in public school,” Miller asserts. “Once they get here, they reach a stage of vulnerability. Their artwork and writing changes. Their writing becomes more personal and expressive. Who they are in community changes.”
Kim Suvia said that her eldest son Flynn came to Skybridge as a “sensitive and fearful child.” After several years at a public school, he was so miserable that Suvia decided to pull him and his younger brother out and homeschool them.
“Homeschooling was fine for a while, but I didn’t feel like I was equipped to give them everything they needed,” she says.
In particular, Flynn, who had always expressed an interest in astrophysics, seemed to be losing motivation.
“He was doing the work, but he wasn’t very inspired,” she explains. “He was talking like he didn’t want to go to college. I felt like I needed help.
Not long afterward, Suvia discovered that she could enroll her sons in Skybridge on an a la carte plan. Just three months in, Suvia has seen remarkable strides in both of her sons, but particularly Flynn, who was always somewhat socially awkward.
“He’s engaging [people] in conversation. He’s inspired to go to college. He’s getting the mentorship he needs from [his teachers]. They just tune into these kids as individuals and are able to elicit their strengths. They’re just flourishing!”