Briceland Community High School, known familiarly as Bri Hi, was an offshoot of Beginnings, Inc., which had successfully sponsored a pre-school and an elementary school for years, consisting of grades K through 7. Many parents of children who had only attended Beginnings or other non-public schools were reluctant to send their children to the public junior high and high school when they aged out of these. This was because of cultural differences between the mainstream community and the back-to-the-land community, including very different educational philosophies.
It was also based on a fear, a reasonable one based on actual incidents, that their children would or could experience bullying, discrimination, confusion, psychological trauma or any number of negative things if removed summarily from the educational environment with which they were familiar and in which most of them were successful into one their parents had every reason to believe might be hell on wheels for them. I can personally attest, since I not only parented children who went to South Fork High School, but also was, briefly, a substitute teacher there, that many Shummian children were in fact bullied, harassed, rebuffed, ridiculed, left out and misunderstood there.
The solution for some parents was home schooling and the acquisition of a GED diploma, which would be accepted with no problem by College of the Redwoods, should the students wish to attend college. For others, it was to create an alternative high school starting where Skyfish School (Beginnings’ elementary school) left off. Bri Hi was located adjacent to Beginnings’ land in “downtown” Briceland, one of the factors I believe increased problems tenfold. It lasted three years, funded by donations, tuition and, for a time, public school district funding for “alternate schools.” It crashed on financial rocks when the county pulled its funding because the school district made the funds contingent on its right to choose students from the public school to attend Bri Hi as an alternate school and Bri Hi staff and parents voted not to accept that contingency.
I, a member of the teaching staff and a parent of a Bri Hi student, led the opposition to accepting the school district’s deal, believing it would be the death knell for what I believed was our shared educational vision. For better or worse, I believed home schooling or my children having to face the music at South Fork High would be better for them than the changes we would have to make in our educational philosophy to accomodate students and parents we had had no say in accepting.We were very consciously not a public school, I felt, and were very consciously countering what we saw as negative in public education. Our aim was to make our high school a natural outgrowth of our elementary schools. Some, but not all, students not accustomed to, for instance, individualized study plans, would only become disciplinary problems for us and parents unaccustomed to our methods would be unlikely to be supportive of us. My feeling was that we should retain the right to decide if any given student or family could accept what we were doing differently.
As it turned out, in the case of my children, one attended Bri Hi and transferred to South Fork for her last year when Bri Hi died. She had enormous problems there socially not the least because she is mixed-race, but graduated an honor student, received many awards and some small scholarships and was chosen to speak at commencement. The principal attempted to pre-approve her speech but failed, since he was not pre-approving anyone else’s speech and had no good argument for doing so, other than her race and her identity as Shummian. She gave the speech he was worried about, to an audience containing many Shummian parents and some Shummian teachers who had managed to get hired by the public school system. The reaction of this audience to her courageous and truthful speech about discrimination and its effect on education was enthusiastically positive. There was clapping, stomping and yelling of approval. She is now a professor at UC Davis.
My son, three years younger, attended South Fork his entire four high school years, was an honor student, on the football team, was voted by drama students Best Actor two years running, something that had never been done before and also won awards. He hit one disciplinary bump during the period known by some as “senioritis”, by clowning in art class. I viewed it as absolutely nothing to be upset by, but he was only mildly reprimanded. By the time he attended South Fork, however, there was a much higher proportion of Shummian students to mainstream students at the school and a much higher proportion of Shummian teachers to mainstream teachers, so that paths of my son and his friends were, in general, made straighter than that of their Shummian predacessors. He then attended UC Santa Cruz, majoring in drama, but dropped out a semester short of graduation and moved directly to Hollywood to actually work in the entertainment industry.
Both of my biological children attended mostly Beginnings schools, but also public school when I could be assured they would be in classes of particular teachers favored by Shummians. They also both attended public school during the periods of time they were with me in Pullman WA, while I attended graduate school. Unlike many Shummian parents, I wished to insure that my children did not grow up so isolated culturally from the mainstream society that they would never be able to succeed in it. And, I wanted to be sure that they would be prepared to go to college if that is what they chose to do, yet have the benefit of an early education that stressed learning to learn, creativity, community and social responsibility.
As an indication of the effectiveness of their alternative education, I present the following story. I was quite worried that they would be behind academically in the public schools in a university town. I was justified in this. They entered their respective classes there, as their teachers told me, very behind. However, each of their teachers, independently, at different parent-teacher conferences some months into the school year, asked me with awe, “What kind of school did this child go to? I have never seen a child enter so far behind, yet be so confident, work so hard on their own and catch up so soon.” At which point I told each teacher about our alternative community and our alternative schools and our alternative educational philosophy and they were each amazed. Both of them had completely caught up with their class by the end of the school year.
The school district funding controversy illuminated a key difference in the goals of Bri Hi and the goals of the school district. The former saw itself as a continuation of a more or less Montessori-based educational philosophy and the school district viewed Bri Hi as a place to dump disciplinary problems. In the end, however, the problem was that it simply takes more money and savvy to run a good high school than it does to run good pre and elementary schools. A book could easily be written about all the problems faced by Bri Hi, and how they were dealt with and not dealt with and what caused its demise. My goal here is to simply post historical documents that may or may not be useful to persons interested in our experiment.
A note on my byline: I was at that time transitioning from my given name to my chosen name and had decided to try going by only one name. Also, the sporadic and random vertical spacing is a function of WordPress, not any writing failure of mine, it was spaced just fine when I cut and pasted it.
From the Briceland Ecologian, a newspaper published by Briceland Community High School staff and students. This is, I believe, from the first issue.
Education and Ecology: The Story of Briceland Community High School
In the Kalahari desert, there are no schools; yet, by the time a child is ten or so, she knows well where to find the melons and mugongo that form the staple of the !Kung Bushman diet. She does not waste water and knows how far she may have to walk from the waterhole to the unharvested nuts at any given time of the year, and how far it is to the next waterhole. Most importantly, she knows how to get along with the various groupings of !Kung to be found at the different waterholes. She knows the importance of sharing and teamwork and relies on the interdependence of members of her band. She knows that without them she will not survive.
Is there education in the Kalahari desert? Is there a relationship between education and schools? How much do schools in America not only fail to educate, but prevent the education of children to the mandates of their environment? In the face of the global ecological crisis, these questions cannot be ignored by responsible human beings.
The American approach to public education is based upon ecologically unsound principles and assumptions, according to both ecologists and educators. (See Lewis Perlman, The Global Mind). We lock our young adults up inside jail-like structures, away from the direct experience of their environment, and, as much as possible, from each other. We force feed them information best suited to prepare them for their lives as workers, soldiers and consumers, not as organisms in a global ecosystem. We prevent them from exploring and understanding their bodies. We pit them against each other, selecting and favoring those students whose talents are most suited to our industrial technology. We short-circuit creative thinking and ignore social learning, encouraging them to work against each other, so that when they take their places in the vast multi-national corporations, they will not question policies that increase profits and dehumanize workers.
We teach them that time is divided into 50-minute periods and that wisdom is divided into unrelated categories—history, health, auto mechanics, geometry—all having nothing to do with each other. We prevent them from learning that everything they do is related to everything else they do, that what they think and feel has a direct effect upon their environment and is affected by that environment.
Any anthropologist can tell you that culture is what you teach your children, and that the cultures which have lasted longest were those most in balance with their resources. The human animal is unprecedented in the degree to which learned information determines behavior. Unlike amoebas, we respond to a perception of the environment which has been filtered through lens after lens of meaning. Industrial civilizations have become so advanced in placing these meaning barriers between the physical body and the environment, that they are now able to ignore all input from the environment—for a while.
Can there be any question that our own culture must be changed into a more adaptive form? Can there be any question that the health of the biosphere depends upon our ability to furnish an ecologically sound education to the children of our industrial nation?
For two years now, Briceland Community High School has been attempting to develop an educational program that does not perpetuate the alienation of adolescents from their environment and each other. Developing an ecological consciousness while transmitting our cultural heritage of reading, writing, math and history, etc. is a top priority in every aspect of the school, from the choice of curriculum, the manner in which courses are taught by the individual teachers, the kinds of extracurricular activities and field trips that are organized and all the subconscious lessons that are learned from simply being in a school environment for most of one’s waking hours.
Starting on the well-known shoestring, a procedure not unknown in Southern Humboldt County, students, parents and staff, as well as a number of interested persons who do not fall into these categories, bought some land and a building. The building had housed at various times, a bookstore, a cafe, and an alternative energy store. Now it had to be modified to house a school, a process not yet complete. Library shelves were installed, books donated and teachers made offices for themselves from closets four feet high. Truckloads of broken glass and other junk were removed from the grounds, by prospective students, staff and volunteers. An old trailer was found and installed, its tiny rooms renovated for math, home economics and computer classes.
Next, the house next door was purchased and much energy was expended in clearing out the rotten boards, repairing floors, replacing windows, fixing the roof, turning the kitchen into a science lab, creating a sound studio, an audio-visual center (equipment purchased cheap from another alternative high school), a student lounge. Then came a yurt, spacious, light-filled, but cold and unfurnished.
Where did the energy come from? What was the motivation for all of this hard work? No staff member will tell you that greed or ambition was the motivation. No parent will tell you that it is easier to educate your children this way. Some of the students might tell you that it was fun or that it was worth that kind of work to have a school in which they could expect to participate so fully. So far the energy has been largely hope. Tuition per student has so far been $75 per month, with a compassionate outlook on late payers. Only 20% of the school budget comes from state funds for independent study. Because, ostensibly, of the question of whether Briceland High qualifies as an independent study program, the school will probably lose this money next year.
Most of those who teach at Briceland High are not paid. Some teach in exchange for tuition for a son or daughter. Many teach for purely altruistic reasons, including a desire to see the subject taught well. Only a handful are salaried and then at a fraction of what a public school teacher might expect. What is the motivation for earning a living in such a manner? Again, love, hope and the opportunity to create a meaningful educational institution.
Next question. How far and how long can you go on love and hope and just a little money? Who will pay for the ecologically-sound education of the children? What is it worth to the community? What is it worth to attempt to create adults who have a true, deep and real understanding of the relationship of organisms on this planet?
The high school desperately needs volunteers and money. According to Yan Iris, director of the school, “We need persons capable of classroom teaching—especially in the natural sciences and the vocational arts, like gardening, carpentry, sewing and the like; but we also need help in the library, in the office, in the maintenance and improvement of buildings and grounds. Students at all age levels in the high school will be permitted to trade hours worked for the school for tuition for such classes as they may attend. Flexible and regular scheduling can be arranged.”
Some of what is needed may be arranged through combining curriculum with needs, such as library science classes, carpentry classses to build new buildings and repair old ones. Many of the facilities of the school can eventually be used, with proper organization, by members of the community. The sound studio, the library, physical education facilities (which at present consist of a burned-out barn with a basketball net attached), and the science lab all are potentially useful to the community at large. In addition, regular classes, such as the chemistry lab, could, with proper equipment and organization, be put to such community-oriented projects as the monitoring of Redwood Creek for pollution. Biology and anthropology classes can be focused on assessment of environmental impact of various activities in the community. Briceland High School is wide open to suggestions for increasing this kind of contribution to the community.
Individuals with teaching or work energy or money to contribute to the high school should contact Jan Iris during the summer at [phone numbers given.] In addition, any staff member can help coordinate contributions and volunteers. Staff members include: Jentri, Soloman Mogerman, Duncan Cleaves, Tom McBride, Penny Cocking and Gillian Brown [phone numbers given].
Tell us what you think about us, give us your input and your support and we can give education a whole new meaning in our community.
At the end of one year, the entire school cancelled all classes for a few weeks and put on a production of West Side Story, an activity educational in many ways, from fundraising to making sets, music and dance, and, mainly, working together as a team. All of the students involved, and students were free to opt out and continue working on their individualized studies, worked twice as hard on the production as they would have on their normal schoolwork. At the end, the curtain call shown here, they had the experience of being proud of their achievement. The ones applauding, I think, are applauding the pianist, not shown. Many high schools present plays, but none I know of were the product of the entire school focused on one team project.
Briceland High School music teacher, Soloman Mogerman, also an artist, is shown inside his owner-built home. It was his responsibility to teach the difficult score of West Side Story to high school students with no musical training other than his classes.
Briceland High School drama teacher Joani Rose watches the student production of West Side Story with bated breath.