“Flattening The School Walls”

Flattening the School Walls, an article from “Education Week”

Kennedy School of Sustainability Principal Tom Horn, center, directs students as they care for a tank of tilapia that they are raising at the school as a food source. Achievement and attendance at the school have both increased since Horn reorganized the curriculum around environmental project-based learning.
—Chris Pietsch for Education Week

Principal Tom Horn, a self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” has transformed a troubled alternative high school in Oregon—not to mention his teachers’ job descriptions—by introducing a radical project-based learning model.

Tom Horn, rugged and composed in a fleece jacket, hiking boots, and a baseball cap, points down at the several rows of winter vegetables in planter boxes. “We already harvested three and a half tons of food for the community from this garden,” says the principal of Al Kennedy, an alternative public high school in Cottage Grove, Ore. He gestures to the neglected soccer field beyond. “But pretty soon the garden will extend all the way out there.” Standing nearby, Maggie Matoba, the school’s garden coordinator and founder of a local nonprofit that provides horticultural therapy, shrugs and smiles. This sort of lofty planning from Horn is nothing new to her.

In a sense, the garden project can be seen as a metaphor for the way Horn operates in every aspect of his job as a school leader. The 42-year-old principal is equal parts quixotic and practical. He thinks big—dashing off seemingly far-fetched ideas with tangled webs of text and arrows in his ever-present sketchbook. He then gets others excited about a project, convinces some experts to get involved, procures the resources—and watches the project bloom.

By many measures, Horn’s leadership style—and his emphasis on beyond-the-classroom learning—appears to be working. The attendance rate at the 100-student high school, formerly called Al Kennedy Alternative School but now referred to by students and staff as the Kennedy School of Sustainability, has jumped from 23 percent in the fall of 2006, when Horn took over, to a current rate of about 90 percent. The dropout rate is now at 12.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 2004-05. Test scores, though still below par, are on the rise. The once-stigmatized alternative school now has a 180-student waiting list. And for the first time ever, students from Kennedy are going to college.

The Kennedy school’s garden coordinator, Maggie Matoba, center, supervises students Cassidy Pace, 17, left, and Tina Woody, 20, as they plant potatoes in the school garden.
—Chris Pietsch for Education Week

A self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” Ore., Horn claims that he never actually wanted to be a principal. In his mid-20’s, he gave up a nomadic existence of surfing and rock-climbing to head back to school. He then opted for a master’s degree simply to move himself up the teacher pay scale, and at age 30, became a special education teacher—a position he was happy to stay in. But several years later, persistent urging from Krista Parent, superintendent of Oregon’s 2,900-student South Lane School District, who’d heard of Horn’s reputation as an innovator, convinced him to apply for the principalship and, eventually, to take on the task of turning the ailing Kennedy around.

Parent, the 2007 National Superintendent of the Year, says she envisioned transforming Kennedy from an alternative school for students who had “blown out of the regular system” to an option for “kids who need more real-world relevant kinds of opportunities.” Under Horn and the teacher team he’s assembled, she notes, the school has “far exceeded our expectations and our vision—and more quickly than I thought it could be done.”

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