Meaningful Student Involvement at Work: NOVA Project

In 2001, I was studying student engagement in Washington State schools for the state education agency when I was introduced to Nova High School. I went to the school, then located in a 100-year-old building, to interview Elaine Packard, the longtime principal who founded the school 30 years before. Following is an article I wrote for the ServiceLine newsletter that year. 

Contracts, committees, coordinating, and community: for more than 30 years, those four Cs have given students at Nova, a Seattle School District alternative school, the chance to shape their own learning and the school itself.

Contracts give students lots of choices about what and where they will study. Nova has certain graduation requirements, but students are offered flexibility in reaching them. A Nova student might choose an internship, an independent study, a class at another high school or a community college, private lessons, service-learning or one of Nova’s own classes to meet a certain requirement.

Nova offers a comprehensive science program with an organic garden, foreign languages, advanced math, arts classes, and a full range of history and English. Students also learn through desktop publishing, peer mediation, boat building, woodworking, computer and electronic music lab, touring drama productions, and other less traditional courses.

The grading system is credit/no credit, with a “pass” based on 80 percent mastery. Written contracts document the graduation requirements. “It was set up to be a school without walls,”

said Elaine Packard, who came to Nova as a teacher in 1971 and is now its longtime principal. Committees give students and teachers shared decision making in just about every aspect of the life of the school. “Students have an equal vote with everyone on the staff,” Packard said. While faculty members are required to serve on committees, students may choose whether or not to serve. Committees deal with the budget, hiring, systems management, public relations, recruiting new students, technology, environment, and other areas. Students have named the ways and means committee “Students Leading Against Mediocrity.” Some are standing committees, while others pop up when the need arises. An ad hoc accountability committee handles situations when people aren’t doing what they said they would do, Packard said.

Coordinating takes place between each student and the faculty member the student has chosen as coordinator. The coordinator gives personal and academic counseling, college advising, and mentoring. A sense of community springs naturally from Nova’s small size. When the educational process teaches individual responsibility and cooperation, that sense of community is essential.

The community has faced a challenge as Seattle School District gave Nova two years to grow from 150 students to 250, the minimum size that can support a principal. Adding so many people so fast has affected the culture of the school, Packard said.

Nova attracts a wide variety of students. It wasn’t set up for dropout prevention, but as a

creative alternative to traditional education. A majority of students go on to four-year colleges, and nearly every year Nova has one or two National Merit Finalists.

In November 2009 I had the opportunity to take some colleagues from Vermont to meet with Mark Perry, the current principal of the school. Standing in the hallway for two hours talking with random students Mark pulled aside, I discovered that many of the democratic education mechanisms I wrote about almost 10 years ago are still in place, much as they’d been for the 30 years prior.  

You can learn more about Nova at 

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