Real world learning draws students to unconventional school

New private school shakes up education

Students in new Boise school say they like being responsible for their learning.
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Students in new Boise school say they like being responsible for their learning.

Three 10th-graders gathered in a pod working on a project they hope would ultimately lead to more civil discourse in America.

“A lot of people are neglecting other points of view,” said Sam Humrichouse, 15, who lives in Meridian, reflecting upon the vitriolic campaign rhetoric the country experienced in the presidential campaign.

He and his two classmates were at work on a plan to create a website where people could come, tell their stories and answer questions about their lives.

As people visit the website, they would see the diversity in those stories and it would help “create an opportunity to practice civil discourse online,” said Harry Northrop, 14, of Boise.

Designing websites and ruminations on civil discourse and political vitriol are not what you think of when you think of high school projects. But Humrichouse, Northrop and fellow student Pierce Vandervelde are among 32 students at a new, private, full-time school in Boise where project-based learning such as creating a website is at the core of its educational model.

Students meet Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3:14 p.m. The end time is a purposeful reference to pi, the famous number that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

One Stone has students from Boise, West Ada and Caldwell school districts. It’s not yet accredited. So if students were to leave One Stone and return to public school, they would likely have to take exams or classes to earn credits from the public school system. The school is seeking accreditation through the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, a process that could take a couple of years, school officials say. Once the school is accredited, students returning to public school would likely have their One Stone credits accepted.

One Stone began in 2008 as an after-school program. It added a full school this year starting with 10th-graders. It intends to grow a class a year over the next three year to offer grades 10 through 12.


The schoolhouse at 1151 W. Miller St., just off 11th Street Downtown, is wide-open space, along with a few pods. No desks are lined up in a row, no teacher stands at the front delivering lessons. One Stone has no grades, just pass/fail.

In fact, instead of teachers, coaches work with students on projects that are largely student-directed. Students come up with ideas, plans and ways to make them work, then test their effectiveness.

Although it’s a private school, One Stone charges no tuition. The school is paid for by private grants and donations, including a $2.1 million grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. School officials decline to say what their budget is for this school year.

The education program is under the guidance of Teresa Poppin, One Stone’s founder, who based her plan on the notion that exciting kids’ passions is the key to getting them interested in learning.

“It’s a unique way to empower kids by giving them the keys to the car,” Poppen told the Idaho Statesman last summer, as she was preparing to open the school. “They can decide what they are passionate about, and then do it.”

It makes me feel more responsible to myself.

Pierce Vandervelde, a One Stone student, on self-directed learning

Poppen doesn’t have an education background. She came out of software marketing with the former Compaq Computer Corp.

One Stone has students with varying abilities. During the admissions process, school officials talked with students and parents, but did not consult grade transcripts.


Students don’t do all the directing.

Every student spends part of every day learning math online. They also spend parts of the day in other classes such as humanities, which can include the study of government and philosophy.

Students who come to One Stone say they like the feeling of being responsible for their own work.

“Working in a group is a lot different for me,” said Vandervelde, 16, who left Meridian High School to come to One Stone. “It makes me feel more responsible to myself.”

Humrichouse said he left Rocky Mountain High School because he was bored by the traditional education.

“Each class feels so routine,” he said of his old school. “It almost takes the meaning out of it.”

At One Stone, he said, he can’t skate by. Work that might earn him a B or a C in a traditional school would come back to him to revise at One Stone, where in his regular meetings with coaches he’d be encouraged to make it better.

As he thinks about his website project — wading into a difficult question about how Americans talk to one another — he feels as if he can make a difference in a way he couldn’t in public school.

“I really wanted to see changes,” he said.