By Heather Schwedel
"High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of," Kurt Vonnegut (an author you'll find on many an AP English syllabus) wrote. And it's true, there's something about the mythos—gym class, late bells, lockers, Scantrons, homecoming, prom—that does seem undeniably all-American. But there are other, less conventional secondary schools out there: places where students wear leotards to class, where kids run the show, and where chopping wood is a requirement. Keep reading for a crash course in the coolest high schools around the country.
LaGuardia High School
Immortalized in the classic 1980 movie, the TV series that followed two years later, and the 2009 remake, LaGuardia is "the Fame school," where New York City kids go to prepare for careers as dancers, actors, singers, musicians, and artists of every type. Besides studying basics like history and science, each student concentrates in one area of the arts, taking studio classes like musical theater and color theory, while, one presumes, occasionally breaking into song in the cafeteria and pirouetting through the hallways. The competition to get in is fierce, and many graduates go on to conservatory study, if not real-life fame: Notable alumni include Jennifer Aniston and Nicki Minaj.
The Traveling School
If you're in an academic rut, spending a semester somewhere like Botswana, the Galapagos Islands, or Guatemala could be the antidote. By enrolling in The Traveling School, students can ditch half a year of regular studies in favor of adventure and the great outdoors. It's girls-only and "classes" are no larger than 16 people, which means this is also a mega-bonding experience. Students are expected to learn outdoor skills like mountaineering and whitewater rafting as well as take classes that will keep them on track with their schools back home—all while visiting the equator, exploring Machu Picchu, hanging out with elephants, and generally seeing the world.
The Alliance School
High school can be a tumultuous time for anyone (growing up will do that to you), but research shows that certain students feel the struggle more acutely: LGBTQ teens are more likely than their peers to suffer from depression and have thoughts of suicide. To tackle this issue head on, Alliance High School was founded in 2005 as a safe space for all teens—no matter what their sexual orientation may be. The school's policy of acceptance for all and zero tolerance for bullying has made it a haven for students (gay or otherwise) who have faced harassment in more traditional school environments. Part of the Milwaukee public school system, Alliance has expanded to serve middle schoolers as well as high schoolers, making it the first educational institution of its kind in the States.
The Mountain School
You can go off the grid at The Mountain School, a program based in rural Vermont (and owned by Massachusetts's Milton Academy) that allows high school juniors to spend a term living on an organic farm. About 45 students attend each semester, many of them coming from elite prep schools around the country. In addition to taking a full course load (admission is selective, so all classes are honors-level), students are required to get their hands dirty. They perform tasks like chopping wood, caring for animals, and tending the vegetable garden where they grow much of their food, gaining expertise in agriculture and forestry along the way. Students and faculty live together in small houses, where, on recommendation of the program's graduates, there is no Internet access.
Brooklyn Free School
The K-12 Brooklyn Free School was founded in 2004 and is run out of a brownstone in the Fort Greene neighborhood of—you guessed it—Brooklyn. At BFS, there are no tests, no assignments, and no traditional classes of any kind. The school's 60 students are divided into an upper and lower school and vote on everything the school does (it considers itself a practicing democracy), from how much computer time they're allowed to whether or not they should have a school-wide pajama day. Every student, no matter how young, is in charge of his or her own education, meaning they can do whatever they want, provided it doesn't impinge on the rights of others. Predictably, some critics argue that kids need more structure to prepare for the real world, but advocates of the free school model contend that eventually, every student finds their way.
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