Animas High School, a public charter school, is graduating its first senior class in two weeks.
Those 49 students’ achievement caps the school’s stunning transition from being what just three years ago was widely viewed as a precarious teaching venture into an educational Cinderella story. In this real-life fairy tale, an earnest, materially abject charter school prevailed over naysayers and its own humble beginnings – it’s still in a strip mall – to become an academic powerhouse that outperforms Durango School District 9-R on state-mandated tests in reading, writing and math.
So how did they do it?
The long odds
Starting in 2009, today’s Animas High School seniors (and perhaps more aptly, their parents) bet on a vision of intellectual rigor, college preparedness and project-based learning.
It’s paid off.
As per their classwide agreement, every Animas senior has gotten into college (though some are pursuing gap years or enrolling in the military).
They’re headed to an unusually wide range of great schools in and out of state, including Stanford University, Brown University, Tulane University, Amherst College, University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado School of Mines and Fort Lewis College.
Initially antagonistic relations with Durango School District 9-R have transformed, with Animas finding a firm friend this year in Superintendent Daniel Snowberger.
And Animas High School, which is modeled after California’s High Tech High, is mimicking its seniors’ up-and-out trajectory: Next year, it is moving to Twin Buttes, where it hopes to build a $12.5 million facility.
But like all gambles that end in big payoffs, for many years, the odds on AHS succeeding seemed very long.
Seniors are highly aware of what was at stake.
Before Animas High, the few schools to charter in Durango had failed.
Senior Hannah Williams recalled a trip to Walmart a few years ago, during which a former middle school teacher told her, a newly minted Animas student, that she wasn’t attending a “real school.”
“The significance of the first graduating class means that this is a real school – it isn’t a school that’s going to go away in a couple of years,” she said.
“It’s really showed how far the students who started this school have come, and the people who have stuck through it to the whole end have really seen the growth of something totally beautiful,” said senior Cooper Stowers.
Still a tight fit
Perhaps the strongest indication of the barracks-forged camaraderie that Animas seniors enjoy is their ardent affection for their unusual school building.
Williams said students loved it, noting that they’d decorated it themselves, in some places with handprints, in others with history projects.
But walking through the school in its current incarnation – a former strip mall facing the highway – can feel like walking through a three-dimensional crossword puzzle where every word space is far too short for the necessary letters.
The hallways are maddeningly narrow, each of them ending in abrupt right angles, often onto another hallway.
During a recent calculus class, the problems the students were doing seemed less daunting than figuring out how any more people could fit in the room. Thanks to a former dentist tenant, one windowless classroom still has a protruding wall-light for illuminating X-rays.
When it comes to the digs, Michael Ackerman, head of Animas High School, is fond of quoting the faculty’s philosophy: “We could do this anywhere, even in a cave, so long as the cave has wireless.”
Ackerman recalled that when the school opened, it didn’t even have the strip mall because Durango Fire & Rescue Authority raised objections to the building. While parents such as Nancy Heleno and Peter Fazekas sprinted to get the strip mall up to code, with Fazekas doing so much work through the night that he often slept over, AHS carried on, disembodied.
“If there was a public facility you could rent out for a group in Durango, I knew about,” Ackerman said. “The rec center, the library, Durango Joe’s ... ”
Ackerman said “harrowing” is too gentle a word for that period.
“It was just one of those moments when you’re like: This is totally beyond my control,” he said.
Founding AHS parent Jesse Hutt remembered that for the first two years, the school couldn’t even afford a cleaning staff and relied on volunteer parents, with a “core group” of adults – including Holly Shure, Holly Jobson, Gisele Pansze, Phil Bryson and Greg Cathart – going above and beyond, much like fairy godmothers.
When, a few days into the first school year, AHS’s strip mall became certified, Ackerman said, “orientation very quickly went to, ‘Your group is doing shelves; you do the tables; you start painting.’ Talk about owning your school right from the get-go!”
If anything, the turmoil bonded students to each other and the school. When asked about the disjointedness of freshman year at a recent meeting of the school newspaper’s senior staff, senior Jenna Brooks quoted hip-hop musician Talib Kweli, saying, “life is a beautiful struggle.”
Stowers told The Durango Herald: “The chaos that you see is definitely something that inspires a lot of people and lets people know we’re doing things all the time.”
Perhaps the biggest sign of AHS’s maturation is that whereas Ackerman remembers how difficult it was to recruit the first senior class, now, thanks in large part to their spirited example, enrollment is growing so fast, the school is struggling to keep up.
It’s likely that future Animas High School classes will know nothing of the challenges – physical and existential – that the school’s first class of seniors faced and overcame.
If future AHS students are bound to study in sunny, well-appointed rooms, respected by their peers, living “happily ever after,” the class of 2013 will always be able to take Grimm pleasure in reminding their successors that “once upon a time ... there was a strip mall.”