Southwest Open School is an extraordinary charter school operating out of Cortez, Colorado. Targeting at-risk high-school age youth, Southwest Open School stands out because of its unique approach and impressive results. Oftentimes, students come to Southwest Open School as a last-resort, having left or been expelled from their previous institutions due to behavior problems, lack of engagement, or external issues above and beyond the scope of a typical high school student. Southwest Open School transforms lives and re-writes futures through a nurturing program focused on character development, respect, and experiential education. Reportedly, 90.3% of graduates from Southwest Open School go on to secure a job or continue on to higher education within three years of graduating. These numbers are significant given that only 24% of Cortez residents over 25 years old hold a bachelor’s degree, 8% hold a graduate or professional degree, while 12% of the population are unemployed. Fellows in the Southwest Region had the privilege of conducting a Community Impact Visit at the Southwest Open School in August to learn more about the school and evaluate a regional grant from the Southwest Regional Council to support the SWOSology program.
What we learned…
Every newcomer to Southwest Open School, teachers and students alike, must take and successfully pass the school’s signature class, “SWOSology” before assuming their roles. The curriculum is skills-based and designed to help students develop the life skills and awareness they need to ‘survive and succeed’ via training in six areas: Effective Groups, Anger Management, Transactional Analysis, Assertiveness Training, Problem Solving, and Conflict Resolution. After touring the school and interacting with the students, it was incredible to see the level of transformation and growth between the classes. Students entering SWOSology are withdrawn and nervous, while students in the upper school, once nervous SWOSology students, are articulate, enthusiastic, and respectful.
SWOSology is not the only unique class offered at Southwest Open School. All classes are interdisciplinary, experiential, and expeditionary. Southwest Open School challenges students to make connections between seemingly disparate fields, understand the relevance of their coursework through hands-on projects, and immerse themselves during field-trips. No class material is too abstract for this model. For example, students learn about great mathematicians and architects in history simultaneously with mathematical concepts in trigonometry class. As a capstone to the class, students apply their knowledge in a final project where they must construct a functional bridge solely using manila envelopes and then journey to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge in person!
Though Community Impact Visits are a routine part of life as a Fellow, there are some that touch you in a different way. Every detail of the Southwest Open School had a profound impact on me. Watching the interactions between students and teachers who call each other by first name was heartwarming. Similarly inspiring was seeing the new student brake his intent gaze at his shoes to quietly say, “yeah…these people are my friends now,” in answering whether Southwest Open School had impacted him. Southwest Open School is more than a school; it is a community wholly devoted to the mission of empowering youth to become lifelong learners.