How We Started a High School…

…and How It Succeeded Beyond Our Wildest Expectations

A conversation with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools

Q: Tell us how you got the idea for a different kind of high school, and why it succeeded.

Nitai: I realized that when kids come into the teenage years – the “Will Power Years” from 12 to 18, as they’re called in our Education for Life system, you simply cannot work with them unless you invite and welcome their enthusiasm for flexing their will power.

In the early 1980s, I had started a high school along the lines of the existing K-8 school, but I ultimately had to admit that it was the wrong approach.

After those early efforts, I reflected on our experiences and decided, “We’ve got to get the teenagers on board. We have to offer them something that will inspire them to make the independent decision to make their own commitment to be part of the school.”

A team of teachers asked ourselves, “Okay, what do teenagers like to do?” And we concluded, “They like to travel.”

So we decided to create an education for teenagers that would have a core component of adventure travel. But we wouldn’t just travel because we were trying to bribe the kids with a fun time. We would call it “Service Adventures.”

We initially started Service Adventures as an after-school activity. A major aspect of the program was that the kids had to want to be part of it. It couldn’t just be something that their parents or teachers were imposing on them.

They also had to help pay for the trip, because we knew that if we did it all for them, they would feel like they were just being dragged into yet another adult-organized thing, and they would either passively resist it or rebel. We only wanted kids who would be enthusiastic about doing something positive and expansive, that they would help create by investing their own energy.

For the first project, we chose to take the kids to Mexico to work at an orphanage. The kids loved the idea of going to Mexico, and they were willing to go along with the idea of doing some service as part of the bargain.

Each of them had to earn six or seven hundred dollars. Most didn’t know how to make money, so we started a thrift shop where they could work part-time and earn their share.

The Service Adventure idea was very successful. The trips were life-changing for the kids – and “life-changing” isn’t a phrase that often comes to mind when I think of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-year-olds. But some of the connections they made all over the world have turned into lifelong friendships that they’ve kept up over the years

We were delighted to have discovered the core of what a successful high school could be, so in 1997 we decided to go ahead and start the school. And through enormous amounts of grace and by the skin of our teeth, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

The Service Adventure trips became the highlight of the school year. We’ve traveled all over the world and had incredible experiences. A highlight was when we were in Dharamsala, India, and we were invited into the Dalai Lama’s living room, where we spent about an hour and a half talking with him. Needless to say, it was another life-changing experience for our kids.

We based our philosophy on the principles that had been so successful in our K-8 schools: primarily that helping kids be happy is an absolute requirement if you want them to be deeply engaged and enthusiastic about their academic studies.

And the thing is, it worked brilliantly. The kids who were willing to sign up to earn the money to help finance the trips, and to serve in various parts of the world, were highly motivated young people who wanted to do something positive, and not just sit back passively, or rebel.

Because the Service Adventures were working so well, we began to set up local service projects, and it ended up being enormously motivating and engaging for the teenagers. We would spend one morning a week doing projects in nearby towns, from helping out at Habitat for Humanity, to working in the local food outlet for needy people, to working with autistic kids and Alzheimer’s patients. We received a county-wide award for our service with elderly Alzheimer’s patients, which was very gratifying. And we’ve since received several other awards.

So we began doing lots of things that would engage the kids, instead of treating them as empty brains to be parked at a desk for six hours a day and filled with facts. We did challenging theater productions, and we spent a fair amount of time on athletics and other positive adventures.

And, of course, we had academics. But we didn’t create a rigid system like you’d see in a public school, where you’re in English class from 10 to 11 five days a week, and math class from 1 to 2. We had a flexible schedule where we had math three or four days a week instead of daily, for reasons that I’ll shortly explain. But, generally, it was because we found that the students could make terrific progress with less classroom time. And it’s why we also had English just three days a week, and science three days a week.

In most schools, you do these things five days a week. And because we weren’t doing it that way, I began to wonder, how much are they really learning? So I began testing them.

I knew that if I used the kind of standardized tests that are heavily data-specific and based on rote memorization, it wouldn’t be appropriate for our kids. There was a test that was used in the California public schools called the Star Test that had a ton of very specific questions that were based on memorization, like: “What is the significance of the Tennis Court Oath?”

They were things that no one in their right mind would know unless they’d been forced to memorize it. The Star tests are no longer used, but I realized that they were the kind of tests that wouldn’t be appropriate for our kids. So I looked around and found a standardized test of kids’ development in things like reading comprehension, mathematical problem-solving ability, and scientific thinking. The tests weren’t data-specific, but they tested how well you could use your mind in each of these areas. We began using the Iowa Tests of Educational Development. It was first adopted in the Midwest, and it’s now respected nationwide.

I tried it with the kids, and right away their average scores were in the top 10% nationwide.

The following year I tested them again, and they were in the top 10%, and they stayed in the top 10% for the 10 years that I was involved with the high school. Some years were a little higher or lower. One year we were in the top 1% nationally.

I thought it was a very promising result for a school that didn’t emphasize academics in the usual way, but where a great deal of learning was taking place.

Most of our kids wanted to go to college, so I also started keeping track of their SAT scores. Our kids’ average SAT scores over 10 years were 200 points higher on the 1600-point SAT scale than the national average. So this was a very significant and satisfying result.

Another measure of our success is how our graduates ended up doing when they graduated. And if we look at our alumni, we find that they’re all over the map, career-wise, because we’ve always encouraged them to find out who they are and follow that direction. Our alumni include airplane pilots, a couple of doctors, and a tango dancer (who happens to be my daughter).

We have two girls who take groups into the wilderness and give them life-changing experiences. And we have a couple of alumni who are teaching in our schools.

On our fortieth anniversary, we sent a survey to our graduates, as well as to people who’d been part of our school for a time, to see how they felt about their education and their life. The results are on our website, under Alumni Comments, and Academic Achievement.

One of the questions we asked was, “How do you rate the quality of your life as an adult?”

There were five choices: Excellent, Above Average, Average, Below Average, and Poor.

70% said they had an Excellent quality of life, 26% said their life was Above Average, and 4% stated Average. No one responded Below Average or Poor.

We asked them, “Would you want your children to have an education similar to what you received through EFL?” 96% said Yes, and 4% said No.

People often want to know if our graduates are able to function in the real world. I have to laugh when I think of graduates like David Kretzmann, who’s working as a very high-level financial advisor for the well-known national investment firm, The Motley Fool. David started giving investment advice online when he was thirteen. People were following his tips and having good success, and then someone finally asked him how old he was, and he told them fourteen. (laughs)

Another graduate, Simon Herman, works for the FDIC inspecting banks. Simon graduated with double summa cum laude honors in business and economics.

Q: You’ve talked about two different styles of education. First there’s the system where you teach math five days a week, and you hold to a rigid curriculum aimed at getting the students through a certain number of pages. And you’re saying that you teach math just three or four days a week, yet these kids are getting outstanding results. Can you explain how it’s possible to give kids a high quality of learning with fewer classes, and why it’s more effective than rushing them through a fixed curriculum together?

Nitai: The standard way of teaching math is extremely inefficient. The teacher stands in front of the class and gives a short lecture about the topic for the day, and then maybe there’s a follow-up on what you’ve taught in previous days. Then you come back the next day and do it all over again, to try to keep the whole class moving together.

The problem is that people don’t all learn at the same pace. Some people will hit a hard spot in one area, and others will hit a hard spot somewhere else. And if you have that lockstep expectation, a third of the kids will be bored in math class because they already know the stuff and it’s a waste of their time. A third of the kids will be confused because they don’t understand it. They’re looking out the window, feeling completely unengaged, because you’re in a lockstep rush to cover the material and you don’t have time to help them. And about a third of the kids will be with you.

So you’ve got 2/3 of your students who aren’t learning. And that’s why if you do the same thing five days a week, you’ll kill their chances of being successful in math. In education circles it’s called “drill and kill.” And it’s so boring, where you’re coming back, day after day, grinding it out the same way, over and over.

When you’re teaching teenagers, that’s simply not who they are. They’re not capable of being “sit at your desk all day” people. A small minority might be, but most teenagers are very active.

If you set up a curriculum that’s highly individual and that challenges each student at his or her own level, you can help each child grow at their own pace. And because they’re continually enjoying the satisfaction of overcoming challenges at their own level, they become deeply engaged.

If you’ve got superstars, they can blast through a year’s worth of material in three months. I had a kid in math class who was with us for a year. When he returned to Germany, he won the award for the most outstanding math student in all of Germany. He was so good that I gave him a super-fast approach, but it was too slow, so we had to settle on a different system. I ended up letting him turn in thirty problems a day, or ninety problems a week. I let him choose the problems he thought were worth doing, because he was that good, and that engaged.

It was a waste of time to be interrupting him to give him tests, because it would just take time away from his learning. I said, “I’ll test you every three weeks, as long as you keep getting A’s.” And he blasted through 2 1/2 years of regular math in 1 year.

Then there are the kids who just can’t get it. I’ll let them go slowly and repeat if needed. I’m thinking of a girl who needed to go through the same math so many times that the pages of her book were black around the edges. But she persevered, and she was eventually able to understand it and move on.

So there’s a huge range of abilities. With the girl who had so much trouble with math, I had to check every single problem she did, because she would miss so many. But with the German boy I never had to check his math. It was a waste of my time to look at his stuff, because I knew it would be perfect, so I just looked at his tests.

It’s vastly more efficient when you can individualize math and help everybody proceed at their own level. It’s why our students do so well on the Iowa tests and the SATs.

Q: In the LWS school in Palo Alto, they use the system you’re describing, where the kids will do a problem set, and the teacher and the math aids will go through every single problem with them and work on the principles until they get it. And the result is that no student really ever has a chance of not getting it.

Nitai: When I was teaching, I would organize our math classes around a ladder-like system, where you could go to the person above you and get an explanation – say, if the teacher was busy helping another student. But you also had to be willing to help the person below you when they needed help. If you have the top student trying to explain it to the bottom student, it doesn’t work as well, because the bottom student can’t understand the language they’re using. But if you’re pretty close, it tends to work beautifully.

Nitai Deranja founded the original Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, California in 1972. He is currently engaged in developing the teacher training program for Education for Life. Nitai holds a B.A. in Humanistic Psychology from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Education from UC Davis. He is the author of two books: For Goodness’ Sake: Supporting Children & Teens in Discovering Life’s Higher Values, and The Art of Joyful Education.