Authenticity is a word Principal Don Trujillo uses to describe student engagement in their learning at R-5 High School in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in their interactions with the community. When students pursued a cross-content project on water scarcity, R-5 welcomed local farmers into the school, as well as the bureau of land management. And when it came time to demonstrate what they knew, students not only showed their academic knowledge but also gave back to their community, installing grey water units into neighborhood homes – including those of some of their teachers – at a fraction of the cost.
“As we continue to engage our community in our learning, our district has done some very important work which includes family and community nights, webinars, community facilitation to collaborate and get a consensus of what a successful graduate looks like in the 21st century,” said Trujillo. “This effort has paved the way for our school to embrace the skills our learners need to move forward into the world.”
R-5 is Mesa County Valley District 51’s alternative high school, but Trujillo refers to it as an “options” high school.
“It’s called alternative, but I think it should be the way things are,” said Trujillo, who has been the principal of R-5 for four years, during which the school has become a beacon for personalized, competency-based practices and project-based learning. R-5 students are unique, and the structures and supports Trujillo and his staff have put into place honor their uniqueness.
“If you knew anything about our school, our students did not fit into the traditional time bound, sit and get model,” said Trujillo, citing the school’s learner-driven practices, their internship programs and the service orientation that’s required of all students. Learning doesn’t look the same as it might in a traditional environment. Students pursue competencies, rather than grades, and the structure of the school honors the different factors that may be impacting their ability to learn: whether they have jobs, are taking care of siblings, family members or their own children, or whether they’ve previously dropped out of school.
We’re seen here for who we are, not what we’ve done. My teachers have made me feel that I was bettering myself as a person, and that I was already a good person who could go out into the world and do amazing things.”
Autumn Green, a junior who will be graduating early next year, attests that R-5 has been the best schooling experience of her life.
“When I came to R-5, I was a troubled child. I wasn’t on track,” said Green. “But we’re seen here for who we are, not what we’ve done. My teachers have made me feel that I was bettering myself as a person, and that I was already a good person who could go out into the world and do amazing things.”
And Green is well on her way – during an entrepreneurial class this past winter, she was able to conduct a market analysis and design and present a business plan to the local Chamber of Commerce, winning enough money to buy the supplies she needs to launch her business this summer when she turns 18 and can apply for the various licenses she needs as a vendor.
R-5 teachers and learners prioritize skills-building and social intelligence.
Building community, and the skills necessary to be a productive member of a community, are key for R-5 learners.
“Students are required to either have a job, go to a community college or university, volunteer or participate in our work experience class in the afternoons at our facility,” said Trujillo. “We take pride in skill-building. We focus on complex problem solving, creativity and coordinating with others.”
Trujillo cites one of R-5’s learners who has been on his own since 15 and came into the school resistant to education. He began in the composting program at R-5, where students do all of the soil testing and work themselves, and now at 17 he has an internship with the local landfill and recently made a $7,000 deposit on a home. Another student, caring for his sister and her child, is interning with a local electrical company who will be paying for his journeyman’s license.
“Local business leaders are telling me that they appreciate the way our students work with others, their social intelligence,” said Trujillo. “They come back and ask for more learners to offer internships to.”
Student agency and ownership begins in the classroom.
The transition from a traditional environment to personalized learning didn’t happen overnight – and it wasn’t without tough conversations. Trujillo, especially sensitive to the backgrounds and experiences of his students, felt the environment couldn’t truly be learner-driven until it was a place that belonged to them.
“I don’t have an office,” said Trujillo. “My teachers don’t have classrooms. 72 of my students are considered homeless, and given the culture of poverty, I didn’t want them walking into a classroom feeling like they were visiting somewhere, seeing a teacher’s photographs, a teacher’s furniture. They should own it. If the students aren’t creating it, then we don’t want it on the wall.”
Trujillo’s staff are committed to lifting all learners and focused on giving back. In addition to the school’s composting program, which takes produce from the church and local markets, students and teachers work together to harvest from R-5’s garden and aquaponics facility, which was also built by students. R-5 has partnered with the district’s director of nutrition to be sure that everything they harvest ends up in school cafeterias.
“Our motto is, ‘Together, we grow one learner and one seed at a time.’ They’re focused not only on the next generation science standards in the garden or the aquaponics facility, but actually giving back to the community,” Trujillo said. “They have a passion for it.”
A clear path for future success.
Green insists that R-5 is “like a family.”
“It’s not just showing up to do this paper, take this test,” said Green, who appreciates opportunities to pursue multiple competencies in one project, and being supported and recognized for her skills and for who she is “from the principals all the way down to the teachers.”
Project-based learning and personalized learning opportunities like Green’s entrepreneurial class encourage student creativity and collaboration. Trujillo was recently approached by two of his students and one of their teachers who want to build a project room on the school grounds. The students work in concrete and stucco construction when they’re not in school, and have planned out how the building will be designed and insulated to ensure it will be a comfortable 70 degrees year-round, without running power to it.
“I see them applying their knowledge, creating things out of their knowledge, engaging their community in projects. That’s problem solving, collaboration and flexible thinking,” said Trujillo.
Student voice and ownership drive their learning, and Trujillo looks at growth metrics to show just how far each of his students have come. During his first year, R-5 graduated 52 students. This past May, that number was 126 students. Paired with the positive feedback they’ve heard from the community and parents who see their children graduate with clear paths for future success in the workforce, Trujillo is excited to see what his students come up with next.
“We’ve asked them to be brilliant,” said Trujillo. “They listened and they’re brilliant.”