Trust Our Children

Youth Initiative High School is a great story and provides us with a look at what’s possible when students take education into their own hands. In their own words, from the YIHS Web site:


“The school was established in 1996 when a group of high school students decided to take responsibility for their education. Today, YIHS continues to emphasize the development of responsibility, initiative, and citizenship in all aspects of school life. Students are full voting members of the school community, serving alongside parents and faculty on the Board of Directors and on many other committees. YIHS students also take responsibility for raising a significant part of the school’s annual budget through a variety of independent fundraising activities. They are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the school’s facilities.

Student Involvement in Governing
o Students are responsible for raising about 15% of the annual budget
o The students participate as full partners in the governance of the school
o Students currently serving on the Board of Trustees: 4
o Students currently serving on the Personnel Committee: 3
o Students currently serving on the Administration Group: 3
o Open committees such as the Long Range Planning Committee and the Curriculum Committee are frequently graced with the presence of students
o Meetings of the whole student body are held weekly. The students discuss matters of concern from fundraising to the future of the school

Although the idea for a high school had been talked about in the community, it was a small group of students from local public and parochial schools that started the initiative to create a new school. What bound these students together was a pervasive dissatisfaction with the education they were experiencing in their existing high schools. They also shared a desire for a school that would be academically challenging, respectful of individual freedom, and rooted in a meaningful sense of community and shared responsibility.


What began as conversations among friends in school cafeterias, at parties, and over the phone, soon grew to include parents and other members of the adult community. By midsummer of 1996, the group interested in the project had grown significantly, attracting new students, parents, and potential teachers who were excited by the initiative. Community booster Nancy Rhodes bought the former Viroqua Middle School (renamed the Landmark Center) and the still unnamed Youth Initiative High School began in September of 1996.


With only 11 students in 1996, the Youth Initiative High School today has an enrollment of over 50 students in grades 9-12. YIHS is an independent high school and does not receive funds from federal, state or local government. Tuition at YIHS is arranged on a flexible basis in order to enable students from families of all income levels to participate in the school, with several students each year working to pay their own tuition. YIHS has been recognized as a Waldorf initiative by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and its graduate have been accepted to colleges and universities throughout the US and overseas.


Faculty, students and families are partners in learning; exhibiting mutual respect, shared joy in learning, cooperation and caring. We facilitate individual student talents and personal growth, their imagination and passion and their love of the arts. Our rich and challenging course of study integrates academics, the arts, physical and practical life skills. Our small school community encourages students to become all their individual destinies call them to be.”

Isn’t this the type of “ownership” of learning that we want our students to exhibit? These are not students “playing school” or wandering from class to class in various states of catatonia. These are students showing the fire and passion for learning we all seek.

There are vast untapped resevoirs of energy and idealism in our students. They are the “solar energy” of our schools. When we help them awaken and get out of their way; to become their partners, not their keepers; we will finally be on the path to the “golden age of education” that awaits us.

“The child is father to the man.
How can he be? The words are wild.”
-Gerard Manley Hopkins


6 thoughts on “Trust Our Children

  1. These students were dissatisfied with their education and took the initiative to form their own school? Of course they will succeed! They are self-motivated. They’ve already ingrained the habit of teaching themselves. And while some of them may have come from poor backgrounds, that hasn’t much to do with personality and drive.

    Hi, Pete. I left the comment at rightwingnation that you so objected to. Do you want a discussion? I’d love to have one! I think it’s wonderful that these students are so on fire that they will educate themselves. However, I don’t think you can make the conclusion that it is the fault of the education system that others aren’t equally inspired.

    I don’t think you can force feed a passion for learning. I believe it’s either there, or it isn’t. Perhaps in some it is dormant. Certainly you should attempt to stimulate interest. However, I don’t believe that handing over the reins to the student is the answer.

    In Education’s Hidden Messages you present as facts assertions which can not be proven. These were blanket statements about what our schools do to demotivate children. Some of the fixes you suggest are ones I am familiar with. My kids, their friends, and some of the students I have tutored have been guinea pigs for these methods. These are the people who get to deal with the immediate impact of well-intended tinkering (which in practice often goes awry).

    I did not check to see where you live, but in our community the public schools are “progressive”. Group participation is the rule, rather than the exception; competition is deemphasized; rote memorization and mastery of basic skills is considered less necessary than abstraction and intuition.

    I think this approach has been detrimental (and, fortunatly, I think the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction). I have heard more than one math teacher bemoan the fact that their current crop of students (the ones who experienced the “reform” you champion) lack the foundation they need to begin high school math. Our college-age daughter recently told me that one of her professors thanked her for being able to write coherently. He said it was a pleasant relief from most of the papers he grades. The “whole language” approach to reading and writing was in vogue during our daughter’s elementary and middle school years. Students were encouraged to express themselves, without getting hung up on the mechanics of writing. Her dad and I noticed that there was very little attention paid to grammar and other basics, so we filled in the gaps at home. I am glad we did!

    The school environment you describe in your article sounds like it came out of the 50’s or 60’s. The instructors I had were fairly rigid in their teaching. However, I did not come away with any of the “messages” you claim the educational system subliminally conveys. In fact, I am sorry my kids missed out on the quality education I have largely taken for granted.

    I discussed this with my husband, and he says lofty educators like you tend to pursue a utopian view of education. When your visions become school policies and practices, students, parents and the teachers in the trenches must focus on their practical application. In my opinion, the actual outcome often falls far short of the intended effect. Because we are at opposite ends of the system (and I suspect we have several ideological differences as well), I don’t know if any of what I have just said will click with you. However, if you’d like to confer further, please feel free to email me. Please pardon me if I don’t respond immediately – life is hectic!

  2. This is so inspiring!
    I feel that students are often kept seperate from the decision-making process. But participating in the process of democracy is a rich learning experience; one that could empower students.
    Currently I am in teacher’s college. This post made me think about ways that I might incorporate the democratic process in the classroom. I feel that if I just ask the students what they want to learn they will tell me. I am excited to ask. It seems like they would be more motivated if they had a hand in deciding what and how they were learning.

  3. Jon,
    check out my post on the “Wolves of Learning”. I think some kids have been so dis-empowered that given the chance to provide input; they may not have much to offer. I think for the institution of k-12 as a whole, it will take some time to acclimate kids to being more responsible for their own learning.

  4. Students interests have to be the basis of what transpires in the classroom. The task of the teacher is to discover those interests and connect them to the subject under consideration. If the teacher is love with learning and sharing the students will see it and join the teacher in the journey.

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