The Collaborative School: An Alternative Approach


The Collaborative School in Brentwood

I think that people see [the Collaborative School] as a very different place than what it is. I think people think that it’s a place where bad kids go, and obviously I’m not a bad kid.  I think that people know it exists, but I don’t think they realize who actually goes there. I think CHS kids think it’s just a bunch of hoodlums,”Carson Harris, 2012 graduate of CHS and former student at the Collaborative School said.

Many CHS students don’t even know that the Collaborative School exists, much less what it truly is or who goes there.

The Collaborative School is an alternative education program administered by the school districts of Clayton, Ladue and Brentwood.  It serves students from each school district who need credit recovery or who, for some reason or another, simply can’t learn as well in a traditional high school setting.

Students in the Collaborative School (often referred to as “Collab”) still technically remain within the Clayton School District. For that reason, they can play CHS sports, go to Prom and even don a cap and gown to graduate with their Clayton class.

However, the similarities end there. Collab can only serve up to 16 CHS students, and there are only four staff members. Students attend class for only three hours a day – from 7:10 to 10:10 or from 10:45 to 1:45.

Most importantly, Collab’s approach to education consists of highly individualized online courses. However, many administrators worry that this online education system leaves students without certain important skills that a traditional high school education can supply.

Unfortunately, this presents a difficult question for the CHS administrators. How can they provide an alternative method of teaching students who can’t adapt to the traditional learning environment?


The Basics:


The Collaborative School is hard to find.

Located on a road simply called 600-900 in a corner of Brentwood’s Hanley Industrial area, the entrance is down the street from such establishments as St. Louis Boiler Supply and Cut-Rate Brain Surgery.

The school is located on the top floor of a nondescript office building, which it shares with, among other groups, a packaging company and an automotive tool distributor.

The Collaborative School is one room: a grid of tables in the center with two desks for teachers Dawn Lester and Dave Davinroy at opposite corners. But the most important feature is the series of computers lining the walls.

Through the use of an educational program called Odysseyware, these computers teach and assess the knowledge of each student.  Every student has an individually assigned computer, which they sit at for three hours every school day.

Using Odysseyware, teachers at the Collaborative School can implement a system of education that is highly regimented, independent and quantifiable. Every class consists of five units, and every unit is further divided into lessons.

The information from each lesson is whittled down to a worksheet format. “It would be the same as if you printed it out and gave it to your students,” junior Delaney Martin said. “At the end of each reading there are questions I have to answer, and it gives you your score automatically.  If you score below an 80 percent, you have three tries to score above an eighty percent, and it shows you what you got wrong.”

With this system of perpetual feedback, the students can independently assess their own weaknesses and correct them.  Unlike regular school, Collab students can spend three days on one lesson, or test out of it in ten minutes by passing the pretest that precedes each section.

Whatever the students do, however, teachers Dave Davinroy and Dawn Lester will know. “If you take a quiz and you flunk it, we’ll know within minutes,” Davinroy said.

In addition to instantly registering every quiz or test score, Odysseyware also allows students and teachers to dynamically track just how much of each class they have accomplished.

“It shows you your progress” Martin said. “If I’m sixty percent done with a class, it shows you 60 percent, 61 percent, 62 percent.”

Most practically, the quantifiable nature of Odysseyware allows teachers to ensure that their students are making the most of their three-hour school day.

“We map out what they should be doing and how much time it’s going to take them” Davinroy said. “We pretty precisely and fairly accurately know how long it should take a person to take a class. For instance, if they’ve been in the school for 80 hours and they’ve finished one class that only took them 25 hours, and maybe they are 10 hours in on another class, we have to ask them, ‘What are you doing with the rest of the time?’”

However, the role of the teachers at Collab is unlike any system CHS students have experienced.

“There is no traditional teaching,” Davinroy said. “I just check work, help people along if they get tripped up on stuff. We put together course plans so everybody knows exactly what they’re supposed to be taking and how many credits they need to catch up and graduate.”

In addition, socializing among students is forbidden to allow for a higher degree of concentration and productivity. But for some students, this atmosphere can be tedious and exasperating.

“We’re not allowed to talk,” Martin said. “We have to sit in front of the computer for three hours. You can take a 10 minute break, but there’s no specific break time. You can’t listen to music, you can’t have your phones out … you can’t do anything.”

Evidently, the Collaborative School is dramatically different from any CHS student’s educational experience. It is a system primarily geared towards efficiency, independence and speed.

But it is exactly that incongruence – between CHS’s traditional high school experience and Collab’s alternative methods – that makes Clayton administrators’ decision to enroll a student at the Collaborative School so complicated.

The entrance to the Collaborative School classroom (Noah Engel)
The entrance to the Collaborative School classroom (Noah Engel)


The Process:


Unbeknownst to most CHS students is the administrative “safety net,” a network of CHS administrators and teachers who monitor and ensure the success of each student.  This net begins with the Student Support Team.

According to Vice Principal Ryan Luhning, the Student Support Team is a group of administrators and teachers that meets twice a month to individually examine students who are struggling academically.  It consists of one representative from each of the academic departments, the student’s grade level principal, the school counselors, two special school district teachers and Dr. Gutchewsky.

As Luhning puts it, “it’s a bunch of educational experts in their field discussing how we can help kids succeed.”

And it is this team that determines whether to give certain students the option to attend the Collaborative School.

However, the Collaborative School is something of a last resort. “The real neat thing about Clayton is that there are many layers to get to before we start talking about the collaborative schools,” Luhning said.

In other words, before offering the Collaborative School as an option, the Student Support team will try to give students a series of programs such as Learning Center, Clayton’s “A” program, tutoring with an upperclassmen and one-on-one work with a teacher.

Luhning stresses that every CHS teacher wants their students to succeed. However, “when it gets to the point where there’s not a strategy that they [teachers] haven’t tried or that we can’t think of, then we have to start thinking outside the box, which is non-traditional school,” he said.

Of course, it is always ultimately the student’s decision. If the student voluntarily decides to attend Collab for a semester, Luhning will meet with the student’s counselor to create a schedule and approve the transition.

This entire process – from the administration noticing that a student is struggling to that student’s transfer to Collab – can take only two or three days.  In other words: one day they’re here, the next day they are gone.

The process through which CHS students transfer to the Collaborative School is clear. However, the circumstances for sending students to the Collaborative School are highly individualized. For the most part, students are going for the purpose of “credit recovery”: trying to recoup the number of credits necessary by state law for each student to graduate.

This “credit recovery” path is most important for seniors who desperately need to earn extra credits in order to graduate on time.

“The summer after your senior year, nobody wants to be in summer school hoping that you pass because otherwise you can’t move on with your life,” Lester said.

However, Luhning takes care to explain the downsides of finishing your senior year at the Collaborative School.

“You always have to phrase it for the student as, ‘But, if you truly want to understand the material, the recommendation is that you come back for the next semester.’ But, being high school students, not many students want to come back as a fifth year senior,” he said.

At a certain point, students who go to Collab are sacrificing a masterful education for the opportunity to graduate with their class.

However, not all students attend for credit recovery. A student could also be sent for behavioral issues (although Luhning notes that in his two years as an administrator, not one student has been sent to Collab for behavioral issues). Additional factors could include discomfort with the high school social dynamic or health issues, such as debilitating migraines or dangerous allergies.

In short, the Collaborative School is a last-resort option for students who simply can’t find success in the traditional high school setting.  However, the question remains: are the benefits of this alternative system truly worth the costs?


The Teachers:


Collaborative School teacher Dan Davinroy is adamant to note that the Collaborative School is imperfect in the long term.

“As administration here, we certainly do not recommend that [online learning] is the way to go,” he said.

One problem with the Collab School is that it allows students to avoid the traditional school factors that they struggle with without necessarily teaching them how to overcome the academic problems that plague them in the first place.

As always, administrators at both CHS and Collab are highly sensitive to the many advantages of “traditional” high school education and the inherent disadvantages of the many online courses that have become increasingly popular in recent years.

“There is a major push in America not just with the Collaborative School but with school in general: a lot of people would prefer to take classes online,” Luhning said. “But I think that discussions and working in groups with projects, those are life skills that you need to have when you walk out of your high school.”

In other words, Clayton teachers are highly aware of the relative advantages of online education. For that reason, the main objective of the Collaborative School is to earn credits and then get the student back to CHS.

Although there are flaws, the Collaborative School remains the best method of alternative education.  It can even teach students some things that they might not acquire at CHS.

For instance, the Collaborative School director Chris Francis tries to give students a sense of perspective.

“A big part of my philosophy and my goal for students here is to be able to look beyond high school because once you’re out of high school for five years … high school is not such a huge, important thing in your life anymore. In the whole scheme of your life it’s a very short amount of time,” she said.

In addition, Davinroy believes that the individualized nature of the school can teach students skills that extend beyond the realm of academia.

“One of the factors … that determines success in life is not academic, it’s not how smart you are, it’s about your perseverance, about your grit. And so for the people who kind of steadily push through and attain credits, it shows a lot of grit and determination,” Davinroy said.

Ultimately, the Collaborative School can show students a type of success that they have never experienced before.

“It’s more meaningful for a student who has maybe flunked every math class until now and now they have received a B in math. That sense of accomplishment that they haven’t experienced before is, for a teacher, very rewarding.  It’s fulfilling … to help students that have not had success and to give them success,” Lester said.

And, as former Collab student Carson Harris suggests, this process can sometimes be life-changing.


The Students:


When Carson Harris returned from a year at boarding school, a traditional school year at CHS didn’t seem necessary or realistic.

“I had just been at boarding school and I was already “over” high school,” she said. “I went to Clayton for a few weeks, but I told myself, ‘I just want to be finished with school.’  I could do it on my own time and I didn’t really need to be in school all day, nor did I want to be.”

Because Harris had the special circumstances of spending a year at boarding school, she was allowed to choose Collab as a senior year option.

As it turns out, the teachers and the individualized atmosphere of Collab was a perfect fit.

“I learned to self motivate and to get it done for myself, versus other people pushing me to do it,” she said. “That, I think, was really helpful and has been really helpful for me in college. I think that I learned to help myself.”

Delaney Martin also believes that the online schooling was very compatible with her personality.


“I like it better than regular school because I think I’m more of an independent person, and you can’t fall behind because you’re doing everything on your own. If you don’t pay attention in [traditional class] you can miss something, but you can’t miss anything this way,” she said.

In addition, Martin’s experience shows just how independent the work truly is: she says that she solicited help from her teachers only twice in the semester she was there.

Martin and Harris both agree that the Collab staff are very helpful, but that they can seem inaccessible in the Collab learning environment.  For that reason, Martin tended to work through problems without asking for help.

But perhaps the most significant downside for Martin was how much she missed the things that many CHS students take for granted.

“I did miss going [to school] for seven hours. Three hours is nice but you have all this extra time and I have no idea what to do with myself,” she said. “I definitely miss having different people in different classes and changing my environment. Staying in one room every day at the exact same computer is tiring and boring.”

However, Harris had no qualms about missing out on her senior year.

“I guess I kind of missed out on that high school experience in general, but what are you gonna do? It wasn’t a big deal for me,” she said.

In the end, Harris left high school with a greater sense of accomplishment.

“It was a really magical moment when me and three other kids from Collab saw each other at graduation,” she said. “It was awesome to be able to say, ‘We made it!  Here we are!’”


The Lesson:


The Clayton School District is not alone in grappling with alternative education.  The difficulty of providing each student with an equal education is something that schools nationwide must struggle with.

It is perhaps the most pressing issue in American education today.

But what makes Clayton unique is that, while the Collaborative School may  leave certain gaps in a student’s education, it seems to be working.

Since graduating from CHS, Harris has been studying at Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado. She says that her grades and personal motivation have improved dramatically since her early high school experience – all thanks to the structure and staff of the Collaborative School.

The Collaborative School is shrouded in misconceptions. It’s not where Clayton sends their struggling students to maintain a façade of perfection.

If anything, the Collaborative School represents everything that makes Clayton excellent. It represents Clayton’s commitment to students, the District’s emphasis on education and, most importantly, education’s power to change lives.