Lives of Passion, School of Hope

How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning


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Lives of Passion, School of Hope tells how a progressive public school in Colorado has transformed the lives of its alumni. It is about what happens to children and adults when they are encouraged to follow their bliss. It is also about personal empowerment and the development of confidence, curiosity, and compassion in our public schools.

This book offers stories and reflections from the alumni of a school where the students hired the teachers, ran their own government, evaluated their own progress, and designed their own curriculum. It’s the story of an extended family of students, staff, and parents who have formed their own community of learners over the course of thirty-eight years.

We all have an important stake in our public schools. In these days of teaching for testing, standardization, school violence, and alienation, readers will want to know about a public school that has not only weathered the political and social storms of nearly four decades, but has done so with integrity and success. The alumni and the author offer their perspectives on how a school without grades, credits, or a set curriculum has affected them as adults. Some say it saved their lives!

Lives of Passion, School of Hope answers questions frequently asked about a school so different from the mainstream: did students succeed in college, what do they do for a living, are they living according to the ideals of the school, are they happy and productive as adults in a democratic society? The answers to these questions are in turn surprising, riveting, and insightful.

Lives of Passion, School of Hope points toward a future that may depend on the injection of heart, hope, and passion into our public schools. It is the story of personal growth in public education, and discusses how we can be inspired to create a better world.

Here’s a video about Jefferson County Open School, the subject of the book:


Praise for Lives of Passion, School of Hope


This book reaffirms one’s faith in the power of public education and illustrates how the creative spirit of educators and the intelligence, passion, and engagement of students can lead to learning on the highest level.

—Herbert Kohl, author of 36 Children

For everyone suffocating in the shroud of institutional schooling this wonderful book is a breath of fresh air. It will inspire you with courage. Read it for all our sakes.

—John Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down

Lives of Passion, School of Hope is a refreshing antidote to the arid and pinched view of education and school reform suffocating and strangling any clear thinking in the public square today. Rick Posner offers us an expansive vision of human possibilities, and reminds us that the deepest purposes of schooling in (and for) a vibrant democracy must always point toward the development of initiative, imagination, passion and compassion, creativity and courage. In this essential and urgent book Posner illuminates the vital work of a single school, and maps a way out of the mess we’re in.

—William Ayers, author of To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher

The Open School demonstrates that a genuine education—one that values the lives of young people above arbitrary standards—is possible in public schools. Rick Posner has gathered the inspiring stories of dozens of alumni whose meaningful and successful adult lives testify to the transformational potential of authentic learning. This wonderful book shows us what all schools could and should be doing.

—Ron Miller, Ph.D., Editor, Education Revolution magazine

These are the stories that need to reach the public’s ear, and help us remember where it is we are trying to go—and why! Such alternative schools haven’t disappeared, but their stories too often have. They must become the pilots for the future—schools to argue about and learn from. A refreshingly clear account of what schools can mean to young people’s real life futures.

—Deborah Meier, author of The Power of Their Ideas

Lives of Passion, School of Hope proves that a public alternative school can provide self-directed, experiential learning for its students instead of teaching to the test. It also shows there are many different paths to becoming a successful adult other than simply being an A student in a conventional school.

—Patrick Farenga, co-author of Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling

The importance and impact of progressive education has been advanced greatly with the publication of this book. Rick Posner’s institutional history-group biography shows that a school based upon curiosity and thoughtfulness leads to wonderful results. As the students and faculty of Jefferson County Open School know and as readers will learn, progressive education is alive and well.

—Craig Kridel, E. S. Gambrell Professor of Education, University of South Carolina, and author of Teachers and Mentors

This is a lovely piece of work and a great story. Rick has a sweet way of threading a ton of student voices together into a readable and compelling narrative. The hope and love in this book are impossible to miss.

—Matt Hern, author of Deschooling Our Lives

What could be more critical in today’s world educationally than ‘igniting a lifelong love of learning’? In this inspiring volume, Rick Posner—and, more importantly, the Open School and its graduates—light the way to this goal.

—Dr. Tom Griggs, Associate Professor, School of Teacher Education, University of Northern Colorado

What an amazing and important achievement this marvelous book by Rick Posner is, documenting the successes and solid lives of graduates from Jefferson County Open School, a lighthouse in the dark of current public education. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if groups of teachers all over the continent were so inspired by the testimony of these students that they set up their own schools to trust, challenge and inspire?

—Maurice Gibbons, Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University, and author of Walkabout: Searching for the Right Passage from Childhood and School

In 1981, a school evaluator labeled the Jefferson County Open School ‘a school of the future.’ The lamentable reality is that a third of a century later, a span representing more than a generation of American youth, the pace of educational change remains so slow or worse, wrong-headed, that the Open School is still of the future. Hopefully, Rick Posner’s inspiring book about this remarkable school will help speed things up a bit.

—Tom Gregory, Professor Emeritus, Indiana University and author of Making High School Work: Lessons from the Open School

Jefferson County Open School has pioneered democratic and alternative education in the public school system for almost 40 years. A remarkable new book has been released, focusing on the graduates from the school. This book, which is a beautiful read, is a must have for anyone interested in alternative education—especially those wondering how these ideas can and do work in the right public setting. I give this book my highest recommendation.

—Isaac Graves, Outreach Coordinator for Alternative Education Research Organization

I’ve never read about a more child-friendly school in my life! This book needs to be read by all those educators who know in their hearts that there must be a better way as well as by every parent considering educational alternatives for their youngsters. Even though Rick’s writing is so reader-friendly as he sets out to document How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning, I find that I must reread it to fully appreciate its beauty!

—Richard Lakin, author of Teaching as an Act of Love




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I’ve waited for years for this marvelous book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope: How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning. It tells a story of a K-12 progressive school (Jefferson County Open School, Colorado) that combined the best features from research and practice such as: strong advisory system, personal learning plan, learner centered environment, world as classroom, service learning, travel study and competency based graduation. I began such a school in 1971 but it did not have sustained progressive leadership after my first seven years as principal. Nor has it documented its successes, both immediate and long term in the graduates’ lives. This book does all that with statistics and a rich assortment of anecdotes. If ever we needed a blueprint about schooling, one could hardly do better than this book. Every student is expected to become an effective communicator, a complex thinker, a responsible citizen, an ethical person, and a quality worker. How’s that for a set of outcomes? This is one of the most important books I have read and I highly recommend it. The author, Rick Posner worked in the school and has produced a most readable and essential book for educators and the public.

International Association for Learning Alternatives

When the kids run the school, unbelievable things can occur. Lives of Passion, School of Hope: How One Public School Ignites a Life Long Love of Learning tells the story of a truly unique school where the students run the show. In spite of all pessimistic outlooks, the school under this method has had untold success and Rick Posner does well in telling readers how this unique method works. Lives of Passion, School of Hope is a top pick for those considering alternative educational methods.

Midwest Book Review

Lives of Passion, School of Hope: How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning, by Rick Posner, profiles one of the most exciting and successful schools I know at supporting the intrinsic motivation that Pink describes: Jefferson County Open School (JCOS), a public school in Lakewood, Colorado, which I’ve had the great opportunity to visit.

Imagine going to this kind of school: in addition to typical classes, you can choose to enroll in a class called “Film Noir” or “Calculus for Poets,” you can arrange self-directed learning periods to pursue an independent project, you can attend a trip class that travels for 2-4 weeks, or you can schedule internships or attend college classes. You determine all of this yourself, with support from an adult advisor and other students. You are part of a school governance system that gives you and teachers equal voice on school-wide issues. And your key graduation requirement is to fulfill the “Rites of Passage,” carrying out six self-designed projects in the areas of Logical Inquiry, Global Awareness, and Career Exploration, among others.

That’s JCOS! (Though the school is K-12, that description was specific to the high school program). Posner, a long-time teacher and administrator at the school, offers us a glimpse into JCOS through his own reflections and those of the more than 400 alumni he surveyed. We see how the unique autonomy-supportive environment of JCOS nurtures a love for learning, helps students succeed at college and work, and develops in students a desire to create a better world.

Self-directed activityor autonomy, voice, active engagementis one of the most essential aspects of a democracy, and a basic human need. These two books show us the great value in aligning our businesses and schools with this basic need, and in working from our innate intrinsic motivation to be self-directed, to learn, and to improve ourselves and our society.

—Dan Pink,  Democratic Education

Are you a student frustrated with your conventional education? Are you a teacher looking for inspiration? Are you a parent at your wits end with a child skipping school?

Pick up a copy of Rick Posner’s new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, where he profiles the highly successful and alternative Jefferson County Open School in Colorado. Operating for 39 years, Posner outlines the Open School program of experiential learning including positive and negative feedback from alumni. Instilling a love of learning in its students and staff the Open School education is based on three domains – social, personal and intellectual, with five goals focusing on finding joy and meaning in life.

Feeling that there is a disconnect between our children’s education and the real world waiting for them post high school and college, Posner urges us to see the merit of an education full of “real-life” experiences. From adventures in the Boundary Waters to service trips to areas of natural disasters, the Open School curriculum is based on student input and self- direction. Testimonials from students who were inspired by bus drivers who taught photography and advisors who took the time to really get to know them, Posner will have you reconsidering a traditional education.

The critics question a school without grades or credits, one where students graduate with a 50-page narrative transcript, but Posner easily assuages those concerns. Open School graduates attend prestigious universities like Yale and Harvard as well as become teachers, scientists and doctors. Making a difference in the world is an integral part of the Open School education and most graduates continue to pay it forward throughout their lives. As both an Open School teacher and parent, Posner is fully committed to the school and sharing its success, including a list of the essential components to re-structure a conventional school via the Open School model. If you’re considering a change, Posner will set you on a new track of lifelong learning.

—Kate Greenwood, TCM Reviews

Education is at best a thorny subject. I grew up going though the English Grammar School system in the 1960’s, every subject had been de-humanized to the level where everything was boring and seemed to have little connection to the real world. Math was reduced to problems involving what would happen if you turned the faucets on and forgot to put the drain plug in the bath tub. Of course sensible answers like “Sir, I would either put the plug in, or if I could not find it, I would turn the faucets off” immediately received a swift and usually painful administering of “Education.”

At no point could I relate to what was being jammed into my mind. In a few short years I lost my love of reading, I quite honestly hated ripping a book apart for the “deeper meaning.” Was it not possible that the author was merely writing a story? All in all, I class my school experience as a hugely disappointing and frustrating period of my life.

When I became a father, I found that although the techniques has changed, the laying scheme had not. We moved to San Diego, and the school was a scant two blocks from our house. My wife and I made an appointment to enroll our two kids. Can they come home for lunch? Was the question. The principal laughed, oh no, if we allowed that, half the kids would not come back!

The School system is maybe the most vital building block of our society, it is the place where our future leaders must go, it is the place that even the folks flipping burgers must go.

Is there an alternative?

Rick Posner suggests that there is. Lives Of Passion, School of Hope takes us into the world of alternative schools, a movement that he became involved in in the 1970’s, and has remained in. Rick Posner uses the term Open School, it is a fitting term. Rather than having a strict curriculum, teachers are open to ideas. This method in teaching was, and indeed is viewed with criticality from some. Yet, for a proportion of kids it has proved to be highly effective.

One major gripe that I have heard, and indeed have also said over the years is how unsuited recent school and college graduates are for today’s work force. The employer must invest time and money in ‘beating’ the school mentality out of these people. The Open School system is much more vocational in its approach, and its syllabus much more flexible. For example, if a student expresses interest in a specific industry then efforts are made to obtain internships.

The goal is to have a young person who can be productive on day one of employment.

The No Child Left Behind initiative has in many ways become a victim of the law of unintended consequences. While well meaning in intent, the result has created an even worse overall system. As Rick Posner points out: “As school systems scramble to adapt to the strictures of federally and state mandated student achievement tests, the real purpose of education becomes lost, subordinated to the One Big Test Score and academic achievement.”

Any subject outside of the core slips by the wayside, Arts, Social Studies, Physical Education, and maybe most significant of all Social Skills. Making them even less suited to life in the real world!

Rick Posner also points out that although the teaching methods may be unorthodox, they are highly effective, in a poll of ex-students over 90% had attended college, and 85% had obtained a degree. This is far higher than the national average.

Rick Posner makes a convincing argument for this type of alternative learning tool. In fact I can sum up this entire book with a quote that used from William Butler Yeats: “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire!”

I found Lives Of Passion, School of Hope to be a very thought provoking book. One that deserves to be read, and the ideas to be considered. The approach may not be suited to all kids, but it certainly works for a percentage.

I began this review with a brief description of my High School days, I will conclude on that note. Career Counseling was nil, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do work wise, and had no practical skills. Sure, I knew a vast array of “stuff” including Latin, but was not much call for schoolboy Latin in the work force. The ability to translate “The Romans have long spears” into “Romanus longus fluvus” (or something similar) did not seem a particularly useful talent.

My own personal epiphany came as a result of my parents running a village pub, more importantly the Bed and Breakfast aspect. A guest that had been staying with us accidentally (on purpose) left a copy of an IBM Fortran Programming manual. I read it cover to cover and I was hooked! In 1972 there were no college courses in computers, few people even knew what one looked like, never mind what they did! Why hadn’t my school told me about this wonderful career direction?

That one single conversation with a visiting scientist and him leaving a book resulted in a 35 year career in the computer world. I like to refer to this as “practical” education not ‘”theoretical” education.

I strongly urge everyone to read Lives Of Passion, School of Hope.

Blogger News Network


Lessons in success: Evergreen resident writes story of Jeffco Open School

In his new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, educator Rick Posner makes the case that an alternative public school without grades, grade-point averages, grade levels or academic credits can produce involved, skilled and self-motivated adults for the 21st century.

Posner is deeply entwined with the philosophy and the history of the Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood. The school has been in existence in various forms since 1970 and today is a public school open to all Jeffco students.

Now retired, Posner, 61, taught at the school for 19 years, and his only child graduated from the school in 2002.

“The school really changed me and saved me as a teacher and a human being,” Posner said.

He started teaching at the Mountain Open School in 1983 when it was in Evergreen on Highway 73. The high school existed in Evergreen from 1975 through 1989.

In writing the book, Posner contacted as many of the 865 Open School graduates as possible and solicited their responses to questionnaires and personal interviews. He surveyed or interviewed 431, or about 43 percent, of the total graduates from 1976 through 2002.

Lives of Passion, School of Hope explores “the effects on students of an educational program that is devoid of artificial rules, limitations and grades and that encourages young people to follow their passions, not just prepare for standardized tests,” Posner writes in the introduction.

“The long life of the school I think is due to a great track record with adults, people who really give testament the school really helped them and made them well-rounded, productive and happy as adults,” Posner said in a telephone interview. “We need skills like critical thinking, creativity, being able to adapt, being innovative, taking the initiative and being able to get along with different types of people.”

Passages to self-directed learning

The key to understanding the Open School is its reliance on experiential and self-directed learning. A student picks a topic like fishing, wildlife, geography or cooking and invents a course of study around it.

Some years there are as many as 30 trips organized by students, and the students spend a lot of class time planning the trips, many of which they pay for themselves. Posner once took a group of kids on a trip to the Mississippi Delta, where they studied the history of the Civil War, Southern barbecue and African-American music, among other things.

There are standard classes in math, science, social studies and English on the schedule, as well as courses like Film Noir, I Hate Reading, or Calculus for Poets.

At the high school level, students work through the Walkabout Program, which consists of six “Passages” such as practical skills, career exploration, creativity, logical inquiry, global awareness and adventure.

Every student is expected to develop a close, supportive relationship with his or her adviser, who acts as an advocate and guide.

The downside is that students applying to college have no grades and no credits. Instead, they submit a transcript or 50-page narrative description of their high school experience (classes, trips, Passages and significant learning experiences). Some kids go back to community or junior colleges just to get the grades and credits.

Throughout the book are many “success stories,” such as that of Russell Bowman, class of 1978. Bowman started out with an interest in photography, became certified as an emergency medical technician, and worked in a lab at a major hospital, all while in high school. He graduated from medical school and got another degree in health administration. He is now the medical director for a major clinic in Alaska.

The Open School was founded as the Open Living elementary school in Edgewater in 1970. A branch of the elementary school moved to Evergreen temporarily, where it was the near the building where the library now stands from 1973 to 1977.

The high school opened initially in Evergreen in 1975 as the Mountain Open High School under principal Arne Langberg and continued in Evergreen through 1989.

In 1989 the high school and elementary school merged in the old Lakewood Junior High School building at West 10th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, where it is today.

Posner has lived in Evergreen since 1971 and teaches part-time at Regis University.

—Vicky Gits, Canyon Courier

Many people in the United States are highly concerned about improving the quality of education. They believe schools are underfunded and students are underperforming, and some have shown their dismay by joining the voucher and charter school movements. What do you think is the state of education in America … its strengths and weaknesses?

Rick Posner: I think the strengths have to do with the noble intentions of at least trying to educate everyone who walks in the door. Other countries begin tracking kids almost immediately into vocational and/or trade skills settings which might explain their higher test scores. Here everyone takes the test, not just a select few. I feel that the vision of a free, democratic education is a wonderful promise. Unfortunately, it is a false promise because we, too, “track” kids in even crueler ways; we force them to drop out of the system entirely before they even have a chance of success. In place of tracking, we use high-stakes tests and standardized curricula to weed them out.

Charter schools give us some hope in the public as alternatives to the one-size-fits-all curriculum. I see the charter movement as the public schools’ last stand against the voucher system. How many people really want to see public money go to private schools? Unfortunately, they will have no choice if the public sector does not offer more options. We need to recommit to our original promise to try to reach out to all of our children in our public schools.

What are the goals of the educational system, and are they what you think they should be?

RP: Again, I think it’s that democratic promise of a free, appropriate education for everyone. We say that we try to reach all children, but in reality, we leave too many kids behind.

I believe we should take that promise more seriously by restoring the ancient purposes of a real education. We need to address the personal, social and intellectual needs of our children. We need to practice what the Latin root of “to educate”(educare) implies: to draw out from, not to fill up. This means that educators need to draw upon the natural gifts and talents of their students, not fill them up with facts and figures for them to regurgitate.

We can’t let our kids become anonymous in our schools. We have to get to know them and help them believe in themselves so they can meet the demands of the 21st century. In short, we need to personalize the system instead of standardizing it and expand the curriculum, as opposed to narrowing it.

How has the major school reform movement … No Child Left Behind … impacted either positively or negatively the educational system? Should it be continued or scrapped? Are there any improvements that could be made?

RP: NCLB has made our schools into testing factories. It has drawn us away from the idea that all children learn differently and have unique potential. It has also led us to restrict the curriculum to only those subjects that are addressed by the One Big Test. As a result, we are leaving more and more kids behind.

We should not only scrap it, but recreate it as a promise to meet all of our children’s needs by providing schools that are safe, nurturing places. For this to happen, you have to include time in the school day for personal and social growth. Also, teachers need to be set free of standards and testing to be able to get to know their students on deeper, more relevant levels.

With nearly 40 years of experience in public school systems, you have said that “we are graduating kids from high school who get straight A’s and high test scores but don’t know how to tie their own shoes.” … and that these students need 21st century skills. What do you mean by this, and how should schools change to begin teaching these skills?

RP: Futurists and educators dating back to Dewey have been warning us for years that we are graduating students who don’t have the personal, social and intellectual skills that are necessary for the post industrial world. Contemporary columnists from David Brooks to Thomas Friedman have now taken up the call. What we have now are graduates with high test scores and good grades who don’t know to cultivate meaningful relationships or work in groups or use their creative and innovative skills in their work. Even more troubling, many of these people don’t really know how to learn on their own. We need to refocus our priorities as educators.

First, we need to take John Dewey’s comments seriously. Schools should be places that are laboratories for democracy. This means that we need to give students some real control over their own education by allowing them to make important decisions and participate directly in school governance.

We also need to give kids the freedom to develop these 21st century skills:

Comunication skills
Working in teams with different kinds of people
Critical thinking (sifting and filtering through a barrage of information)
Innovation (having confidence in one’s own creativity)
Taking the initiative
Making important decisions on their own
Intrinsic motivation
As educators, we need to take the time to get to know our students so that we can help them make sense of their lives and follow their passions. How can we do this if we’re always concerned about getting ready for the test that our schools’ very survival depends on?

Educationally, how does the United States compare to other countries? What methods and conceptual concerns from other countries could the U.S. incorporate into its educational models?

RP: Again, since World War II, there has been this thing about competing with other countries using test scores, especially in math and science, for the score sheet. Remember all the concern about Japanese students scoring so much higher than American students in the ’80s? When it was revealed that Japan had the highest teen suicide rate in the modern world and, especially, when their economy went south in the ’90s, we heard less and less about this. I think we should be more concerned about the lag in 21st century skills when we hear that countries like China, India and even Japan are talking about personalizing their overly rigid school systems by giving their students more freedom to create, innovate and improvise.

If we’re so concerned with global competition, we should take heed of the 2007 UNICEF Report on Children which rated the U.S. 27th out of 31 First World countries in graduating students who were ready for the workplace. This report was not about grades or test scores; it was about students who were not self-directed or intrinsically motivated enough for their employers.

How might social media and ever-changing technology improve classrooms and the learning environment for teachers and students? How might they be impeding the educational process?

RP: I think the information age has created this barrage of information that travels at light speed and tends to overwhelm those who are not ready to field it. We need to help students sort, filter and process information without going crazy or simply submitting to the most powerful messages. We need students who know to wade through the “b.s” and understand that they are responsible for how they use technology and media to reach their potential as human beings.

Will education in the U.S. get better or worse?

RP: It may get worse before we see the light. I think that NCLB will eventually hit the wall. By 2014, all schools are expected be 100 percent proficient on the state tests. Does anyone think that will happen? This means that even upper-middle class white parents will be sending their kids to failing schools. I think we all know what that means when it comes to political clout.

Moreover, there is a major backlash going on now. Even conservative states like Utah are leading the charge against NCLB as “government interference” in their local school systems. There are bound to be some strange bedfellows in this fight but, here’s hoping the result is another look at how impersonal and homogenous our schools have become. I’m thinking this will lead to a desire for a more personalized curriculum and an increased attention to the real needs of our children. In turn, I hope that this leads to more choices in the public sector. We desperately need alternatives because the mainstream is simply not for everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about any aspect of this topic?

RP: I would love to add that there are some real life examples of public schools that view education as being synonymous with personal growth. You can read about the alumni of one such school in my new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope.

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about the author

Fredric Posner Ph.D.

Dr. Fredric Posner began working for the public schools as a bus driver and custodian. He went on to become a special education teacher, consultant, and alternative school teacher and administrator. Receiving his Ph.D. in 1989, he established his expertise in the fields of self-directed learning and the modern rites-of-passage curriculum.

During his time at Jefferson County Open School in Colorado, one of the longest standing public alternative schools in the world, he took students all over the globe, including the West Bank, Gaza and, when the Wall came down, to Berlin. Dr. Posner also taught a wide range of classes that reflect his eclectic personal passions, ranging from Willy Mays, James Joyce, and Muddy Waters to ethnic cooking and marathon running.

He is a proud “graduate” of the Open School (retired in 2001) who has maintained his penchant for lifelong learning by doing service work in Haiti, consulting for alternative schools around the world, and writing Lives of Passion, School of Hope, a book about the alumni of the Open School. Like so many of his fellow Open School alumni, Dr. Posner claims that the school saved his life.

Dr. Posner's website is