Students from Hawaii learn from Harmony
by Andy Graham
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November 18, 2005
Kellie and Megan Politano, third-generation Hawaii residents, piled out of Steve Bonchek's Harmony Education Center office onto the fire escape landing.
They wanted to commune with Wednesday afternoon's snowflakes.
The Politanos and four other students from Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii, have spent the last two weeks in Bloomington visiting Harmony School.
When they depart Sunday, they'll take home memories of snow flurries - and a whole lot else about Harmony.
The independent Bloomington school is serving as a "mentor" school for Connections.
"It's an effort funded by the Gates Foundation," said Bonchek, executive director of Harmony Education Center, which includes Harmony School. "It's to create 'smaller' schools, which include a strong student voice."
The Connections students and principal John Thatcher spent their first week in the continental United States at a Boston conference for the Coalition of Essential Schools, involving 20 schools from across the nation selected to serve as "mentor" schools.
Connections was a "school-within-a-school" at a larger public school in Hilo before becoming Hawaii's first start-up charter in 2000. After starting with the elementary grades, Connections is now adding a high school component.
"We currently have 40 kids for high school, 9th- and 10th-graders," Thatcher said, "and they're helping determine what exactly the high school will be."
The visiting Connections students - the Politanos, Adam Sanders, David Harris, Ipo Boyd and Jamie Cabrera - wouldn't mind their school adopting much of Harmony's approach.
"I see a lot of self-confidence on the part of students here," said Adam, a Connections freshman. "Kids have the freedom to do what they choose, but with the responsibility of getting their work done."
"In our government class today, I noticed one kid who was working on his senior project, not really involved in the classroom discussion. He had the freedom to pursue that. It was kind of 'independent study.'"
Megan noted how in Harmony classes "everyone sits in a circle. Everyone can see each other. You feel more connected. We do that, too, though we still have desks between us."
Kellie recounted a conversation at Harmony about school discipline, which involved holding "student court" on Fridays, when Connections doesn't conduct classes, to settle student issues with "a jury of their peers."
The students like Harmony's "family meeting time" with students and staff, which at Connections is called "hui o' hana."
"If you've been able to contribute and be heard, you'll buy into it," Adam said. "You're more likely to remember your school later on if you helped it be a better place."