The “New” Kind of School

Photo of Barbara Brueggemann courtesy of

I recently met Barbara Brueggemann and was overtaken with delight.

Barbara is the Head of School at George Washington University’s Online High School (or GWUOHS), an online, private high school that focuses on delivering an individualized college preparatory program for high school students.

An educator with systems thinking strengths and humanistic inspiration, Barbara explained to me and a colleague how the GWUOHS Journey Symposium was a synchronized class that assisted students in the reflective exercises around understanding the student’s personal identity, or “gifts.” The way a student interprets their life experiences affects their world view and identity, she said. The Journey Symposium begins in the 9th grade and is a constant part of the self-learning, high school process at GWUOHS. What a way to ensure personal development by allowing self-awareness to fuel learning!, I thought.

As I write this piece about a system born amidst the rubble of educational initiatives, I am still glowing about the day that I spent with Barbara. There is a pulse of positivity in this “new” kind of school. It is not an old recipe, but it very much could be the right direction for many learner-types.

A 2011 article published in the  Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, Songtao Mo of Purdue University discussed recent thoughts and findings concerning learner-engagement potential in online teaching. Mo wrote that a learner-focus initiative can be achieved online and in hybrid environments bolstering content and community connectedness.

The flame of intellectual curiosity dampens all too quickly for our youth today. The learning environments and cultures that educators and our educational system create either add kerosene or water to a student’s fire.

Our American high schools presently face a series of problems—overcrowded classrooms; outdated curriculums; overworked and underpaid teachers; random acts of violence by troubled students. These problems have prompted many parents to turn to charter schools to educate their children. In Washington, D.C., 40 percent of children are actually in charter schools, according to the Washington Post.

As a profession, teaching has also been quite affected by the learning environments and cultures of the educational system.  In Rhode Island, a teacher who has logged 20 years of service today would still have to work until the age of 76 to collect a pension, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are teachers who do care and many of them are still working hard every day to teach our children—I have seven family members who represent this group. I’m not sure whether the best teachers can thrive in educational cultures that muck up the learning environment. Many theorists suspect that starting anew is cinch—easy as eating pie. They are incorrect. It takes a mission, a system, and a cohesive group of believers.

With these factors swirling around as both evidence of the problem and influencers for innovating “new” ways to teach our high school children, it is no wonder why Stanford University also launched an online learning program, like GWUOHS. Stanford’s University’s program even espouses the community underpinnings of the discussions online rather than a “students learning in isolation” statement.

Like Barbara, educator Katie Salen—who we first mentioned in a November post—is also transforming our K-12 education system into a dynamic learning environment through her online school, Quest to Learn. Through games and interactive projects, Salen’s created conditions for children to learn about the systemic nature of our world and the problems we face in order to become designers of the future in a globally-networked world.

Barbara said GWUOHS is striving for the same thing.

GWUOHS “aims to prepare students beyond what they can achieve in traditional schools by providing an individualized education attuned to their own needs and goals through regular support of nurturing teachers and college counselors,” Barbara wrote on the GWUOHS website.

Hats off to you, Barbara. Your work in brick-and-mortar private schools prior to your arrival at GWUOHS adds a dimension to your “take” on online learning and supplemental “learning journeys” that you are building into your programs.

GWUOHS is proof that, in the heart of our nation, there is renewed hope for innovation in education.

Read other posts by Dennis Rebelo

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