Jon Bullock was the principal of Redmond High School, in Redmond, Oregon, when he sat down at his kitchen table with colleagues eight years ago to hatch the beginning of an idea for what would become Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA).
Bullock was a product of public schools and a strong believer in them. They had worked for him, he told me recently, rattling off the names of four of his early public school teachers in his small lumber mill hometown of Roseburg, Oregon. He described how those teachers changed his life and propelled him toward the dreams of college and a professional career.
But, Bullock continued, with obvious discomfort at saying it, despite his belief in public schools and admiration for the people who pour their efforts into them, he had come to believe they are not designed for all children. In 10 years of public school teaching and administration, he explained, he had seen a model of education in which swaths of students were not thriving.
Not thriving is a broad term. Applied to the 800 RPA students, it covers many definitions. There are very smart, talented kids who are not “enriched” by a traditional school environment. Some students are under-challenged or just bored; others are at high risk of dropping out. And there are others who just need a personal pace, to slow down and take more time to show their learning, or to accelerate to stay engaged.
Bullock and his kitchen-table colleagues wanted to build a program that was loose enough to encourage each student to work in their own way to best suit their own learning. This means that students have great liberty to choose the classes they want, even to show up at class or not, to find a groove of learning they’re comfortable with, and to have their success be measured in terms of proficiency or mastery for the content and skills.