By Casey Hans
The hallways are full of life at Ann Arbor Open @ Mack.
Students are researching, collaborating and learning. Some are on laptops; others are huddled together, conversing. Some are meeting with teachers for one-on-one time. Principal Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said parents visiting for the first time have sometimes asked her “are those students in trouble?”
Not at all, says the longtime principal, who is now in her eighth-year overseeing the K-8 program west of downtown.
It’s part of the school’s informal setting that encourages an open environment and teaches students to work cooperatively in a group setting. School literature calls the environment “one of busy trust” where teachers serve as facilitators in the classroom.
“We are one of a very few, a handful of open schools around the country that is public,” Zikmund-Fisher explained.
Lessons are taught in a multi-grade setting, where first- and second-graders are teamed together, all the way up through seventh- and eighth-graders. Everyone helps to develop curriculum and students, staff and parents are part of a practicing democracy, with one person, one vote. Students learn to work well on their own and interact with teachers as needed.
“More and more, we’re giving them assignments for the day and the time to work on it, “Zikmund-Fisher added. “Boy, do these kids learn to manage their time.”
On this day, Media Specialist Kit Flynn is in the school’s hub – a centralized, open media center that features a giant whale created by students. Flynn has been with Ann Arbor Open @ Mack, and with its predecessor, Bach Open School, for 21 years. “It’s a place that breeds community,” she says, where most of the staff members share their lunch hour together and collaboration happens daily.
“It’s a program that attracts people who want to teach in a certain style and students who want to learn in a more unstructured environment,” she said. “What I see in our building is a kind of excitement about being in school. We’re interested in meeting kids where they are … and meeting kids where their high interests are.”
The ‘open school’ movement
The program was developed over a number of years by a group of parents and teachers interested in the “open school” concept. In the early days, families camped out to ensure students got a spot; today, enrollment is handled through a random selection process and there is a waiting list of about 208 students and 483 students enrolled.
Siblings of students entering kindergarten or first grade are given first priority for openings; families remain on the waiting list in the order in which they applied.
Zikmund-Fisher said about half of the students go through all eight or nine years; others leave after elementary school for a comprehensive middle school and some come in for a smaller middle school experience.
In the coming year, Ann Arbor Open will expand for the first time, adding 20 seats, Zikmund-Fisher said. It has not yet been determined in what grades those will be. Also under discussion is the idea of having a second open-philosophy school, perhaps on the east side, in the future, she added.
Flynn said the school has maintained its culture and approach, even as curriculum and requirements have tightened. “I think the basic philosophies are still solid,” she said.
Rick Hall and Ko Shih team-teach classes of fifth- and sixth-graders. Hall has been with Ann Arbor’s open school movement since it started. Shih attended The Open School at Bach and student taught at Ann Arbor Open @ Mack with Hall before landing here permanently.
Their two classrooms flow together constantly, with one or the other teacher offering a lesson, and then both handling one-on-one consults with students who have questions.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve every known,” Shih said of her teaching experience, “but I feel there’s less of an emphasis (here) on all the things you have to know, but a value of how to be a good person … a good student and a good community member.”
Hall has been a classroom teacher for 36 years in Ann Arbor. He said his leaning toward the open school concept stemmed from his own experience.
“As a student, I was kind of in the middle – I was one of those kids who sat in the room afraid to raise his hand,” he said. In the open school movement, he saw an opportunity to change that for future generations. “It made a whole lot of sense to me to have a relationship with students. They can and should be involved in their learning.”
He said although Ann Arbor Open @ Mack does not compete with the broad, rich curriculum offered at more traditional, larger middle school settings, “what we can offer is the depth. Students can get into things a little more. We have to take that as our strength.”
The program leaves an impact
The program moved to its present location, the former Mack School, in 1998, but the open school concept harks back to the early 1970s in Ann Arbor when there were six informal classrooms that followed that philosophy. That eventually expanded to 36 informals, a Middle Years Alternative program and a home for the open school elementary grades at Bach. The district eventually combined the MYA and Bach programs at Mack.
Karen Moorhead’s daughter and son attended Ann Arbor Open @ Mack in the early years. Theirs was one of the families that camped out to get a spot in 1995 when the program was based at Bach. Her daughter Erica Kasemodel is now a sophomore in college and son, Robert Kasemodel, attends Pioneer.
“We knew we wanted our kids to go to the open school,” said Moorhead, a local real estate agent. “We were so impressed with the program, it was worth it to camp out.”
Although both of her children left for traditional secondary school, she said the school left its impact. “Because the kids learned to do adaptive research on topics they like, they became better researchers,” she added. “I see that with both of my kids.”
Another parent, Billie Ochberg, has two sons who attended the open school program. Jake Cinti is now a high school junior, dual enrolled at Pioneer and Community, and Dylan Cinti is a freshman at the University of Michigan. Dylan went through elementary school in the open program and Jake went through the eighth grade.
She said the open program taught her boys to advocate for themselves. “They really learn how to take the initiative,” she said. “They learn over the years to access all kinds of resources, not just in the school but in the community. They are a little less inhibited right from the get-go.”
Current students say they like the environment as well. Stavi, a sixth-grader, learns a lot in the less restrictive environment. “Things are more casual,” she said. “ We call our teachers by their first names. It’s really a great school.”
Classmate Anna-Kate came to Ann Arbor Open this year. “They really want you to have your opinion,” she said. “In this classroom, if you don’t get something done, they help you. You learn to be organized.”
Sixth-grader Marin agrees. “Before I had everything all over the place – they really taught me to be organized,” she said. “I was sort of on the edge for this school, but now I tell friends ‘it’s awesome and I really like it.’”
Ann Arbor Open draws students from throughout the Ann Arbor district. Bus transportation is provided, though some families do not prefer the lengthier bus ride from other parts of the district and stay closer to home at their neighborhood school, Zikmund-Fisher said.
And, she added, that raises a fallacy about the program: that transportation is excessively expensive due to busing students across the district. Not true, she says. “We route through middle schools so the only additional cost is getting them from the middle schools to here.” She estimates that cost at about $23,000 to $27,000 per year.
Parents expected to contribute
Parents enrolling their children at Ann Arbor Open must attend an orientation to determine if the open school concept is right for them. New this year: Parents can attend once the selection process is made and before their child enrolls; in prior years, parents attended orientation before knowing if their child would get in.
Not only are parents invited to be part of the school, it is expected and most parents welcome the opportunity. Moorhead calls the parent involvement “fantastic.”
“I think the parent model is one of the best aspects of it,” she said. “It sets the tone for good relations and you have a very committed community that wants to see the school succeed.”
Julie Roth co-chairs of the school’s Coordinating Council, the school’s version of a PTO. She has a 7-year-old daughter who attends Ann Arbor Open @ Mack and a pre-schooler who is preparing for kindergarten. They chose the school after visiting there, as well as their neighborhood elementary school and several private schools in the area.
“When I walked into the building I thought “OK, this is where we want to be.’ I liked the physical space of it,” she said. Visiting a middle school information night, she was most impressed by hearing students speak. “They talked about how they’ve known each other since kindergarten,” she said. “Their school is that constant. That’s not for everybody, but it was for me.”
Roth said she also liked that the program there was slightly less structured and more student led. She also liked the K-8 environment. “Ann Arbor Open seemed very right for our family,” she added.
Her daughter, Eva, enjoys school as well. “She loves school … and that’s more important than anything,” Roth said. “She loves it; she feels empowered.”
Zikmund-Fisher said graduates of the program stay connected, even though they split up for high school. “It’s the time (together), it’s the program,” she said. “They do form really close friendships.” She said having many of the students for a full nine years also gives the staff a chance to really know the students and follow their progress over many years.
Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. E-mail her or call 734-994-2090.
Timeline of ‘open school’ movement in Ann Arbor
• 1971: Ann Arbor begins with six informal classrooms, which were precursors to an open school program.
• 1972: Community High School was formed, following the open school philosophy.
• 1975: Thirty-six informal classrooms in 13 different schools accommodate 95 percent of students whose parents requested informal classrooms.
• 1976: A Middle Years Alternative program is established and housed at Forsythe.
• 1982: First- through sixth-grade open school program replaces the informal classrooms; 252 students and 10 teachers are divided into two groups at Wines and Pattengill elementary schools.
• 1986: Bach Open School is established at a central location for kindergarten through sixth-graders.
• 1989: The sixth grade joins the Middle Years Alternative School. Bach Open School is modified to kindergarten through fifth grade.
• 1998: Bach Open School moves to the Mack School Building and is renamed Ann Arbor Open @ Mack. The school is modified to include sixth graders in anticipation of becoming a kindergarten through eighth-grade school.
• 1999: Seventh grade is added.
• 2000: Eighth grade is added.
• 2010: Ann Arbor Open @ Mack continues to operate nine grades with 483 students. There is a waiting list for families wanting to place their children there. It is currently the only K-8 program in The Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Source: Ann Arbor Open @ Mack