New Dripping Springs private school gives students the upper hand
When Ariel Dochstader Miller was in high school, she figured out her own system to get good grades.
“I was a very good student and finished all of my credits early,” she explains. “I had most of them completed by the time I was a sophomore, and I was bored. So I took myself out of high school and homeschooled myself.”
Ariel started studying topics of interest to her, such as the court system in New Hampshire where she grew up, which had just appointed its first female Supreme Court judge. “I just started doing things that meant something to me and found that I was learning much, much more than when I had to memorize things for tests,” she says.
Ariel used her first-hand experience with alternative education to found her own school, Skybridge Academy, in Austin in 2011. The operation began after she started homeschooling her own two children and then thought to expand her personal classroom to form a school. She started out with five kids; six years later, Skybridge now has 65 students. Last year, she moved the school to Dripping Springs, making it the first secular private junior and high school program in town.
Located in a charming and cozy 4,500-square-foot house on two acres on Ranch Road 12, Skybridge is a private middle and high school focused on helping students take personal ownership of their education. “There is no philosophy here that we feel we have to adhere to. We are constantly tweaking and adjusting the program, based on what’s happening with the kids,” explains Ariel, who studied creative learning environments at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and taught at several schools prior to founding Skybridge.
Giving students the freedom to study what they enjoy and dig deep into the topics of their choice is at the center of what Skybridge is about, says Ariel. She refers to Skybridge’s teaching style as passion-based or experiential learning, a style of teaching that seeks to promote more critical thinking and hands-on learning.
Students at Skybridge do not receive traditional grades. Instead, students set their own goals based on who they are, how they learn, and benchmarks they have chosen for themselves. At the end of each semester, teachers provide narrative evaluations of each student based on five key sets of engagement: mastery, perseverance, initiative, effort, and participation.
All students are required to take math and composition, while the rest of the classes are electives that change every semester. Teachers propose different classes, and the students take a Google survey each semester to determine which elective classes they would like to have available for the next semester. Past electives have included 2D gaming design, World War II military history, natural disasters, improv theatre, and an experiential chemistry class in which students learn about the ingredients in energy drinks and concoct their own recipes. The classes are thematic and explore topics from many angles, weaving in other subjects such as math, physics, and writing as they crop up in the discussion. Using the Socratic method, teachers present topics to classes, and students discuss them from a variety of angles.
Something else separates Skybridge from a more traditional school: Ariel purposefully creates an environment where the students take an active role in determining class subject topics, school events, and equipment and furnishings within the school, which she says conveys a level of mutual respect between faculty and students. “I have made very few business decisions without talking to the students,” says Ariel, adding that she asks students to interview her top three candidates before she hires a new teacher.
When students are ready to graduate from Skybridge, most graduates pursue college education. Many colleges view Skybridge’s alternative curriculum as homeschooling, and some colleges are eager to enroll more homeschooled students because they know incoming homeschoolers will already be familiar with handling the challenges of a flexible learning environment, says Ariel.
Creating an environment with a homeschool feel requires personable and accessible staff. Ariel makes a point to hire teachers who are content experts in their own domain, or the “zealots in their field,” as she describes them. “Teachers are more passionate if they can teach what they want to teach.”
Ben Kopel, a literature and language arts Skybridge teacher, says the focus on open dialogue, critical thinking, and active listening has considerable returns. Being in a culture that has “room for all types,” Ben says, encourages less judgment among students. Students end up feeling more comfortable about themselves in a time in their lives when kids are often trying to mold themselves into something they are not.
“For me, because of the dialogue we’re able to have, I can tell students things I wish teachers would have told me,” says Ben, who notes the small class size of 12 students makes it much easier for teachers to create trusted relationships with students.
Finding their place
Olivia Doran, a 6th grader at Skybridge who moved from Houston to attend the school, says the teachers are a central part of her experience at Skybridge. “My teachers at my old school didn’t seem like they loved their job like the teachers do here. Teachers here are so excited to teach, and it’s fun for me to learn from them,” Olivia says.
Olivia, who has dyslexia, struggled in the past at previous schools to get the support she needs, but she says the stress she experienced at these schools has disappeared. “When the week is over, I’m upset. I want to go to school the next day,” she says. “I don’t want the week to ever end.”
Alex Hinojosa, a 16-year-old Skybridge student, has similar feelings after struggling at other schools where he felt the curriculum was designed for a large and diverse body of student learners rather than for individuals. “I have discovered my drive to work and the importance of taking time to figure things out,” Alex says of his year and a half at Skybridge. “I now take my time and put my all into this.”
Ariel takes pride in creating a school where students are embraced for who they are and encouraged to pursue their own path—not necessarily the one most traveled. She wants Skybridge students to relish their individuality, but she places a tremendous amount of focus on perseverance, which she says is required from the real world, regardless of the type of career a student pursues.
“Our students know who they are, how they learn, and the types of college or work environments that will work best for them,” she says. “If there is something these kids want and if they have to jump through a hoop to get it, they’re totally willing to do it.”
Skybridge Academy is located at 26450 Ranch Road 12 in Dripping Springs. Learn more about the school at www.skybridgeatx.com.
Skybridge students learn to listen to others using the Socratic method of discussion. One of the popular classes last fall was the 2016 Election, in which students learned how to listen respectfully to opposing viewpoints and to present their own opinions.