The high school experience is one that many students are impatient to get through — past it all and into adulthood. But for students at The Griffin School, it seems to be just the opposite.
“You know when you’re in high school and all you want to do is not be in high school?” asks Tess Haines, a member of Griffin’s Class of 2008. “To this day, my friends and I look back at our experience and wish we could go back.”
The Griffin School was started in 1996 by a small group of passionate educators who believed that being part of an inclusive and active community was the fundamental way in which students develop as authentic human beings.
Filling the gap
The founding group included Pam Arthur, Jane Lozano, Clay Levit, and Adam Wilson as school director. Wilson, who had been a high school math teacher for four years at the time, says the spark for starting Griffin was the city of Austin's creative and innovative spirit.
“Yet for most high school students [in Austin], there was a one-size-fits-all approach that lacked those elements," he says. "After a bunch of the typical discussions that educators have about ‘what’s wrong with the system,’ one of the members of our group said, ‘Let’s do something about it. Let’s stop complaining about how things are — let’s build a school the way we think it should be!’”
The group felt a rigorous and classical liberal arts education program built around developing critical thinking skills was badly needed for students growing up in such a progressive, arts-rich community. Griffin intended to fill this gap, opening with eight teachers and 17 students in a downtown office building. Two years later in 1998, the school created a campus at the Perry Mansion in Hyde Park.
Wilson believes it is the unique combination of academic rigor and the arts that sets Griffin apart from other schools. “We have always felt that these things are not mutually exclusive, and in fact more and more research is showing that the development of creative thinking skills is directly correlated to academic success and school engagement. We also believe that the fine and performing arts are great vehicles for students to develop a sense of authentic identity — a way for them to throw off the person that they think others want them to be to become who they really are.”
It seems they are succeeding in this mission; in 2004, the school was named the “Best Place to Be Yourself in School” by the Austin Chronicle, a distinction that reflected the authentic and creative nature of the school program and environment. That’s not to say academics are secondary; The Griffin School program is explicitly about preparation for college success, and the rigorous curriculum is based on high standards and includes Latin, volunteer service to the community, fine arts and a senior thesis project.
Former student Haines says that at Griffin, she also developed close relationships with teachers that she doesn’t feel she would have had at another school. “I feel at bigger schools, students get lost in the system and teachers don't really care about your success. At The Griffin School, the teacher becomes your friend and wants to see you succeed. The Griffin School truly does a good job of preparing you for what’s next.”
Life after Griffin
For Haines, what’s next is graduation from Prescott College in Arizona in a few weeks, with a degree in Environmental Science (emphasis in Agroecology) and a minor in Photography. Haines followed fellow Griffin graduate Sam Brodnax to Prescott. Brodnax had attended Prescott for a year while Haines took classes at Austin Community College, and his tales of the college’s orientation program, which included rafting the Grand Canyon and rock climbing in Joshua Tree, sounded like a perfect fit to Haines. “When I got to Prescott College, I was surprised about how many similarities it had to The Griffin School — mainly small class sizes, a close community and a friendship with your teacher.”
Wilson says that the Griffin staff work closely with each student to define their paths after high school, to fit each one’s specific strengths, interests and passions. Hiep Huynh, Class of 2010, was an international student from Vietnam and is currently a junior at UT. Huynh says that when he first moved to Austin and began 10th grade at Griffin, he was a shy, quiet kid with an awkward hairstyle and a determined goal.
“During my years at Griffin, I learned that life is much more than straight-A’s and boring textbooks. Griffin exposed me to countless possibilities and opportunities. I no longer had to walk the predictable path that most Asians choose; it was about me — what I liked and what I wanted to do.”
Francesca Neely-Dickey, graduating from Griffin next month, has been a dedicated student and a tremendous leader at the school, says Wilson. She is an accomplished artist and the Communications Liaison to the Austin Youth Council, the governing body set up by the Austin City Council to improve the high school community for students. Neely-Dickey has been accepted to Emerson College, Suffolk University, Narpoa University, and University of Colorado at Bolder, and is still deciding where she would like to go for college.
The Creative Career Seminars offered at Griffin surely are instrumental in helping students get in touch with what they really want to do with their lives. The TED talk style seminars invite people who are doing meaningful and impactful work in the community to speak about what they’re passionate about, and create a dialogue with the students.
“This has become less about creating career paths (although it does that too) and more about creating passion for our work,” says Wilson.
“I feel lucky every day that my work is meaningful and that I get the chance to make a real and positive difference in the lives of our students and families,” Wilson adds.
“I am passionate about engaging young people in their own education and personal development, and I hope that my collaboration with our talented, dedicated teachers models a love of work and of learning that inspires our students to develop a life full of meaning and service."