From left, Andy Harris, Sam Critchlow and Chelsea Wessel Sloan at the Bozeman Public Library talk about plans for the Bozeman Field School, a private independent high school set to open in August.
Design the high school of your dreams.
That’s the most popular essay topic that teenagers pick to write about when applying to the Bozeman Field School, says Sam Critchlow, head of the new school.
It could also describe the vision of the people who have been working for two years to launch the Bozeman Field School, a new private school opening in August.
The Bozeman Field School will focus on “place-based, expeditionary learning,” said Andy Harris, co-founder and board chair. “This town, this state, the northern Rockies — this is our classroom.”
As an independent, secular school, it will be the only high school in the Gallatin Valley that isn’t either public or religious.
The new school will open Aug. 22 with an expedition — the first of four week-long expeditions planned during the school year, which illustrate the school’s philosophy that getting outside of the classroom is a great way to gain an education.
Expeditions will take students on trips like canoeing on the Upper Missouri Breaks, or spending a week at the Legislature in the Capitol, or exploring the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Bozeman Field School will open with about 30 students in ninth and 10th grades and expand in the next two years to add 11th and 12th grades.
The organizers said they’ve started the lengthy process of applying for accreditation with the Northwest Association of Independent Schools and hope to be accredited in time for the first graduating class.
The Bozeman Field School’s tuition — $17,900 a year — costs the equivalent of a year at Montana State University for in-state students.
Harris said an anonymous donor has given generously and they have about $700,000 available for scholarships for the first four years.
“It’s important to emphasize this is not an elitist school,” Harris said. The aim is to reflect the local community, and the school has already admitted students with learning disabilities and racial minorities.
The school will be located in a multi-tenant office building at 2339 Birdie Dr., across from the Bridger Ski Foundation headquarters on Bridger Drive.
Co-founder Evan Center, a private mental health counselor, said she has wanted to start a school like this for a decade. Center said she works primarily with high school and college students, and many clients would flourish in a smaller school environment.
Two years ago she met Harris at a Project XQ event. Laurene Powell, wife of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, launched Project XQ two years ago with a $50 million grant to “rethink high school.”
Center and Harris discovered that they’d both attended The Field School in Washington, D.C., about 15 years apart. It inspired their ideas for the Bozeman Field School, though the two schools are not affiliated.
“It was the founding vision of that school to empower students and to really let them be involved in directing their own education and not serving up a canned curriculum,” Harris said. As a student, he loved the chance to direct “what I was learning, and not being given a fixed blueprint for where to be, how to think, what to do.”
Center said at The Field School, she felt valued by teachers, who were more like mentors.
“One of the things I loved about the school … there wasn’t an artsy group, a jock group and a nerdy group,” she said. “It was getting to be friends with all the class.”
Chelsea Wessel Sloan, a member of the Bozeman Field School’s board, said she grew up attending Bozeman public schools, graduating from Bozeman High in 1990.
“It was good enough,” Wessel Sloan said.
But when she started teaching at independent schools in the Bay Area, she found an “amazing” level of connection between students and teachers in the smaller classes.
The Bozeman Field School plans to open with five teachers, and to have one teacher for every seven students, or roughly half of Bozeman High School’s student-teacher ratio.
Critchlow, who has taught at independent schools for 11 years in Vermont and Colorado, was hired as head of school from nearly 30 applicants, according to a school press release.
At the Bozeman Field School, he said, science will be taught with a lot of field trips, and core classes will be supplemented by a wide variety of electives, like music and art, that will change every quarter and be taught by experts from the community.
Students will design an individual major, which could be anything that reflects a student’s passions — like carpentry for building theater sets, or computer science, or writing an invasive species cookbook.
“There’s a lot to be gained by engaging kids in what they want,” Critchlow said, “instead of the way things have to be.”
Harris said the new school will be “complementary, not competitive” with Bozeman High School. Center said they’ve talked with counselors at Bozeman’s middle school and high school who are excited to have another option for students.
“High school can be the best four years,” Harris said. “We aren’t approaching it as superior or inferior (to public high school). It’s another option. Education isn’t one size fits all.”
Rob Watson, Bozeman School District superintendent, said the public schools aren’t opposed to or fearful of other education options.
“We want kids to be successful,” Watson said, “no matter what it looks like.”