Published: May 27, 2013
It's that time of year when high school valedictorians worry about what to say in their class farewell speeches at graduation ceremonies.
For Dyanna Hills, 18, it could have been a bit intimidating considering that her speech will be particularly historic.
It's the first ever valedictory message for Thomas MacLaren School, which opened in 2009 with sixth through ninth grade students and added a grade each year. The first class of nine seniors will get their diplomas June 1.
And Hills will be ready with her talk. Recently she was concentrating on her last classroom assignment, reading "The Brothers Karamazov," when one of the themes popped out to her as perfect for her speech.
"It's about planting the seeds of friendship and goodness in one another or dying in isolation," she said.
And she added, Aristotle also thought that way. "He said friendship makes one a better person."
But her experience at MacLaren is not one of mere book-learning. "Before I came here I felt that I couldn't find friendships. But I found an accepting community."
The school, chartered through the state's Charter School Institute, leases space in Pulpit Rock Church on Austin Bluffs Parkway,
The demanding core curriculum includes only a handful of electives. Students with a variety of abilities are accepted, but aren't pigeonholed into classes based on academic achievement.
Students all take the same classes, whether it's Latin, modern and medieval history, computer programing or other offerings. Everyone must take calculus and orchestra - even those who believe they aren't very musical.
"We believe all children should be offered the best in education - that means delving into all courses. The struggle isOK," said MacLaren board member Katherine Brophy, who with Mary Faith Hall and Eric Hall, founded the school.
Learning to think critically, converse and write about a variety of subjects is emphasized. Students spend up to two hours a day in a class called Humane Letters. It's a Socratic seminar where they read original texts, write papers and learn to converse about history, literature, philosophy.
The approach has helped place MacLaren among top schools on various state assessment tests.
The Classical education coupled with teacher support, and classmate friendships has made high school a good experience, graduating seniors said.
Some, like Brenna Kullhem, even enjoyed wearing the uniforms. "I forgot how to shop for clothes," Kullhem laughed.
She didn't have a good experience at another school she attended. "It was all sports and fun. I wasn't pushed."
Her four years at MacLaren helped her grow socially and academically. "I could be myself and not be afraid."
Kullhem plans to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder next fall and major in biochemistry.
Like all students with senioritis, Morgan Chapman said, "I'm a bit sick of high school. It's a relief to graduate."
But that doesn't mean he didn't like school. "It broadened my horizons. Even calculus.
"I didn't think I would do well in math but I did."
And he didn't dream he'd read and enjoy philosophy. "Where else would I have read Hegel, Socrates, Dostoyevsky?"
There are limited sports at the school. But Chapman was able to play baseball at nearby Colorado Springs Christian School. After graduation, he plans to study sports medicine at Colorado Mesa University.
Chapman was home-schooled until ninth grade, and the small classes and individual attention at MacLaren were a good fit, says his mother Michelle Chapman. "I appreciated the high expectations and how all the students are treated with respect." She also praised the school's tutoring and homework session, which all students take.
Parents help in that classroom, so the teachers can help individual students. More than 80 percent of parents participate in the PTA-like parent service association, she said.
Hills, the valedictorian, plans to study graphic design at Knox College in Illinois.
"I had thought I wanted science, and didn't think I would like the Humane Letters classes we took. But I did, and it flipped my interest."
Her mother, Kelly Hills, is thrilled that her daughter will give the first ever valedictory address at MacLaren.
"I can't put in words how excited we are. She has been working toward this all her life. In the middle she felt a bit down, but the teachers are invested in the kids, and she finished strong.
"They will all tell you they had to work harder than they have worked on anything before," Kelly Hills said. "And it is worth it. She has a great foundation for college. She will know how to look beyond the text."
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