Becky Karush: Compass School still lives its founding values


At Compass School in Westminster, Monday morning starts as if the future is a sure thing. About 75 students in grades 7 through 12 arrive and settle into first period for Science, Humanities, Math, or Spanish, or a visit to the Art Lab studio to work on a class project.

The big, open central area is empty, quiet and warm, decorated with 20-years worth of student art. Without a bell, or announcement of any kind, students and teachers flow out their classrooms and into the big room. About half form a purposeful, relaxed line for the breakfast offering in the bright kitchen, observed and herded by the award winning school chef, Cher Anderson.

They pick up hot homemade muffins, plates of eggs, and cups of berries and circle back to the big room. They gather in loose collections around the tables, groups spilling into each other. Almost no phones are in hand. Students and teachers talk, maybe play the piano near the kitchen door, but mostly, they eat and talk, taking a rejuvenating morning break.

By imperceptible signal, possibly from a responsible fellow student, or by a shared sense of right time, students gather their things and move to their next classes.

In a minute, the big room is empty again, all that focus directed to a timeline of the Labor Movement, a series of calculus problems, a marshmallow replica of a strand of DNA.

The school moves with the sureness and ease of a river system, or of lungs, in and out, expand and release, all day long.

"We started about 20 years ago, when the local public schools were in a tough period," says Rick Gordon, director since 2001. "Over 30 percent of our local students weren't graduating from high school in the late '90s, which was actually happening nationwide."

Gordon was part of a large community coalition that researched the possibility of forming a new, publicly accessible school in the district that could help address the low graduation rate. The school board at the time rejected that proposal, and the idea seemed to die.

"About a year and a half later, this building came up for sale. It was an Elks Lodge originally, where they ran a not exactly legal high stakes Bingo game," he says. "A group of us looked at it and then had this meeting to figure out if we should buy it."

They thought they needed $60,000 in seed money to launch the idea of a new school into reality. Each person wrote down how much they could contribute, and they handed the pieces of paper to the babysitter who was watching their kids in another room. If she added up a total less than 60 grand, they'd let the idea go.

The babysitter reported almost exactly $60,000. The founding group got to work. A year later, with four teachers and 53 students, Compass School began.

On this winter Monday, students emerge midday from their classes like packets of light, some from here, some from there, moving in waves of intention.

Two girls in yellow sweatshirts carry a set of 2x4s to construct a science experiment. A group practices a scene from a play they wrote. Others talk by an easel holding a whiteboard of the day's schedule, their big backpacks slung over shoulders, sweatshirts and scarves trailing.

They come from Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, from a range of economic backgrounds, with a big range of academic and developmental strengths and needs. They are not necessarily alike, except that Compass is the right school for them.

As senior Sophie Mark puts it, "There isn't an ideal Compass student. If you want to go to Compass, you're the ideal one."

The school can hold a range of students because of its founding utopian idea: that every child can experience success. After the first couple of years of experimenting with systems and structures, the school has hewed to a consistent set of values and practices to make that ideal come true.

The values include strong relationships between students and adults, a commitment to educating "the whole child," and being a place where everyone is known well and valued for their individuality.

Compass enacts the values through a blend of rigorous and creative teacher-directed classes and student-directed Project Weeks, Portfolio Projects and other independent learning.

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They also build community and connection with rituals like multi-day trips or Giving Day, where each person receives the name of a teacher or student and, in a public ceremony, gives them a personalized, handmade gift. These structures are deeply embedded in the school culture.

Twenty years in, it's clear that the values and practices work.

"One-size-fits all education is not what happens at Compass," says former Compass board president Rick Cowan. "Each student has the power to build a curriculum that furthers their goals and matches their skills and interests."

That's one key to the school's longevity: it works. Students, staff, and families by and large feel good to be there; they are able to do good work there; and students can apply their knowledge and skills successfully elsewhere.

And the systems and structures work, Gordon believes, in part because the school community obsessively evaluates and refines them.

"The week after school gets out in June, the staff starts talking about next year," he says. "We go over every aspect of every part of the school. We mark what's working well in green, what needs some work in yellow, and what's a real trouble spot in red. And then we bring in kids and parents to collaborate with us on how to address the things in yellow and red."

Most importantly, the school then makes changes based on the conversations. This agility and openness to innovation, while staying true to its North Star values, mean that the school can adapt to new information and needs. It's less likely to get stuck in unhelpful tradition, or ignore chronic problems, that can drag an organization down.

"It's not that we don't have challenges," says Eric Rhomberg, longtime teacher and assistant director, over lunch, today including Reuben sandwiches, cabbage salad, and homemade pickles.

"Funding is always an issue. Every teacher's plate is really, really full. But we always try to address the issues in a human way, with integrity and openness."

He finishes his sandwich and gathers his utensils on his plate. "We need to start All School Meeting in five minutes," he murmurs to Gordon.

"I'll take your plate," Christiana Fiorello, a senior, says. She and Rhomberg have been in deep discussion but she swiftly stands and offers to clear the table.

A student runs a vacuum cleaner over the rug by the lunch line. Another plays guitar nearby, and it is suddenly loud as the community gathers on the floor or in chairs along the wall for All School Meeting.

They'll share announcements about sports, about schedule changes, about the chance to go to a LGTBQI conference. Students will sit in the full spectrum of teenage moods, but all the attention will be directed as one community, listening.

Rick Gordon stands, preparing to join the meeting.

"One thing about Compass, and maybe we share it with other organizations that last, is that it was started by people who were totally dedicated," he says. "We were on the older side, we knew ourselves and our skills, and we weren't millionaires. All our skin and soul is in the game."

He moves into the group. A teacher stands to facilitate and the meeting begins.

Twenty years of dedicated work to build an excellent school are behind this everyday moment, but it feels like magic, both calm and exuberant, equal parts practicality and love, like a dream that came, and will stay, true.

On Saturday, March 2, Compass School will host its 20th Anniversary Fiesta from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring dinner, a silent auction, and dancing with Eugene Uman's Latin Party Band. Find tickets and more information at 802 463-2525 or


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