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Intentional Learning

This Independent Boulder School Has a New Location Designed to Advance its Forward-Thinking Curriculum

Article by Linden Butrym

Photography by Courtesy of Watershed School

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

As Tim Breen, Ph.D., head of Watershed School in Boulder, describes how the independent school prepares its 6th through 12th-grade students for the real world, his enthusiasm is profound and sincere. It’s not about the traditional classroom setting and the standard teaching of the past, he says—it’s about encouraging kids to learn real-world solutions to real-world challenges while ensuring they feel that they are valued, contributing members of society.

Recently, Watershed School ( ( purchased and renovated two buildings on Spine Road in Boulder, and will move in this summer. The move comes twenty years after the school’s debut, signaling a new chapter in its mission to shape the next generation of critical thinkers who are passionate about learning how to make a difference in the world. In conversation about Watershed’s new building, Tim also shares more about the school’s curriculum, community partnerships and the reason why 100 percent of its graduates are accepted into college.

Design that encourages new thinking

We're a school that works with the broader community and engages our students. The new location is in a mixed-use area. There’s some housing, restaurants, businesses and nonprofits close by. The current location is a conventional elementary school attached to a church. You can't see into the classrooms. We were able to design interior spaces that are more open, where the learning is visible and there's a palpable energy. It's a more inspiring setting for big ideas. There are different ways you can gather in a room, so you're not limited by that space. You’ve got some opportunities to expand. Flexible spaces lead to flexible thinking.

Benefits of a progressive curriculum

We want kids to learn about real challenges in the world. We use a published list of 25 challenges, the first 17 of which are the UN Sustainable Development Goals, by Tom Vander Ark (“no poverty,” “zero hunger,” “cybersecurity,” “understand the brain”). Students still learn chemistry, but they’re learning it in a pollution class, plastics class or atmospheric science class—not in a class that's labeled chemistry. It's much more engaging for kids, which leads to better learning. When we teach a course, it's based on a big problem. Then we say, “What do we need to learn to understand this from multiple angles? What’s an opportunity for us to have an impact?”

The advantage of smaller class sizes

Currently, we have 117 students. Our average class size is 12, but it can range from 8 to 17. It’s great because it's enough people and enough minds to think about an issue and bring in different ideas, but it's small enough for the teacher to give detailed feedback.

Inclusive tuition

It’s a big investment for families, but we give out a lot of tuition assistance because we don't want finances to be a barrier. All travel is included. For the May term, which is from the end of April into May, students take only one course that usually involves two weeks of travel. They’ll go to Iceland or Guatemala or Mexico. We're headed to Vietnam soon. It’s not just a tourist experience—it’s a deep academic experience as well.

The importance of serving local communities

There’s a presentation I’ve given called “20 Billion Hours.” There are 16 million high school students in the United States who do about 1,200 hours of academic work a year, but almost none of that goes to improving our communities or making a contribution beyond the walls of the school. One of our middle school classes is called “Farm to Table.” Students learn about food challenges, work with a local food bank and stock the shelves. We then ask the food bank, "What research could we do that would be useful to you?”. Our students can do that research. We want to tap into the energy and potential of young people so they can see themselves as contributors. We help kids develop a sense of hope for the future. We don't just focus on problems—we focus on solutions, too.

Preparing students for college and beyond.

We’re not a conventional college prep school, and colleges get it. When they see a portfolio of impact that these kids can share, they're impressed. Our kids are so used to engaging and asking questions and working closely with adults. They’re not shy. That’s a powerful skill to have in college. These kids are owning their education and making the most of it.

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