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Alex Korsunksy

On a superficial level, it was different because of its size: in all its eight grades, Heritage School had just 30 students. However, this alone does not come close to explaining what made Heritage the best school I have ever attended or can ever hope to attend. It does not explain why Glen and Elaine’s four classrooms hidden away in the back of the YMCA, their walls covered in student art and poetry, were the center of my life for five years in elementary and middle school.

Although we broke into small groups (they were too personal and fluid to be called “classes”) for history, math, art, and writing, the real heart of the Heritage experience was in the study units. Each school year was broken into perhaps eight separate studies of broad subject areas – Earth science, Native American civilizations, oceans – each lasting about a month. The younger students – 3rd grade and below – worked together on a single facet of the subject, but we older kids had great freedom to explore within the overarching topic. There were even “individual studies,” in which the older students were given complete choice (within reason) to research a topic of interest, ranging from Winston Churchill to Hawaii to the Persian Empire to the KKK.
Each study, regardless of the topic, took roughly the same form. The majority of the school day was left unstructured, and we used this time for reading and note-taking on our subjects. Since we had chosen the topics ourselves, the research was enjoyable, and students would try to interest their friends in their study. After two or three weeks, we would write papers, give oral presentations, and have “teaching days” when we taught each other about our areas of specialization. Because everyone was genuinely interested in the work, people took real pride in their writing and presentations.

Even now, as a senior in high school, I laugh to myself when we are assigned a five minute speech and the entire class groans; at Heritage we would regularly give 20 minute presentations – and complain that we didn’t have all the time we needed. The papers I wrote at Heritage were longer than any I have written in high school, even in the IB program; in 5th grade at Heritage, I produced 74 handwritten pages on ancient Athens!

The apex of the year at Heritage, the very soul of the school, was in the annual International Festival, a single night of skits, puppet shows, and displays of writing and art. Every year, we would be divided into several groups, each researching a specific region of the world: southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East, western Africa. Although the early weeks were little different from those of any other study, with each student researching and writing  about one specific nation within his or her own region region, the final week was a frenzy of creativity unlike anything else I have ever seen. Each region put together a skit or puppet show based on a folk tale, and what time was not spent rehearsing was entirely given over to art, with students producing everything from simple illustrations of proverbs to statues of the Buddha to enormous murals of the Amazon. Especially coveted were the clay head puppets, which were made by only one group each year. When the hours of the school day were not enough – and they never were – we would rearrange our entire schedules to stay there into the night. On one memorable occasion, we even persuaded Elaine to let us spend the night at school; when we told our classmates the next morning, they nearly died of envy!

The thing that is most amazing about Heritage, when I look back on it now from a distance of five years, is the way that it managed to be both tremendously fun and exceptionally educational. Heritage had no tests, no letter grades, and no report cards, and yet each of us worked harder – and learned more – than students do in ordinary schools. The transition from Heritage to “the real world,” though much feared by many parents, was not a shock because of the large classes, the lockers, or the Scantron tests; it was a shock – and any Heritage grad will testify to this – because the work was so easy! At Heritage, we learned because we had freedom to study things we really cared about and to direct our learning ourselves. We learned because we weren’t just trying to cram for a test or expend the bare minimum effort needed to get a good score, weren’t just being trained how to play the system to get a grade. We learned because that is what one does at Heritage, because when we went outside for lunch we would discuss the books we were reading, or argue about whether Greece or Rome was a better civilization, or tell each other the latest anecdote we had found in the course of our research. Of course, not everything was centered around learning. We were kids, and passions playing capture-the-flag ran as high as they ever did during study. We goofed off, we got sidetracked, we even got in trouble for having rubber-band wars in the library. But because there wasn’t that line between fun and work, we were able to learn more than we ever would in high school and simultaneously have the time of our lives.

Perhaps my friend Anna put it best. She went to Heritage for seven years, and we now go to high school together. In a recent math class, she turned around in her seat and whispered: “I would sell my soul to Satan to go back to Heritage.”

Alex Korsunsky
Former Heritage Student

Biographical note: Originally written while a high school senior, Alex is now a student at Carleton College.

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