Boulder Prep: Principal & civics
Andre Adeli’s summer school civics class at Boulder Prep High School is weird.
The students call Adeli, who is both a teacher and the headmaster of the Gunbarrel charter, by his first name. When a cell phone interrupts the discussion, Adeli does not say a word. The 13 or so students speak with no fear of judgment or repercussion. The teacher in front of them is not entirely focused on their grades or on test scores or even punishment; he wants his students to learn something and to become active, responsible citizens.
“When a student fails a class and they come back, I’m like, ‘Just think how much more you’ll learn!’” he tells me. In response to Adeli’s laid-back yet passionate classroom environment, the teenagers are enamored with him—his charisma, his understanding, his rebelliousness.
“It was weird,” says a female student about coming to Boulder Prep. She was kicked out of numerous schools before she found the charter. “But I fit in.”
Pretty much everyone here fits in, the students tell me, because that’s the way they want it. If a student has a bad day at home, they have a support system at school.
“If you cry, you don’t get criticized,” says another student. “Everyone is really considerate.”
Which, like many things about Boulder Prep, is just a little weird—but good weird.
Adeli co-founded the school when he was a public defender. He had realized there were few educational options for young people who were in the court system, who were dealing with substance abuse issues, who had parents or families stuck in the system, who just didn’t fit into a traditional school. Overall, he says, most of his students have not been engaged in education.
Adeli, his co-founders and the staff crafted a different kind of school—a college prep program to socially and academically support teens who often thought college was not in the picture.
“I do entry interviews, and I flip the perspective. I ask, ‘People whose opinion you respect, they would say you are an expert in what?’” he says. “Then I tell them they are gonna go to college, and they say, ‘What? I thought I was a screw-up.’ And I tell them that people who are screw-ups and who pull their stuff together make pretty interesting people.”
Adeli models elements of the school after boarding schools, where there is a focus on academics, character, ethics and critical thinking. He says public schools don’t spend enough time focusing on character. He also allows students to “create the culture.”
“We’ve asked the question: How do you get students to experiment with the kind of community they want?” he said, “Only the fringes are controlled by laws. They rest of us live by aggreement,” he continues, referring to the fact that the school does not expel its students. “Sure, we agree to abide by the laws. It saves resources. When you have rules, you have to enforce them. When you have law, you have to sanction them. But agreements just need reminders.”
That’s how Adeli is: He wants his students to be who they are, to tell their stories and to learn to be productive members of society. If they mess up, he wants them to get back into the classroom. Education is their future—it’s the key to overcoming the challenges many of his students
“You can’t be a citizen without being autonomous,” he says. “You have to have some decision-making power over your own life. And really, they can’t sign a lease, they can’t go get a car. At least let them choose their classes.”
Independence is a big factor at the school but so is support. The students are fed. If they need a bus pass, they’ll get a bus pass. With the encouragement of Adeli and the staff, the students have created a culture of understanding and acceptance. His students overwhelmingly assert that this is a safe space: When something goes wrong at home or in their personal lives, they know the other students and their teachers will welcome them. The students in his civics class talk about finding refuge in Boulder Prep after stints in rehab, after getting kicked out of numerous schools, after feeling like an outsider everywhere else.
And Adeli knows their stories. He even knows their schedules.
“If they know I’m available, they can come and knock on the door and ask about their schedule,” he says. “That’s the dynamic.”