Joe Gawronski, School Principal, Poudre School District

Joe Gawronski has been serving as the Principal of Polaris Expeditionary Learning School since the 2007 – 2008 school year. Polaris had been operating as a secondary charter program for five years, under a different name, before it joined Poudre School District in 2007 as Polaris. In year four, after moving facilities three times, Polaris found a permanent home while simultaneously merging with an elementary program, becoming the first K-12 program in the district. As Joe nears the end of his tenure as a principal, he is looking forward to sharing what he has learned with others. As a big believer in standards-based grading, exposing students to the world beyond the classroom, and focusing on collaboration rather than competition, he is interested in working with small school districts that may be of similar size to the Polaris program.


Being a K12 principal for more than decade has afforded me the opportunity to visit many schools across all grade levels.  The schools I’ve visited over the years have offered a myriad of programs, had wide-ranging demographics, and reflected a variety of communities.   Although there have been vast differences between these settings, I have observed some common patterns between them as well.  

While venturing into an elementary school I have noticed some room arrangements and teaching practices that have become familiar.  On the walls one may see a wide variety of student work displayed, work that represents creativity, growth over time, or methods to convey mastery of certain standards.  The assessments indicate that the students are given all types of opportunities to demonstrate their learning, meeting the needs for a wide variety of learners along the way.  The rooms can also consist of tables where centers operate daily.  When the students are at their centers, they may be working collectively on a group project, or independently within close proximity.  In either case, elementary students are working and interacting with one another frequently.  

The elementary teachers can often be seen with a small group of students at a kidney table while the other students work more independently at their centers. Teachers are encouraging students to take risks and overcome adversity, to lean into the struggle. As a result, students understand that the process of learning is both challenging and rewarding. 

As students make their way into the secondary level, they can find themselves in a vastly different setting, and sometimes they can experience this shift as abruptly as the first day of middle school.  It’s not uncommon to see that the tables for group work at the elementary level are replaced with individual desks. The focus of the student steers toward the instructor and not as much as on one another.  The concept of working as a group is often overshadowed by the importance of what the individual student can do. 

The variety of assessments at the elementary are often whittled down at the secondary level to a narrower scope as well. Determining grades at the secondary level is frequently derived through a formula. My daughters’ grades often consisted of “70% tests and quizzes and 30% homework.” Needless to say, when one walks into a secondary classroom, the evidence of student work can be less prevalent and not as creative.  

As time passes and a student enters high school, the student desks continue to keep the focus on the individual student.  This focus on the individual, while competing with classmates, is exacerbated with structures like honor roll, valedictorians, and student of the month recognitions.  While secondary schools reduce the opportunities for collaboration and creativity in their classrooms, we simultaneously promote extra-curricular activities so students can learn how to become an effective team member, have opportunities to express themselves, or get involved with citizenship.  These are certainly worthwhile endeavors, yet where does that leave the high school student who needs to work after school or take care of their younger siblings?  The notion that these skills and passions are best addressed through extracurriculars at the secondary level is short-changing many of our students, let alone shortchanging ourselves by stifling our potential to tap into our human capital as a country.

My hope is that soon we can shift our focus at the secondary level, and it’s encouraging to see some shifts coming to fruition. Secondary schools would be wise to embrace some of our elementary practices so that our students are better prepared for the world of work, and we can meet the needs of our current-day workforce.  Sure, businesses can find themselves competing with others, but they need their own employees to have the skills and ability to collaborate with one another in order to compete with others.

To tackle future problems that are impossible to predict, yet are revealing themselves at a rapid pace, we need our students to be creative problem-solvers.  Tests, quizzes, and homework are important to develop the discipline one may need to succeed at the post-secondary level, however, not every student plans on entering college after graduating high school, and thankfully many colleges are shifting in ways that promote creativity and collaboration. What type of human capital can we tap into if we offered our secondary students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of any given concept or content through a wide variety of assessments? 

The world of today, and of tomorrow, requires a different approach to secondary education.  We’d be wise to adopt an approach that steers away from the secondary school practices of the past, practices that may have been beneficial during a manufacturing-based economy but has little value in today’s world of information and rapidly changing technologies.  

Let’s be courageous and eliminate the academic competition between our secondary students and replace it with opportunities to collaborate with one another in the classroom setting.  Let’s challenge ourselves by reducing the number of tests, quizzes and homework a student engages in at the secondary level and increase the number of authentic assessments that tackle real-world problems.  And finally, let’s put kids in the driver seat of their own learning.  It’s important to ask what do we want kids to know and be able to do, yet let us not forget to inquire what the kids may want to know and be able to do, perhaps in doing so we can see a decrease in our dropout rates and an increase in our graduation rates.   

Our practices of using data to sort secondary students into specific programs or tracks leads to a fragmented school environment, one in which produces more homogeneous classrooms where the student’s opportunity to interact with a wide variety of others is stifled. Then, after graduation, they go out into the world less prepared to work with, problem-solve, and simply get along with others that differ from them.  

Perhaps, by changing some of these secondary practices, we could experience a shift in the United States where our citizens can see the value in others, even if they have widely different opinions. And through this lens of empathy for others, perhaps we could work together to solve complex problems that will certainly arise in a more effective manner. 

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