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Learning through experience

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Photo by Tamie Meck PELA head teacher Phil Wassell poses with students Liza, Sofia and Saffire at the March 14 International Day of Action for Rivers at Paonia River Park.

When a new private secondary school opened in Paonia last fall, three students seized on the opportunity. It's an opportunity for which all three are very grateful.

Ninth graders Liza Eller and Saffire Black and eighth grader Sofia Gonzalez are the first students to enroll at Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy. "I think it's an honor for me to be a first student," said Sofia. She believes it's their responsibility "to find things to help this school grow and figure out what works and doesn't work."

Liza and Saffire spent their primary education at Crawford Montessori and Paonia Junior-Senior High School and Sofia attended the Waldorf-inspired North Fork School of Integrated Studies at Paonia Elementary School. All three said their experiences at PELA have been life-changing. They feel more engaged with their community and more aware of other people and what is happening around them.

At PELA, the community is the classroom, and the opportunities are endless. The school has already partnered with more than 15 organizations, nonprofits and individuals. Tapping into the community, said head teacher Phil Wassell, "offers so many opportunities for students to learn."

Liza, Saffire and Sofia make up the entire student body. Last fall PELA partnered with Elsewhere Studios to create media internships for the three girls. Elsewhere's artist-in-residency program began in 2010 and attracts artists from throughout the world for one- to six-month residencies. During their stay, artists immerse themselves in the community.

As part of their internship, students document Elsewhere's twice-monthly public artist events and their work through interviews and photographs. Most recently they interviewed two resident artists from China, one from North Carolina and one from Oregon. Following an editing process, interviews and photos are posted to Elsewhere's website and social media platforms. Interns also document the number of attendants, interview members of the public, and encourage them to sign up for the mailing list.

Elsewhere program manager Carolina Porras joined Elsewhere last summer with plans to include local students in the program. The unique partnership creates a symbiotic relationship, said Porras, also a former resident artist at Elsewhere. Interns learn useful skills while providing a valuable service to Elsewhere. Prior to the collaboration, they lacked the manpower to document artist residencies, said Porras. Since they began posting interviews and photos, website and social media traffic has increased, and so has Elsewhere's exposure to the world.

Phil and Emily Wassell founded the Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy in 2016. A Colorado native, Emily holds a PhD in educational leadership, research and policy from the University of Colorado, and Phil holds a masters in teaching from Colorado College. They have devoted their lives to pedagogy. After spending time in Switzerland they returned to Colorado to open a school, choosing Paonia for its healthy lifestyle choices and access to the outdoors.

"There was also a need for an alternative secondary school, and people were willing to collaborate," said Phil.

PELA accepts all students, and is currently pursuing accreditation from the Delta County School District.

They are also bound to Colorado Common Core standards, and preparation for the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) begins earlier in their education than at traditional high schools. But they aren't just a college preparatory school, said Phil.

PELA's mission is to "humanize the educational experience and increase long-term student well-being." They strive to prepare students to lead lives independently. Their philosophy is drawn from numerous sources, from Socrates and Epicurus, to 20th century educator John Dewey, known as the Modern Father of Experiential Education. Class structure takes into account the unique differences in each student.

Parents play a big role in their children's education, helping students to set goals in five branches of wellbeing: skills, school, social/civic, security, happiness, health and environment, to reach their goals, and to stay grounded. Parent-teacher conferences focus on academic progress and on student well-being. For example, said Phil, "Are they getting enough sleep?"

The parents are very supportive, he said. "They have become kind of an ad hoc founding board. They're great."

PELA also focuses on emotional intelligence, those "soft relationship skills" like decision-making, self-motivation, communication and listening skills generally not emphasized in a traditional public school setting. "If you look at all the research, business and corporate leaders are looking for people with more soft skills," said Phil. Jobs of the future are kind of uncertain and unknown and we need people who are creative and can engage other people."

They learn quickly, said Porras. As a result, their duties are evolving. Interns recently began producing a promotional video about Elsewhere's art wall and the street mural at Paonia Elementary School, both public art projects.

They also have an opportunity to earn high school credit for their work. The internships help them with their long-term goals while providing valuable life skills. Sofia plans to pursue a career in photojournalism and hopes to work for National Geographic. She is applying to attend a National Geographic summer photography camp in New York this summer.

Saffire wants to travel the world to study photography and interior design. She is seeking creative ways to travel affordably, perhaps as an au pair/nanny. "We're interacting with people from around the world," said Saffire. "We meet a big range of people."

They're also learning the art of the interview. Interviewing "can be scary," said Liza, who wants to work in the film industry. "It's a good life skill."

In 2017 she attended the KVNF Youth Radio Camp, interviewing 103-year-old Paonia resident Peggy Clements, and Hotchkiss resident Mike Hillman, who became a quadriplegic after falling from a ladder in 2016. The interview was her idea, and Ali Lightfoot at KVNF helped to prepare for it. She called the experience "really powerful," and said the Hillmans were very welcoming and friendly. After the interview, Mike showed her around the Hillman House, a fully handicapped accessible house built by the community.

What they participate in is ultimately the choice of the students, said Phil. "If they were all wanting to be mechanics or work on a farm or something like that, I'd probably try and find them a different internship/mentorship type program."

Through partnerships they are also learning to grow and harvest food and to prepare meals with locally sourced ingredients. They volunteer for The Trading Post's senior meals program, and are learning how to run a community kitchen and plan large events.

Last fall they helped prepare and serve a "Harvest Moon Dinner," a locally-sourced African inspired meal, in partnership with Edesia Community Kitchen and The Learning Council. This Saturday evening they are hosting a school fundraiser at Edesia, where Swiss-trained chef Lucas Wentzel is preparing a six-course meal.

Students also volunteer with A Little Help Paonia, a non-profit helping elder citizens remain active community members. This winter they volunteered with a group of kids to shovel snow, but didn't have much work.

They also do "normal stuff," said Liza, like study math and read books together.

Through their experiences the three have also become close friends. "We kind of just do everything together," said Sofia. They also play tennis and pickleball, mountain bike and hike. This winter they took a hut trip on Red Mountain Pass and underwent avalanche training. This spring they will mentor Crawford Montessori kids with their spring performance, and this summer they plan to summit a 14er.

Phil said the hope is that PELA will continue to grow. "We want to be a permanent fixture in town," he said.

"I'm just glad I have the opportunity to do this," said Liza. "This school has made me more happy than I've ever been. I have had so many amazing opportunities."

She also believes the school will grow and "become huge. And it is going to be amazing knowing we were the first ones."

Photo submitted From left, Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy director Emily Wassell took Sophia, Saffire and Liza tour the Colorado State Capitol last fall to learn how government operates.
Photo by Tamie Meck Liza, front, and Saffire practice their photography skills at a monthly Elsewhere artists’ meet and greet. Last summer they purchased digital cameras with money earned from babysitting. They plan to pool resources to buy other lenses, flashes and other equipment that they can share.
Photo submitted Self-awareness and getting outdoors are among the many focuses at PELA.
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