After 20 years, Bellingham’s Explorations Academy says it’s here to stay

As a teenager, Explorations Academy founder Daniel Kirkpatrick surveyed his Illinois high school packed with more than 4,000 students and thought, “There has to be a better way.”

Yet his desire to redefine education was not satisfied by a series of nontraditional teaching jobs throughout his 20s. In 1986, he and two other teachers, while sitting at a restaurant table, decided to open a school in Bellingham that would fulfill that desire.

In 1995, Explorations Academy opened its doors. With the independent high school celebrating its 20-year anniversary this school year, Kirkpatrick believes his school is not just a model of how education could be, but that it is a model of how education will be in the future.

“We are here for the long run,” Kirkpatrick said. “We decided we wanted this to be a permanent part of the landscape, and I think the demographics are going in our favor.”

A different environment

Students at Explorations Academy often work on projects in the school library, but they’re rarely huddled around a textbook.

On Tuesday, Dec. 2, Cyrus Frost, Jack Willnauer and Henry Smartt spread out a piece of paper over the bookshelves lining the library walls and dropped a blue blood-like substance on the paper to simulate blood spatter. The students, all in different grades, take a forensics class together in which they are asked to experiment and draw their own conclusions, said teacher Lisa Beck, who was one of the original founders.

Smartt’s dad, Scott Smartt, teaches math at Bellingham High School. The family homeschooled Henry before sending him to Explorations. While Scott Smartt had his older son go to Bellingham High, he preferred the smaller class size for Henry.

“It’s another option that I’m glad we have for some students,” Scott Smartt said.

Kirkpatrick said one thing that sets Explorations apart from other schools is the belief that education should not be about what happened in the past. The current system of public education was created during an information poor society, he said, and now that the world is overloaded with information, the system should evolve.

For that reason, rather than focusing as much on history, they emphasize global awareness. Students are asked to think critically about current events from all around the world, and each student is expected to take one trip overseas during their time at the school.

One student who already took her international trip, Hannah Cayen, 16, went to Kenya and Tanzania with other students and teachers earlier this year. They went on safari walks, saw exotic animals and even drained blood from a cow.

Cayen had previously been homeschooled and tried out both public and private school but said nothing suited her until she came to Explorations Academy.

“It’s a different atmosphere.” Cayen said. “I’m got going to say we’re all buddy-buddy like family, but it’s definitely more accepting and open, and talking with teachers is very natural.”

Bacchus Taylor, who has been teaching at the school for eight years, said one of the reasons he has stayed at Explorations for so long is because he has learned more as a teacher than he ever did as a student.

Taylor now teaches Spanish, fantasy literature and Ultimate Frisbee, but his classes constantly change. He has also taught science, history and transcendentalism.

There are few days that follow the typical schedule, Taylor said. The school aims to have students spend 10 to 20 percent of each day outside of school. Activities include visiting major universities in the area and talking to “people making a difference,” he said. Students and teachers often go on backpacking trips together or participate in other outdoor activities.

There are 33 students enrolled in the school, and students of different ages often take classes together.

“What they have in common is that they decidedly wanted something other than the mainstream option.” Taylor said. “Public school is the default option. These guys all had enough gumption, had enough support, had enough thoughtfulness to decide they were going to look at other possibilities out there.”

Community support

The average lifespan of an independent high school is seven years, Kirkpatrick said, and the school barely made it through some tough times.

“There’s been a number of times when it was like, ‘How the heck are we going to get through this?’” he said.

Active fundraising and generous donations from the community have kept the school alive, he said. Most of the furniture was donated, including tables and bookshelves. Tuition per year is $14,500 for each student, and Kirkpatrick said they provide financial aid to 35 to 50 percent of students.

Yet Kirkpatrick believes he has carved out a permanent place in Bellingham. Public schools have many of the same goals as Explorations, such as treating each kid as an individual and creating a healthy social environment, but they usually can’t reach those because of what he calls an “institutional environment.”

“There’s a way in which we are able to do it that most public schools cannot,” he said. “We have the support of the community and we’re doing something nobody else is doing.”