Imagine your child’s day: They wake up, wolf down breakfast, get dressed and then head off to school-only “school” isn’t inside a fluorescent-lit, rectangular box. School takes place inside a traditional Native American tipi, replete with heated floors, swivel chair desks, a modern whiteboard and two teachers whose effervescence fills the room.
Outside the tipi, a white rescue horse meanders around the loosely fenced pasture. A zipline runs straight across a sparkling pond, where a family of ducks has made its home. Kayaking, paddle boarding and climbing are popular daily activities.
A state-of-the-art innovation lab completes the outfit. Kids program LEGO robots, shoot photos, draft architectural plans for a chicken coop, operate sewing machines, engage in woodworking, welding, geographical orienteering, digital design and a myriad of other projects, each inspired by the student’s intrinsic interest in learning.
Within this model, each child is encouraged to follow their own path that, in the words of the school’s entrepreneurial founders, Carolyn and Geoff Helt, “unlocks their genius.” Fridays are dedicated to individual projects known as the child’ s “GPS”—their Genius, Passion, Spark. Within the model, experts and artists in residence are brought in to help facilitate and advise.
“Our guiding mantra is: we don’t ask if you are smart,” says Carolyn, “We ask how you are smart.”
A New School
This school might just sound too magical to be true. Yet tucked away on an 11-acre property in the Old Farm District, such a school, called Forge, exists.
This radical, avant-garde model proudly proclaims itself as a “paradigm shift” in education, and in every way it is. There are no tests, textbooks, recess bells or assessment standards, no pre-packaged curriculum and no checking of boxes. This school consciously does everything differently.
“As a parent you start to get really clear about who your kids are, how they learn and what they need to thrive in the world. Unfortunately, that clarity does not mesh with traditional school,” says Geoff Helt. “There is no symmetry in public schools relative to how kids actually learn and what tools they need to be leaders in this world. Whether those traditional schools are public, private or charter, they teach to the common core, and that’s troubling...It is so past time for new ways of thinking in education.”
Determined to change the arc of their two sons’ education, in 2020 the Helts hired their youngest son’s 3rd grade teacher, Jackie LaFrenz, to launch Forge. Jackie LaFrenz began her career teaching in a one-room, mixed-age schoolhouse outside of Yellowstone, before relocating to Bend to help start the Seven Peaks School and then later, Powell Butte Community Charter School.
Shifting Course in the Pandemic
In the spring of 2021 during the height of the pandemic, Jackie LaFrenz encountered parents and teachers around Bend in tears because their children were falling through the education cracks. This is when the idea for a new education opportunity was sparked. Forge quickly hired Jackie LaFrenz's’s husband, Todd LaFrenz, a teacher in the BLP school system for 25 years, to join the team. Todd LaFrenz has always been a staunch proponent of educational reform and alternative learning models, having spent 13 years at the charter middle school, Realms.
“Todd and I don’t teach standards, and we don't teach content, we teach human beings,” says Jackie LaFrenz. “Human beings are wired to learn. The Helts put no restraints on us. We can teach in a manner that engages and connects. It is a teacher’s dream come true.”
Next year, they plan to expand capacity to 16 students by adding a third teacher, Jack Husmann, a former student of Jackie LaFrenz's’s, who will soon graduate with his Masters in Education from University of Oregon.
Everything is Possible
“Our ethos is ‘everything is possible, period,’” says Geoff Helt. “That goes from what’s possible for each of these kids in their lives and their futures but also for our educators. They should have every resource available to them, whether that’s a table saw or a sewing machine or an iMac...or an expert-in-residence, those things should just be at the ready and available, so everything is possible.”
“The possibilities are endless,” says Todd LaFrenz. “We aren’t experts at very many things, but we are facilitators and guides. We give the kids hard problems to solve, and we give them the support to explore, fail and ultimately succeed. That's what makes it really fun and exciting.”
Forge’s student-specific approach is built upon three Next-Gen capabilities: Problem Solving, Prototyping and Storytelling. Within these capabilities, Forge believes the individual attributes of future leaders are the 6 Cs—Confidence, Courage, Compassion, Curiosity, Creativity and Collaboration. Students maintain a digital portfolio of their work and they use the six “Cs” as their model for student evaluation.
“We want every kid that comes out of Forge to lead with clarity about who they are—their strengths, passions, and their gifts—and the capacity to create a truly meaningful life,” says Geoff Helt.
At $20,000 a year tuition is not for the faint of heart, yet the Forge founders are committed to financial accessibility and have personally funded three students, in addition to launching a new scholarship program for future students. Currently they teach 9 to 13-year-olds in grades 4 through middle school. The intention is to go through high school eventually.
“We actually believe the time is not far away where people will look at this and not say ‘alternative,’” says Geoff Helt. “We won’t have any illusions it will happen overnight, but this is going to become the way learning and education looks in the future.”