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CLOSED ENCOUNTERS

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE OPEN SCHOOL IS ANYTHING BUT AN OPEN BOOK.AN OPEN AND SHUT UP CASE AT THE JEFFCO OPEN SCHOOL, THEY DON'T ALWAYS PRACTICE WHAT THEY TEACH.

For wheelchair-bound Ian Watlington, who says he never fit in at Green Mountain High School and was about to give up on school altogether, the Open School "was a lifesaver."

Although many of the school's students were considered above average in intelligence, they often arrived at the Open School because they had difficulty fitting in elsewhere. In fact, the school gained a not-so-positive reputation for accepting "behavioral problems" who had been kicked out, or had dropped out, of other schools, in both the district and the metro area at large.

Not surprisingly, the Open School offered plenty of sensitivity training--and not just for students. The staff developed a "conflict resolution model" for settling grievances. The first step was to confront one another, one-on-one, about any problems. If talking it out didn't resolve the conflict, step two was for a mediator from the school to step in. Only after those first two steps failed were the aggrieved parties supposed to go outside the school for help.

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That didn't happen often. Generally, The Community liked to put up a united front. After all, of all the public schools in Jeffco, only the Open School and Dennison/ D'Evelyn, the county's alternative "back-to-basics" schools--the yin to the Open School's yang--were separate line items on the district budget. While reductions in the general budget would affect the other schools across the board, when the yearly "what can we cut" crunch time came, the Open School's nearly $2-million-a-year price tag stood out like a turkey's neck at Thanksgiving. Several times, it was only through the concerted lobbying of the school's parents and educators that the Open School was saved from the budget ax.

Somehow the Open School managed to survive year after year. It was a nice place to teach, free of the restraints and never-ending paperwork of traditional schools. And in some ways that created a problem, according to several parents. Rather than move on to other jobs, teachers stayed and became the true power at the school, used to getting their way and tolerating administrators only so long as they went along with the program. And parents, who expected to be actively consulted about any changes, were often left in the dark.

For example, parents weren't warned in advance when the combined third- and fourth-grade class was merged with the combined fifth- and sixth-grade class. "All of a sudden, the two classes--about sixty students--were thrown in together with the two teachers," says Honnecke. "The only thing we could make of it was that the teachers wanted some adult companionship.

"That might be understandable. But the point is--or at least it seemed to me and other parents I talked to--they were making decisions that were best for themselves, not the children."

Still, for the most part, the parents, thirty-plus teachers and students worked together. When Lewis Finch was hired five years ago as the district's new superintendent, he came with a reputation for supporting traditional schools. Honnecke sponsored a get-together at her home so that parents and teachers could meet Finch and convince him of the value of the Open School. "He basically told us that he believed all schools should be the same," Honnecke recalls. "Especially high schools."

At the Open School, the merging of the elementary and high school programs had never quite achieved the harmonic convergence one might expect from such a communicative bunch. The elementary and middle school teachers resented the high school teachers, who they saw as not having to work as hard; and the high school teachers often treated the other teachers like second-class citizens of The Community. Cliques formed, both for social reasons and to protect their little fiefdoms.

"One of these was Judith Miller Smith, Ted Bettridge and Mike Delaney," says an employee who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "They reminded me of the `popular kids' from when I was in high school."

Bettridge and Smith, who had been at the school since 1989, befriended the new assistant principal who came on board for the 1992-93 school year. Her name was Karla Myles.

Myles arrived at the Open School with a stellar reputation as an innovative educator and a glowing recommendation from Jeffco deputy superintendent John Hefty. She'd created an alternative education program at Lincoln High School in Denver, which had gotten good reviews in the district. She was energetic and full of ideas; parents like Honnecke, who worried that the school had fallen into a rut, were taken with Myles's ability to motivate students, staff and parents alike.

It didn't matter to The Community that Myles was a lesbian. It was certainly no secret. She didn't announce it, but when the Open School helped her, her two children and another woman move into a house, "it wasn't hard to figure out," says a woman who assisted with the move. "There was the kids' bedrooms and a master bedroom."

According to an Open School employee, Ted Bettridge and Judith Smith, both middle school teachers, were attracted to Myles's rising star. "Just like the popular kids in high school who hang all over the new kid to see if they'll fit into their clique, they were all over her," he says. "They invited her places after school, and they all seemed to get along like old friends. Pretty soon, it was obvious to the rest of us that there was something going on between Judith and Karla in particular."

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