For some kids, a traditional classroom is not the best environment for growth, academic or otherwise. Being told what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it is stifling. Just ask Gabe Watson.
Although he attended a middle school for academically talented students, when Watson started at a local public high school, he ran into obstacles to his unique learning style and personality. Those road blocks lead him to enroll in Olympia’s Rising Tide School when he was 16. A private school for children ages 5-19 based upon the Sudbury model of education, Rising Tide let Watson determine what, how, and when he was going to learn. Now 18 and with a diploma from the school, Watson’s non-traditional education lead him to a full time job and provided him with some real world skills.
Many people raise their eyebrows upon discovering that Rising Tide (like all Sudbury schools) has no set curriculum. Each student is charged with “…uncovering and pursuing their unique interests
in their own way and on their own time.” Watson discovered early on that given the freedom to play video games all day long “…you basically get sick of it. You start to think, ‘I want to go do something now.'” That’s where the self-directed learning comes in.
A lifelong interest in art, design, and working with his hands, lead Watson to pursue an apprenticeship with Eco Woodworks, a custom carpentry shop in Olympia. “I took woodworking in high school for one year” he says. But traditional distribution requirements got in the way of continuing. “I had to take a different elective, and I didn’t have room for it after that.”
He presented his idea at the regular Thursday all school meeting. ” I said ‘Hey I want to do this internship at Eco Woodworks. I already have off-campus privileges. Do I have permission to go straight to Eco Woodworks every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so long as I hold up my (regular) attendance requirements?” Because Rising Tide is run through a democratic process, the entire school, students, faculty, and staff had to vote to approve Watson’s proposal.
The school community also had a voice in deciding if Watson should graduate this spring. Getting a diploma from Rising Tide is different than graduating from a traditional high school. Students are eligible to seek a diploma when they are at least 16 and have attended the school for a minimum of two years. According to Watson, “What you do is notify at a school meeting that you’re going to seek a diploma. Then you have to write a thesis, and that’s where you get to defend and justify the things that you’ve done for the past few years. Then they vote whether or not you’ve spent your years there productively.”
The two things Watson focused on in his thesis were his apprenticeship and the time he spent rebuilding the engine of his 1989 BMW 325ix.
When he first discovered Eco Woodworks, he hit it off well with owner Dave King, and what initially was just an opportunity to learn more about woodworking developed into full time employment after he graduated this spring. “Working there has been awesome. I have a real world skill. I have a job where I’m not just a grunt. I manage the products division. I get to research and develop skateboards and other products for the business. And I handle things like the Facebook page and Twitter.” Currently developing a line of longboard decks and snowboards for Eco Woodworks, Watson sees himself staying there for quite a while.
When he wasn’t at work, Watson would spend his school days researching parts, planning, and budgeting for his car rebuild. “I probably spent as much time on the computer as I did pulling wrenches,” he says of his pet project.
Most people would have been happy to leave the car as it was when he purchased it. “It ran good. It only had 123,000 miles on it. It was pretty much rust free.” He laughs, then adds, “It was a stunning example of a fine piece of machinery, and I decided it was too slow!”
“I pulled the engine myself,” he says proudly. “I replaced the 2.5 liter inline 6 with the 2.7 liter inline 6. The cylinders are the same size; it’s the same bore, but it has a longer stroke which makes it a 2.7. It’s a larger displacement. This car is far from stock. I swapped in the new engine and I added a Garrett TO4z turbo charger”
He has a few more changes in store for the car too. “It needs more rubber and wider tires. I want to take the fender flares off – I’m not a huge fan of those – and put really wide ones on.”
Watson is also a fine bicycle mechanic. During his first year at Rising Tide, he returned to his old middle school and taught a three day bike maintenance class. He’s one of those people who can see something, take it apart, and put it back together based primarily on intuition, some good research and occasionally a helping hand.
“I was into cars before I was into bikes. For my 8th grade project at NOVA Middle School, I rebuilt a Sand Rail dune buggy that had a 69-70 VW engine in it. It didn’t run when I started. I rebuilt the carburetor and did some other basic stuff to get it running. It was a blast. We repainted the whole thing.” He was 14 at the time. The sense of accomplishment he felt mastering something with his own two hands has stayed with him. It’s helped him direct his own learning.
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