Thurston County Off Campus School

By Steven Kant

I first saw the Off Campus School in 1974 when I answered an ad for a job. Randy Johnson, the school administrator, told me the job was filled, but when I thanked him and turned to leave, he encouraged me to stay and have a look around anyway. Since the school looked like something different, I took him up on the offer. I saw groups of teenagers sitting on old couches in living rooms and bedrooms. What was this place?

“Off Campus” was an alternative secondary school located in a run-down rental house on Martin Way. The school was founded in the early 1970s by students and teachers. It was a non-profit organization run democratically by all of the students and all of the teachers that worked there. There was a corporation and a board of directors, but the decisions were made at meetings at the school every Friday where each person had one vote. The first location was in a house on the west side, but the new location was larger and had a big yard as well.

I took a job as a teacher’s aide in the Special Education program at Lincoln Elementary School (this was before it became an alternative school), but I also worked as a volunteer at Off Campus. When the aide job was not funded in the next school year, I became an actual employee at Off Campus.

In the early years, Off Campus was populated by disaffected high school students who wanted to be in charge of their own learning. The students helped run the school, cleaned up, organized classes, and often went on to colleges and careers. 

The teachers were young, usually activists in other realms, and poor—we were paid $300 per month. This was not as bad as it sounds today; very nice group houses with four bedrooms on the west side might rent for $200, and the neighborhood food co-op made it possible to live on a food budget of $30 per month. I live in that same neighborhood today, and I have noticed that my children and their friends are paying ten times as much to live in the same houses (or more often, much rattier ones). I remember congratulating myself that I lived in a nicer house than my parents did, ate better, and had more free time.

The staff at Off Campus turned over regularly. I worked there for five years, which was a record at the time. The staff I can remember were Randy Johnson, Debbie Leung, Callie Williams, David Snyder, David Chamberlain, Beth Harris, Sego Jackson, and Joyce Hartnett. Many of these people were active in other social movements concerning Central America, sexual abuse, and women’s self-defence. 

Because this was a private school not associated with a public district, we could teach in any way we wanted, or at least any way we could afford. Since our budget was essentially zero, we were creative in getting materials from teachers we knew (remember ditto machines?), getting free equipment from the state surplus system, and finding donated equipment and friendly landlords. The state Superintendent of Public Instruction did oversee private schools, but SPI was supportive and tended to overlook the areas where we were not in conformity with their regulations.

Classes were small groups that engaged in writing, reading, and discussions. My math class typically included five or ten students with skills ranging from fourth grade to college level. I stashed each of them on a couch or a chair in separate corners, gave them something to do, and then ran around in circles talking to each of them one at a time. We made math models, did the school’s bookkeeping, and played with early computer terminals. I salvaged crude green-screen terminals and installed phone modems that displayed characters so slowly you could hear the beeps of ones and zeroes coming over the line. The students would play boom boxes into the modems to see what letters came out on the screen. We had the worst printer I have ever seen—there was a wheel turning perpendicular to the paper and for each letter, the wheel smashed down, and often through, the paper. The kids complained that what we were doing was not real math, but when I did arithmetic or algebra, they complained it was boring.

The school engaged in some wonderfully creative activities. We went to the total solar eclipse in the Columbia River gorge, we played cooperative games in the yard, and we held a simulated planning meeting to decide if Capital Mall should be built on the proposed site.

Local school districts did not have any real alternative programs at the time. They were happy to send us their students—the daughter of the superintendent of the North Thurston district went to Off Campus—but they were never willing to share the state funding that they received for each student. After we obtained some state funds for private schools for drop-outs, the student population swelled from about twenty up to sixty and our salaries increased to $600 per month. Instead of being self-motivated activists, many of the newer students were coming to Off Campus because they had been kicked out of public school. They didn’t want to be at any school at all. The Friday meetings became more difficult as the students struggled with enforcing the attendance rules we had agreed upon. The staff had to deal with more incidents of racism and homophobia. Everyone had to deal with a structure that had worked in the past but did not work as well for the current student population.

I left the Off Campus in about 1980. The school moved to a new location downtown and continued with a smaller number of students. The staff I knew moved on, many to other educational institutions but some to a variety of other jobs. I lost touch for about ten years, but saw a notice in the mid- or late-1990s that the school was closing and having a final open house. I stopped by with my daughter and met some old friends. We talked with the staff person who had been keeping the school going with a few students in the last years. She had been reading the record of the curriculum in the old days and had been wondering how we had computers for the school.

My chance encounter of looking for a job at Off Campus led me to a lifetime activity of teaching mathematics. Before that time, I felt all schools were boring prisons and I didn’t have the slightest interest in working in one. My own high school experience involved extensive training in getting good grades while amassing record numbers of undetected absences to attend anti-Vietnam War demonstrations or going on hikes in local parks. Off Campus taught me that a school could do those more useful activities instead of what I had gone to lengths to avoid. When my children were old enough to attend school, I found that Olympia was full of wonderful alternative institutions both inside and outside of the public school system.

The democratic experience at Off Campus could be frustrating. We had to help the students understand that they were actually in charge, and many did not help out. As I got older and had more experiences with running other organizations, political groups, and unions, I realized that those teenagers were actually doing really well at running the school. Most adults have little experience running our lives and institutions. We are so used to the fake participation in our jobs and government structures that when we actually have control over something like a political group or union, we don’t know what to do.