Michael Lowe's Learning-By-Doing Philosophy 3

The Lessons of Lowe Life in the High Country

Michael Lowe is on a mission. With a lifetime of adventure in the natural world under his belt, he strongly believes in the transformative power of experiencing.

Not just talking about it, watching it or reading about it—or even just learning about it—but doing it.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids, raised off the grid at 9,000 feet in the foothills of Pikes Peak,” he explains. “We didn’t have a TV, so we would spend most of our days running around the mountains, exploring. Consequently, the outdoors have been, and still are, a big part of my life.”

This hands-on philosophy is one he gets to exercise as a teacher at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, an alternative school that has become a leader in personalized education. Lowe splits his time between teaching at Yampah and his work as a partner in Adventure Outdoors, a one-stop shop for Rocky Mountain activities. For Lowe, these two roles—personalized education and adventure—are critically complimentary.

Lowe explains “My interest in the outdoor adventure business started during my first teaching job out of college, where I would take inner-city kids from Los Angeles on all kinds of outdoor excursions in Southern California. I eventually started working for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and spent six summers leading folks on 30-day expeditions in some of the most beautiful places in the world.”

“I learned a tremendous amount about the skills needed to travel and live in harsh environments, but mostly, I was profoundly moved by the power of experiential education to transform lives. Even though our work at Adventure Outdoors has been mostly focused on day trips, we have had recent opportunities to move into experiential education. We’re offering more multi-day experiences, along with leadership training and corporate team-building in the outdoors. These experiences are so powerful. I’m hopeful more businesses will begin to see the value in using outdoor adventures to build a great work environment.”

A Yampah Advantage

Yampah Mountain High School sits on the side of a mountain, immersed in a hardscrabble high desert landscape: juniper-pinyon forest, rabbitbrush, sumac, and sage. The school building is small, almost like a home. There’s a grow dome to the south. A sound studio up the hillside, paths in between. Below the school, I-70 and the Colorado River pour through the valley.

Walking through the school doors, a comfortable atmosphere prevails. Houseplants, art and friendly staff create a warm vibe. A dog wanders freely. No weird lunch smell, beige walls, or echoey halls. The students are colorful—literally. Pink hair, blue hair. Piercings. Black eye makeup. Brown skin, white skin, and black abound. There’s a girl in pajama bottoms and slippers, another in a work uniform. These kids are fully themselves.

To see Lowe interact with students is to witness a man fulfilled. Familiar ease flows between Lowe, staff, and students, speaking to the success of Yampah’s mission, “a learning community designed to develop meaningful relationships, a pursuit for lifelong learning, and the academic skills necessary for the 21st-century student.”

These kids simply weren’t flourishing in regular high school. Yampah opened its doors in 1989 as a “school of choice” (a public school that students can choose over whatever school simply lies closest to home) with the goal of meeting the learning needs of at-risk kids. A very different proposition than forcing these struggling teens to plug into a standardized “box.”

Plug and Play Versus Go Out and Play

The familiar model of high school most adults know was adapted from the assembly line created by Henry Ford: kids move from place to place, and at each station, some work is added toward the finished product. Underlying that concept is the idea that everyone learns at the same rate, studies the same things, and learns in the same way. Time and experience have shown that this plug-and-play model doesn’t work for everyone.

Expeditionary learning, which embeds academic content in a project or experience, has proven its worth with many at-risk kids, teens who have failed to thrive in standard high schools. (The concept of expeditionary learning has its roots in comprehensive school reform models based on the educational ideas of German educator Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound.)

Lowe says that the Yampah team “is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen,” a team that’s “pushing and exploring the boundaries of how to provide excellent education with multiple challenges.” After working in Denver for the Department of Education, and then working at the University of Colorado to implement multi-million dollar grants designed to improve k-12 education, Lowe came to understand that “even with strong resources, sustainable scalable change must come from within a school.” Despite having almost no resources, Yampah was “having more success at innovating education than many of the districts and schools that had benefitted from these large grants.”

So what would happen if Yampah had money?

A local business leader, Altai Chuluun, worked with Yampah principal Leigh McGown and Lowe to craft a proposal to rethink high school and to go after one of five $10-million X-Q grants, the nation’s largest grant contest for high schools. “Our idea was strong and made it through several rounds to the finals, but ultimately was not one of the five schools chosen,” says Lowe. The winners were all in large urban school districts.

Looking Toward the Future

“Even though we were disappointed, we felt committed to making the idea happen,” says Lowe. Yampah has received needed support from several community partners, notably Colorado Mountain College. “I’m not sure if folks realize what a treasure we have in our local college, but CMC’s leadership has not only helped transform how we bring state-of-the-art education to rural areas, it’s also actively building better bridges to rural high schools.”

Under Lowe’s guidance, Yampah is raising money and exploring in-kind services. “I’m working closely with several community partners to build an innovation center and incubator for start-up businesses,” he says. That center would form the nexus of what Lowe wants to offer these kids.

“I think at the end, I’m really passionate about two things: Building strong communities and organizations through innovation, community partnerships, and education. And helping to build a system where every kid has a landing spot—whether it be college or career.” That means “re-thinking education” so that it’s “about cultivating passions.”

Professionally and privately, Lowe lives by example. “My wife and I have busy lives, so we work hard to protect the time we do have as a family… we want to make that commitment even stronger in the coming years. We try to have dinner every night as a family; keep Sunday as a family day. We enjoy our trips and try to keep a sense of adventure about life [and] laugh a lot. The little things matter.”

A boy raised off-grid in the high Rockies, Lowe finds that “I have found most of my heroes and mentors in my own backyard. I’m drawn to the people in the trenches—the teachers, the firefighters, the everyday person just trying to do right by their family and making their own little piece of the world a better place.”

Those are the little things that truly matter.