061216 2040 Zach Morris tm.jpg

− Zach Morris

“We’re really trying to offer something that empowers kids to want to be at school.”
TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

For Zach Morris, education is about meeting students where they're at.

"Why don’t we create some (spaces) that fit exactly that person we’re trying to put in there, instead of asking them to change to fit into this structure?" Morris said. 

He started Conscious Pursuits three years ago, an alternative school that currently serves 10 students. 

It's a "community immersion school," meaning the majority of a student's time is not in a classroom. They're out in Missoula, learning from "healthy adult models" and engaging in their passions.

"We're really trying to offer something that empowers kids to want to be at school," he said. "I worked in so many different models and arenas where that wasn’t really the case for the student population. That was something I wanted to shift."

Melissa Neff, a child psychologist, met Morris when Conscious Pursuits was just a dream.

"Him putting that into fruition within a year is incredible," Neff said. "I have a couple families who have worked with him, who had experiences where their kid couldn't make it in public school ... and now they're excited about school. They want to go every day."

It's not a knock on traditional education, Morris pointed out, but an atypical way of giving students what they need to succeed. Student choice and allowing the curriculum to meld with their interests are his priorities.

"I’m really trying to move students from doing out of fear and obligation to doing out of joyful willingness," he said. 

The school serves grades 2-12, but this fall it'll expand to K-12 and it's moving to a new, bigger location. Students build portfolios rather than getting grades. They can rack up 150-plus hours of community service in a year.

"One kid ... he's about 15 years old. His parents were terrified he was going to drop out of school," Neff said. "He has a lot of mental health issues that make it hard for him to go to school. They had pretty much given up on him getting an education, they even thought he wouldn't get his GED."

Neff recommended Conscious Pursuits. They started slow -- a meeting here and there with Morris.

"What happened is they left, and the kid started asking, 'When am I going to go?'" Neff said. "He hasn't been this excited about school since he was in kindergarten.

"He (Morris) just has a way to reach these kids. Beyond being a good teacher, he's just a good human. He knows what people need, he's intuitive, he lets them lead and then follows their lead."

Before starting Conscious Pursuits, Morris was a middle school and high school literature and writing teacher, working in schools across the spectrum: traditional, rural, inner city, charter, private therapeutic boarding schools, etc.

"I saw, even in those varying environments, just a lot of the same needs going unmet for students, whether these students were really affluent or whether these students were coming from really impoverished lifestyles," he said. "I saw apathy in students, I saw hopelessness in teachers and I was unwilling to be a part of that process."

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Reporter for the Missoulian