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The City Journals

Paradigm celebrates 15 years of embracing individualized instruction

Oct 04, 2021 03:34PM ● By Julie Slama

Paradigm graduates return to celebrate their former school’s 15th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Paradigm Schools.)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In 2006, Paradigm leased a Sandy office space to open its doors as a charter high school. Warehouses served as its cafeteria and gym, and that first graduating class had just nine students.

This past spring, Paradigm celebrated that 15th anniversary with alumni, including some of the 80 to 100 who annually have graduated in recent years. The alumni returned to the South Jordan school building, which now offers education for 7th through 12th grade school students.

“We had a couple hundred people come and former students from all the years were represented,” Paradigm Director Fernando Seminario said, adding they reminisced and reconnected while looking at school photos, yearbooks, trophies and memorabilia for students and talking to staff and teachers.

Last year’s SBO president Enoch Endemano attended the reunion, listening to people talk, seeing former friends and paging through yearbooks.

“I have a brother who was there at the beginning and my parents help founded it (Paradigm), so it was fun to look through the yearbooks and find people who I remembered from being a small child and were a lot bigger than me back then,” he said.

It was his brother, Seth, who was amongst the first students enrolled at Paradigm. About the same time, Seminario was hired as a Spanish teacher.

The Endemanos, Michelle and Ed, had served on its founding board, embracing the Thomas Jefferson methods for education, a vision shared by Celia Johnson, who would become Paradigm’s first director.

“It was her vision,” Michelle Endemano said. “She held open meetings, invited her friends and explained her thought pattern. We were familiar with the Thomas Jefferson method, so because of that, we were all over it. We participated in the original brainstorming, creating a vision and participated in the hiring board.”

Seminario said a group of about 20 homeschool families who were looking for school options for their high school students and not finding what they wanted met for about two years before starting the school. Paradigm was one of the first charter high schools in Utah.

“Back then, the classrooms were essentially cubicles, an open office space separated by tall bookshelves,” he said. “We used to joke students could take three classes at once.” 

During this time, Seminario was studying to earn his graduate degree in public administration. He planned to leave the school to complete an internship in the field, but then the opportunity came to teach part time so he could gain his internship experience in the school. Believing in the mission and not wanting to leave, he went on to be the vice principal for about seven years. 

It was during this time that Seminario had a lasting impact on Seth Endemano, Seth’s mother said.

“He (Seminario) was really a good mentor, and as an administrator, it wasn’t really his job description,” she said. “He really impacted our Seth; he had a huge impact on him and was able to navigate some very, I would say, treacherous waters. It wasn’t his (Seminario’s) job to individually help these kids that he does, but he does it for anybody who needs his help, that’s the kind of impact he’s had on students and the school, that willingness.” 

In 2008, the school moved into its current building, and in 2013, it expanded to include a preparatory school for seventh and eighth grades. Around this time, Seminario became the director.

“Our tagline is that our students learn how to think, not what to think,” he said. “Our students, who we call ‘scholars,’ discover things and find out things on their own with the help of our teachers, or ‘mentors,’ who guide them through the discovery process. It was a founding philosophy for our families, and it’s still what is taught.”

This way, students are empowered and take ownership for their education, Michelle Endemano said.

“Paradigm has invited and trained our children to learn to think, not what to think, but to be able to—how to go about thinking,” she said. “So, they’re good critical thinkers.”

As her children have sought higher education, “they have done very well in college because they have a real personal stewardship in their own educational process and in every part of their life,” she said.

Seminario said families play an important role in Paradigm’s culture.

“Families are the primary educators; the school is a resource to fulfill the scholars’ goals,” he said. “We work with them to find a pathway for their scholars’ success with individualized instruction. We know every scholar learns differently and has differing goals. We offer different modes of learning, based with scholar-led learning, and work together to determine a model that works best for them.”

For example, the Endemanos’ daughter, Emma, who is part of the school congress, is planning to graduate this year, after her junior year in school.

“I’m graduating early to get an early start on my future education,” Emma said. “Paradigm is really good at helping to accomplish what you want and well as making sure that you still are able to learn all that you should be able to learn. They’ve been really supportive in helping me figure it all out. I’ve loved the environment and just how it’s such as great community there and how your mentors really want to help you succeed in what you want, and they’re willing to put in the effort.”

Some scholars may attend only half-day in school, Seminario said, so Paradigm offers flexibility in their class scheduling.

“We’ll hear any idea a family has and try to make it work out,” he said.

Michelle Endemano said Paradigm works with students at their own pace, whether they graduate early, go the traditional speed or have kids who need extra accommodation or help.

“They have a few fifth-year seniors, and that’s OK. It really is,” she said. “Because to have to learn to a test and just get those kids to learn to a test, doesn’t help them with life skills. It doesn’t help them to be successful out in the real, grown-up world. So, the way they can pivot to help build successful people out of their scholars is really impressive.”

Seminario also said many families prefer the smaller class sizes of about 20 students so they can stay “motivated and not get lost academically” in larger, public high schools. Overall, the school has 415 in high school, up from 370 last year. There are about 65 students in seventh and eighth grades.

The school also offers the application-based Jefferson Scholar program, which allows students to complete state curriculum high school credits as they study topics they choose. The program isn’t a lecture format from teachers, rather, the scholars select a topic they want to learn about, research it and present it in one of several ways to their peers and mentors.

In the coursework, Paradigm also encourages students to learn from original sources and materials.

“When we talk about the Constitution, we have students read the Constitution, not a textbook with a description of it.  We want our students to read original works, use original sources and rely on the masterpieces when they study,” Seminario said.

As a school, he said, they have become a community, reaffirming their mission daily together. The students accept their “shared responsibility to create a free society and a better world” through their individualized learning, their engagement in conversation of ideas, their resiliency in overcoming challenges, their responsibility for their actions and ability to live in gratitude.

“It’s inspiring and affirming,” Seminario said. “It’s powerful; it’s beautiful. I think people thrive here who can really align with those formative statements we recite of what our beliefs are here at our school and everything we do has to align with that kind of mantra, that declaration.”