Year after year, one program proves eye-opening for students eager to discover the path that lies ahead.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Prairie. You can find the print version, complete with student testimonials, here

In 1971 Prairie is six years young, a mere fledgling in academic circles. It is a place of discovery and innovation. One fall day, Jack Mitchell, Prairie’s Headmaster, and Sam Johnson, Board Chair, send Peter Benson, Science Chair and enthusiastic idea guru, on the Johnson Wax company plane to visit an east coast independent school where Peter has located a unique program that helps students develop self-reliance and plan for their future.

Here is a way for students to participate actively in their own education rather than having it all arranged. It also broadens “who” educates a young person, involving both the local and greater community.

Could such a program be a fit for Prairie?

On his return to Wind Point, Peter pitches his idea, calling it Interim, and planning begins with the intent to go “on-air” in the spring of 1972. A unique aspect of the project is The Steering Committee, composed of both faculty and students. (To this day Peter says, “It was one of the few committees I always found enjoyable!”).

The committee crafts the structure, writes guidelines, sets checkpoints, and reviews courses and proposals, and reads final student reports. This group is patient and determined, meeting almost every Wednesday morning for the entire school year so that significant opportunities are provided for everyone.

Ultimately, Interim becomes a two-week period of independence, inquiry, and innovation with a sponsor or trip coordinator for juniors and seniors, as well as a series of seminar experiences for freshmen and sophomores. From the beginning, a key concept is that each student is required to assume some responsibility for the organization of their learning. Students participate in the planning of their seminars and with approval and a faculty sponsor can also offer their own classes. Then, after their underclass seminars, juniors and seniors are ready to design their own independent experiences.

It is the spring of 1972 and Interim is ready for lift off. Future internships include lab work at the Medical College of Wisconsin, teaching tennis, working at radio and television stations, photographing the architecture of Colonial America, living on the Sioux Indian Reservation, biological study of the Smoky Mountains, and encouraging voter registration in Hispanic communities. School-sponsored trips focus on language, science, and combine pre-trip research with preparation. Early adventures include a Wyoming trek, a Key Largo marine biology expedition, the iconic Grand Canyon adventure, and trips to Mexico, France, and England. Over the years Interim seminars include such topics as: Film Making, Logic, Hovercraft, Bach/Beethoven/Beatles, Build a Better Mousetrap, Intro to Communications, Bread Baking, Poetry, French Cooking, Anatomy, and Social Service.

It is the spring of 2018. Interim is forty-six years old and counting. Since 1972 there have been five Heads of School and over 2,000 graduates. There have been curriculum revisions and spectacular new buildings. So, too, Interim has transformed: the program has moved to May from the original spring date and the seminar program for 9th and 10th grades no longer exists. However, the core focus of Interim remains amazingly congruent to its founding principles.

Juniors and seniors [now, only juniors] still design their own independent projects and career investigations and prepare for formative school-sponsored trips in order to experience the world outside the classroom. The belief that Interim at its best is about independence, inquiry, and innovation remains. Working in a medical lab, hiking in the Southwest, interning with a United States Representative on the Hill, traveling to China, or working in an artist’s glass studio are among the opportunities current students have explored.

For forty-six years, Interim has helped students realize the challenges, responsibilities, and rewards of specific careers or areas of interest through immersion. Often, it’s Interim that fleshes out college admission essays with descriptions of educational experiential change. Across the years, Prairie alumni rank Interim as one of the most popular and rewarding school experiences. What began as one of those innovative, new-fangled founding Prairie ideas has continued, in the interim, to flourish.