Nova Transfers: Ex-Bulldogs Speak Out


While you’re sitting in marketing or physics, there are students a block away analyzing the Twilight Zone, learning to farm, and taking an entire class on Studio Ghibli films. These are only a few of the alternative education options available at The Nova Project.
Standing just across the street from Garfield, Nova is an alternative high school that provides a more flexible academic environment for people who don’t thrive in a standard school culture.
“I had the idea that I just had to get through high school, then I could get to college and I could be fine,” said Nova student Helen Albright. “But that’s kind of a sh*tty mentality to have! So I came to look at Nova and I was like, I’m actually excited about the prospect of going here.”
Academically, Nova’s a different story than Garfield.
”Something I love about Nova is that there aren’t any grades,” said Nova student Liam Saffel. “It’s all based on competency and understanding. It’s a lot more personalized, so you shape your education,” Saffel said.
Nonstandard classes allow students to learn by pursuing their interests. Through a system called independent contracts, Nova students can work out ways to get credit without necessarily taking a class. For instance, “you can go mushroom hunting and get science credit for it,” an option pursued by Nova graduate Max Otero-Royer.
Otero-Royer and Saffel both transferred to Nova after starting high school at Garfield.
“I went to Garfield for my freshman year, but I got really depressed and anxious. I couldn’t really handle it there after about three months, and I mostly stopped going to class,” Otero-Royer said. “Nova’s more flexible and it’s more of a community because it’s smaller, so it’s easier to get your schoolwork done and graduate, because it feels safer.
Many find it difficult to succeed within the school model of a place like Garfield. Since traditional public school often prioritizes memorization and speed, people who don’t learn well that way can fall behind.
”The education system is just setting some kids up for failure,” Saffel said.
“I’d been diagnosed with ADD and mild autism, and when [school] got harder and more complicated, I just couldn’t really do anything and I didn’t know why, so that lowered my self-esteem.”
Nova has more mental health support than Garfield could logistically have due to budget constraints and size. At Nova, each student is assigned to a coordinator, who regularly checks in with students about academics, mental health, and life in general.
“You don’t have to go and find a school counselor to talk about your problems, you already have the support,” Otero-Royer said. Conversation around mental health is also common at Nova, removing some of the societal stigma around talking about mental health issues.
Nova’s accepting atmosphere for LGBTQ students also makes it an attractive option for queer and gender-nonconforming students.
“At Nova they’re so open about [queer issues], even encouraging of it,” Otero-Royer said, citing Nova’s policy of all gender-neutral bathrooms. “At Garfield, even if it’s not overtly hostile, [it doesn’t feel like] there’s real support either.”
When surrounded by other queer students in an accepting environment, it can be easier to come to terms with your own identity.
“I’m able to be who I am, I’m able to express myself, I was able to come out and I doubt I would have if I’d stayed at Garfield,” Saffel said. “I doubt I would be alive if I’d stayed at Garfield, because I was not in a good place.”
Despite the physical closeness between Nova and Garfield, there is little community between the schools. Garfield students often judge Nova students for their alt fashion choices, while Nova students sometimes feel victimized by Garfield students.
“Garfield kids sometimes come to the Nova farm and throw rocks at us,” Otero-Royer said. “It happened a few times while I was there.” This type of harassment is closely connected with the fact that Nova’s student body is primarily queer and neurodivergent.
This leads the Nova community to have a negative impression of Garfield. A private Nova Instagram account features memes about avoiding and feeling threatened by Garfield students in the vicinity of the schools.
”People are like, Wednesdays are the worst because we have to ride with so many Garfield students on the bus,” said Nova senior Helen Albright.
Albright, who plays for the Garfield tennis team despite being a Nova student, has a different perspective on the conflict.
“There’s a weird perception that there are Garfield students that are out to get Nova students,” Albright said. “I don’t personally believe that. Garfield’s big enough that most people just don’t really care, or don’t even know that Nova exists, to be honest.”
The schools used to be more connected: Garfield students could take classes at Nova, and visa versa.
“I wish we could go back to that, because the beef is all imaginary,” Albright said. “I understand where people are coming from, because they were bullied in middle school by people that are now at Garfield, but I don’t think that’s a reason to be afraid of any Garfield student.”
Nova is ultimately a vital resource for those to don’t feel like they belong at a large school like Garfield.
“Because of Nova I’ve actually been able to be myself and be happy and actually succeed while also being a lot more creative,” Saffel said.