COMPASS’s roots date back to 1970 with the formation of the Aspen Community School (ACS) by Margaret Albouy and Lee Dodge, along with a band of like-minded parents, who sought an alternative to conventional public education. The nascent school, which was temporarily housed in the Aspen Center for Physics, initially opened as a trial program of the Aspen School District and later found its footing as a progressive private school.
The idea behind the school was to provide an interdisciplinary education that focused on a diversity of experiences, freedom of expression and trust in a child’s intrinsic curiosity. The school’s philosophy was inspired by leading educational theorists, including John Dewey and Maxine Greene, among many others.
The year the school was established, its founders also set up the non-profit Aspen Educational Research Foundation (now known as COMPASS) to spearhead fundraising efforts. Their immediate goal was to provide for the long-term sustainability of the school. As ACS became a successful educational model, that goal included the expansion of their approach to a greater geographic area and wider range of students.
In 1972, ACS moved to its existing home in Woody Creek. In 1989, the Early Childhood Center (later known as Community Preschool), an independent, philosophically aligned school serving children ages 18 months to 5 years, was established on the same campus. In 1995, ACS became a public charter school of the Aspen School District. One year later, Carbondale Community School, a public charter school of the Roaring Fork School District, opened 20 miles west to accommodate more children in the valley.
Over the course of COMPASS’s history, several projects have flourished alongside its schools and have since “graduated” to the community as independent organizations. These organizations — Science Outreach Center (1986), Wood Shop (1993), Woody Creek Ceramics Studio (1993), Wyly Community Art Center (1996), Roaring Fork Teacher Education Project (1996), Sustainable Settings (1997) and Stepstone Center for Social Justice (1997) — were founded on the Woody Creek campus. In 2015, after 26 years of service to families of pre-K learners, the Community Preschool shut its doors.