Highland Free School is unlike most others in Tucson.

Visitors to the elementary at 510 S. Highland Ave. are greeted by the school's dog.

What follows is the sound of chickens or goats.

Highland was opened by Nicolas Sofka in 1970 as a private school that was part of the education movement that encouraged a more free-form approach to schooling. Highland is now a charter school.

Sofka, who received a degree in business at Long Beach State, decided to move to Tucson to open a new school with five of his friends, and thus Highland Free School was born.

Sofka located a building he wanted to use as the school, which still stands as the main building. This building, according to Sofka, once served as barracks in Fort Huachuca and was trucked in. When he came across it in 1970, St. Ambrose Parish was using it for religious services.

From then until about 1980, the building would switch from school on weekdays to religion on weekends.

Sofka said he wants the students to learn how to be self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Christina Brouduer had three of her four kids attend Highland. Brouduer said the low student-to-teacher ratio has led to a higher sense of community.

Brouduer's daughter, Leawna, 21, said the sense of community at Highland was different from that at a public school. Leawna Brouduer, who is graduating today from the University of Arizona, attended Sahuarita High School.

The school's sense of community has led to a more comfortable learning environment, she said.

There are no formal grades, students learn together and aren't rushed to move onto new subjects or lessons if they aren't ready.

"As a teacher we have so much more flexibility in teaching what we need to teach," said Teresa Rodriguez.

"We follow what the state says we have to follow for the standards, and we make sure we cover everything we need to cover.

"But we don't have a textbook as a timetable. As a teacher we can create our own curriculum and make it work for our class at this time and modify everything we need," she said.

Rodriguez has been teaching at Highland for 12 years, and said one of the things she enjoys most is the low student-to-teacher ratio, about 12 to 1.

"We don't have to worry about kids slipping through the cracks because we see all the cracks," Rodriguez said.

Scarlett McCourt is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at 573-4117 or starapprentice@azstarnet.com