There are no letter grades, no departments and no majors. But a record number of parents are sending their kids to The Evergreen State College...

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OLYMPIA — There are no letter grades, no departments and no majors.

But a record number of parents are sending their kids to The Evergreen State College anyway. Freshmen enrollment at Evergreen hit an all-time high this year — 697, up nearly 20 percent from the 583 who started last year.

Total enrollment (including grad students) has climbed 4 percent from last year: 4,248 students start classes today.

Evergreen, a small, state-funded liberal-arts school, is carved into about 1,100 acres of forest. Students in one class make fresh salads with tomatoes from an organic farm, while students in another identify plants with a microscope for a state Department of Transportation research project.

The growing popularity of the college is a reflection of the public’s gradual acceptance and understanding of its nontraditional approach, said state Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle, former chairwoman of the Legislature’s Higher Education committee.

An Evergreen education

Since its founding in 1971, The Evergreen State College has set itself apart. Instead of A’s, B’s and C’s, professors give individual written evaluations; rather than choosing a department or major, students design their own curriculums.

“Evergreen has always had a reputation,” said Jillian Kinzie, who’s with the Indiana University-based Center for Postsecondary Research, a nonprofit that studies educational effectiveness.

“It started out as an alternative kind of institution — and it has really taken on that challenge and continued to define what is the best information about how to teach, how students learn and how to implement that.”

Kinzie and colleagues studied Evergreen as one of 20 “high-performing institutions” across the U.S. for a 2005 book, “Student Success in College.”

Evergreen manages to get students focused, enthusiastic and completely immersed in their educations by the way they coordinate their programs, she said.

Students take just one course per term — as opposed to a handful.

The seminar is team-taught, usually by faculty from different disciplines.

“That is probably their single most unique feature,” said Kinzie, adding that the intense experience not only allows students more time to read and write but also forms a community of learners comfortable about disagreeing with one another.

The result: Ninety percent of a recent graduating class was working or in graduate or professional schools within two years, according to the college’s 2006 study of alumni.

Going greener

The school’s three most popular areas of study, according to data it collected last year, are visual and performing arts, social sciences, and natural resources and conservation.

The latter continues to be an Evergreen focus.

In 1984, the school launched one of the first graduate environmental-studies programs in the nation. Graduates have gone on to work for entities such as The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Evergreen President Les Purce, who’s led the college for eight years, has pushed for stricter environmental and sustainability goals.

During his tenure, the school built the first public LEED gold building (62 percent more energy-efficient than conventional buildings) in Washington and has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2020. Students voted in 2005 to pay a $1-per-credit, per-quarter fee to buy clean energy — wind-generated electricity — for campus.

Room to learn

Evergreen students seem to value the choices they’re given.

Shane Hendren, 22, a senior from Vancouver, Wash., is one of a handful who took a course over the summer called “Practice of Sustainable Agriculture” on the school’s 38,000-square-foot organic farm.

In three years, Hendren said, he’s never taken more than one course in the same discipline. “Evergreen gives you the chance to figure out what you want to do.”

Hendren now intends to go to culinary school.

In a lab across campus, about a 10-minute walk through the forest, Tony Enslow, 20, a senior from Harstine Island, looked through a microscope in an attempt to identify an unknown grass.

Enslow has taken mostly science classes.

He’s interested in energy policy and wants to work in that field.

“I like the unique structure that integrates everything that relates to a core subject,” he said.

The open structure applies to professors, too.

Each year, more than 230 faculty retreat to create new courses, “get away and dream,” said Ted Whitesell, director of Evergreen’s Master of Environmental Studies program. “We have freedom as faculty members, we don’t have to do things the way they’ve been done.”

Judy Chia Hui Hsu: 206-464-3315 or jhsu@seattletimes.com