Most Likely To Succeed

Last winter I watched an educational documentary called Most Likely To Succeed, and it became my favorite educational documentary ever. It was so well done, so thoughtful and yet inspiring, that I decided to help organize a screening in Portland.

More than eight months later, with a great deal of help, and with lots of new experiences under my belt, we’re only a week away from the screening. We have a panel lined up for a post-film discussion and a bunch of local innovative schools showing up to table. It could be, should be, a really great evening.

The screening has been dominating my life for the last month, but there are only a few more things for me to do at this point; mostly the die has already been cast, and we can only wait and see how many people show up. I am extremely nervous. But the film was delivered yesterday, and I just watched it again, and it is still thoughtful and inspiring. I still want to share it with others.

One week…


Village Home

I missed my first opportunity to learn about Village Home at the AERO conference; there was a student panel, but I was sitting in traffic instead of attending it. Fortunately the founder of Village Home did a workshop later in the conference, which I made sure to attend. I’ve only waited this long to write up my thoughts because I wanted to watch the documentary Class Dismissed, which features a short segment on Village Home. (And which is a neat film, following the doubts and struggles and triumphs of a family that decides to homeschool their two daughters. I recommend it.)

I’m so glad I attended Lori’s talk. I had heard of Village Home as a community college for K-8, used mostly by homeschooling families; the families are in charge of managing their students’ education, but Village Home provides classes to help expand what’s available to them. I’d envisioned classes essentially like those I remember from mainstream school, only taken on a more voluntary basis, and with a much greater variety of electives sprinkled in.

This is not quite accurate. Yes, there are classes covering all the familiar math and science and history concepts; and yes, there are some really awesomely unusual classes. Looking in on any given class, it might seem to follow the standard model: there’s a teacher, there are students, there are pens and papers, etc. But the autonomy support at Village Home goes much deeper than simply choosing which classes to take. For starters, Lori Walker retrains her teachers (who mainly come from the public education system) with the understanding that their primary job is to maintain the students’ intrinsic interest in the subject. There are no grades, no standardized tests, no rankings, no competition. Although she didn’t say it, this is all consistent with one of the ideas that I’ve seen in many alternative education settings: there is no rush.

In addition to choosing their classes, the students have control in other ways as well. If they turn in an essay, for example, they generally get feedback on the general flow of their ideas, some comments on things they’re doing well, some suggestions for other things to try… unless they specifically request “hard” grading at the top of their paper. In that case, the instructor will note every misspelling, punctuation and grammar error as well. But it’s the student’s choice as to when they’re ready for that level of feedback.

Lori told a story of one of the questions asked at the student panel I’d missed. How do you know, a kid in the audience wanted to know, if you’re ready to take a class like Algebra? Apparently the Village Home students, including Lori’s own daughter, had some trouble answering this; they exchanged surprised looks before offering answers like If it looks interesting, or If you aren’t sure, go for a couple of classes and see if it makes sense. Lori, who has a much clearer sense of mainstream schools, could see the problem. These kids, she told us, were so used to autonomy that they didn’t even know what they had. It would never have occurred to them to appeal to an outside authority, an adult or a test, before exploring an idea. If it turned out to be deeper than they could handle, they’d go and find out what else they needed to know, and if necessary join the class again later. There is no penalty for failure in this system; there is, in some sense, no real concept of failure at all.

A Rant

For the most part I see this blog as a place to keep connected with extended family and friends about the goings-on in our household. Occasionally lately I’ve also been sharing some of my interest in exploring alternative education. But today — please forgive me — I want to indulge in a small rant. You may click away now if you like.

I’ve read a few books in the alternative education realm at this point, and I decided to dip into some other books on education reform that take a more mainstream approach — i.e., books about education that don’t conclude that the system is, by its very nature, the wrong track altogether. (After all, one of the easiest mistakes to make in life is to read only what you know you’ll agree with.) To that end I recently worked through The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a very thorough and thoughtful book by an avowedly conservative author. There is a great deal to think about in that book, and while I’ve been thinking it over, I decided to switch to something lighter: The Smartest Kids in the World, which is much less data-intensive but compares the US to several other countries using the vehicle of following American exchange students to those countries.

It’s an enjoyable read and, while much lighter, also has some good food for thought in it. But yesterday, as I trailed after Mica at Village Free School, reading a few paragraphs whenever she became engrossed in an activity, I read something that was like running headlong into a wall.

In the US we allocate funding to schools based on the property taxes of the nearby households.

The author didn’t belabor this point — he mentioned it, and the obvious problems with it, and then moved on. I, however, did not. I had to re-read it multiple times. Then I had to find the nearest adult to see if they were aware of this.

Apparently everyone knows this. I suppose I should have as well; I’ve heard before that schools in wealthy areas are better funded, but for much of my life I didn’t care about things like school finances, and in retrospect I assumed, vaguely, that effect was about local fundraising efforts, not about what was allocated by central authorities. Somehow I got through 38 years of life without knowing that we take a fundamentally inequitable approach to funding schools.

And finding out has stunned me. It’s like reading that fire coverage is based on local property taxes: live in a rich neighborhood, and the average emergency response time is less than three minutes, but a poor neighborhood could have a response time of as long as half an hour — oh, and residents are sixty times as likely to die in a fire. Perhaps if someone grows up knowing that this is how our school funding works it just seems natural — not ideal, maybe, but hey, it’s the system, you know?. But I keep coming back to this concept, again and again, and I keep feeling the same stunned disbelief.

How is this possible? How could this situation not be seen as inherently inimical to the ideals we purport to believe in? In a nutshell, how can people be ok with this?

And I know it isn’t as simple as that. As Dave points out, it isn’t about people but about politics. It isn’t about individuals choosing based on their own morals and common sense; it’s about a quagmire of bureaucracy and it’s-always-been-done-that-way. I look back now on the arguments that disadvantaged kids just can’t learn as well — because of cultural things, family issues, home life — and now I can see the essentially defensive nature of those arguments. It isn’t because we’ve given them less to work with. Even if the system were equitable, it wouldn’t matter. So why waste the money on them?

The only argument I can think of to support this practice is the argument of homeowners saying that they want the taxes they pay to support their kids education — and no one else’s. That argument has some intuitive weight to it, right up until I apply the fire coverage analogy to it. Do we see education as a public good, or as a service we’re paying for? Do we believe in equal opportunity or not? Is education like television (you can get limited, lousy amounts for free, or pay to get a premium package!) or like fire coverage (we value human life and strive to protect it regardless of income level)?

So now I need to go out and do some more research. How did we get here? Are there other arguments in favor of it? Or is this one of those things that we don’t really talk about, and everyone feels vaguely uncomfortable about, but when it comes down to a vote most people quietly, guiltily vote to keep it because hey, I need to give my kid the very best chance, right? And anyway it’s always been done that way. And it’s really too bad that so many kids keep dying in fires, but maybe if we just make the whole system better that won’t happen so much. Yes, I know we’ve been trying to reform the system for 100+ years, but still…

Renaissance School Of Arts And Sciences

I walked into RenSchool (as Adam, the dean and our guide, referred to it) and was blown away. My first impression was that I was in a spacious, lovely home which was clearly owned by someone with an exuberant passion for Jim Henson, and who had no sense of restraint. From the entrance I could see into multiple rooms (there were very few actual doors in the building; most rooms simply had open entrances) furnished with durable-looking oriental rugs, comfortable couches, and nice wooden furniture. Overlaid on these were projects — literally hundreds of pieces even within view of my first stunned perspective — marionettes, illustrated poems, working (and beautiful) gears, and so much more. Pervading the entire scene was Irish fiddle music and the scent of the cookies Adam had baked that morning to greet us.

And the building went on. Accustomed to the size of Village Free School, I assumed that I was seeing most of the building right at the entrance, but that wasn’t at all true. It stretched off to my right, down a long hallway of semi-open rooms filled with children’s projects, finally ending in a large, open room with hardwood floors that Adam referred to as the ballroom. I saw two grand pianos, views of the river, a small outdoor courtyard, and none at all of the typical school-type desks. That, by the way, was only the lower floor; the upper floor was somewhat similar but the hallway sometimes turned into a bridge over the rooms below, so that there was a direct visual connection between the floors.

The Renaissance School is nearing 150 students, which is where they expect to cap their population, and can have, Adam estimated, anywhere between twelve and twenty staff in the building at any given time. They have both a longer school year and a longer school day than public education. In the morning, after a morning meeting, students are grouped by their level of ability to do Literacy and Numeracy; in the early afternoon they’re grouped by age to do content studies (which might encompass such things as social studies, art, or PE); and in the late afternoon they group by interest to take the equivalent of electives, classes that specifically interest them. This isn’t child-led education, but they try to encourage inquiry and self-awareness; they want the kids to know themselves as learners, and they give students a lot of flexibility about how and where they work.

There are no worksheets, no dumbing things down, and no grades. Kids will often be given a specification and asked to go from that to a finished product, and there’s an emphasis on producing quality work — all work should be of the quality that it can be put on display. Risk-taking and cooperation are encouraged, and competition is not. The staff draw from a “curriculum map” rather than holding to a set curriculum, and can pull together multiple concepts into a single project or lesson.

My overall impression from my short visit was that the Renaissance School offers a wonderfully rich environment, with really creative teaching and learning opportunities. While my personal bent is more toward self-directed learning, I think it would provide a great environment for someone looking for instructor-directed education.

Summa Academy

One of the things I was most excited about in the AERO conference was the school visits. There were three visits scheduled, and the first school on the list, Summa Academy, was one I’d been hoping to visit anyway this coming year.

They were in the midst of a end-of-year deep clean when we arrived, so we had a tour of the physical layout but couldn’t get a sense of the actual texture of the space. At the time I didn’t think much of that; but the next school I visited was the Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences (more on that in another post), and I realized the difference. In any case, the space was two stories and open, with a central room (the Heart) upstairs surrounded by four classrooms, and more space downstairs: the entrance, a cafeteria, a huge art room, and a couple more good-sized rooms. They also had a couple of fenced-in outdoor areas. They have about the same amount of students as Village Free School (about 60), but quite a bit more space for them.

As for the logistics: students are divided up into age/development-based groups, but each encompasses at least a couple of years and it sounded as though the boundaries between groups are more fluid than those in mainstream school. Their student:teacher ratio is 11:1. Some of the work done is within those groups, but the school also does large-scale group projects which encompass all ages, from 6 to 14. There are no grades and no tests, and the curriculum is considered emergent — in other words, what happens one week will influence what happens the next, within the framework of a larger long-term goal.

The core of Summa seems to be working within a framework of child development, and meeting the developmental needs of children. This emphasis is so important, in fact, that Summa families are given child development training, and are asked to participate in ongoing engagement with the school to ensure that the parents and educators are consistent in how they interact with the child. Every staff person knows every child, and they spend time reviewing where each child is regularly. They also emphasize self-reflection and social-emotional work.

Ba Luvmor, one of the founders, described their academic offerings as providing fields of engagement: there are boundaries around the field, but lots of freedom within those boundaries. They also try hard not to teach about things, but instead to put kids into the middle of things. So for example, a discussion about freedom and what freedoms the kids feel they have can lead to the question of what you’d do to protect those freedoms, which can lead to discussions of revolution, protests, non-violent vs. violent strategies, etc.

There was clearly a great deal to talk about, and the conversation was still going strong when some of us headed to the next school visit. I took away this quote from Ba, in the context of dispelling the notion that childhood was merely a lead-in to adulthood: “When you’re six you have what you need for six-year-old greatness.”


The conference continues tomorrow, but only for a single workshop; and as much as I enjoyed it, I think I’m done. I have pages of notes and dozens of ideas to process, a list of books to check out, web sites to visit, and who knows how many little terms written in the margins of my notes, waiting to be Googled.

And I met a lot of people: educators, parents, students, researchers, people just starting their own schools and people who’ve been part of alternative education for decades. I met a visual storyteller who’s been “roadschooling” his five-year-old while traveling with his wife and son. I met an Australian couple who, dissatisfied with the paucity of alternative education at home, have been on a six-month road trip with their two young children, visiting schools and seeing what’s out there. I talked to people facilitating Agile Learning Centers, and discovered the newly emerging Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Like I said, there’s lots to process.

Right now I’m exhausted and buzzing. And, deep down, sort of proud of myself. This was an intense, and very social, few days. Not bad for someone who, coming out of high school, identified herself as “afraid of people.”

AERO, Belatedly

Given the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about and planning for and anticipating the upcoming AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) conference, I’m chagrined that I never posted about it here. Just in case anyone is interested, follow the link to check it out. The conference runs from August 3rd through the 7th, at a hotel near the Portland airport; both Village Free School and Schools of Conscience will have presences there, among many, many other alternative education organizations, and homeschoolers are welcome as well. It will be my first conference since my one and only biochemistry experience back in my college days, and I’m really looking forward to it.