School Around Us

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A learning community built on trust

Back in 1970, Stacey and Marylyn Wentworth were part of a group of founding families who wanted to create a progressive educational community built on philosopher John Dewey’s principles of practical and experiential learning. Together they created the School Around Us in Arundel, with a focus on educating a person’s “intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials.” School Around Us valued “both achievements and road blocks, with a focus on both what went well and what didn’t go as planned.”

Forty-eight years later, educator Amy Wentworth—Stacey and Marylyn’s daughter—is still a member of the School Around Us learning community, along with two other teachers, an assistant, 27 students, their parents and a board of directors. The group knows that creating a community of holistic learners is hard work, even when that learning looks like play.

The school is run by the democratic process of consent—a format that is a step away from consensus. This allows the four adult committees that meet monthly—facilities, education, development and administration—to act independently. As the members of the community have changed, so have some decisions. For example, at one point in the school’s history, parents thought homework was a good idea, while the current parent group has decided against it.

“Parents coming in, a lot of us come from a traditional public school setting, so we’re learning and sort of unschooling ourselves in this process,” says Laura Laprise, the administrative assistant at School Around Us, whose two children attended the school. “It’s helpful that the teachers are there holding up holistic education and continually sharing that with us.”

Parents and students can find it difficult to put the school community before personal needs and concerns. The youngest children may not be developmentally ready to understand other people’s perspectives. Still, each child, from kindergarten through eighth grade, has an equal voice in the community.

Students use the same democratic consent model to decide their thematic and project-based studies, which they spend a few hours each day working on. Changing the course study to meet the needs of students is known as “emergent curriculum.” Sometimes those decisions look like a no-holds-barred student brainstorm. Other times, students are given leading questions or a category such as earth sciences around which to problem solve. When asked, “What’s important to you, what do you think are problems in the world?” student concerns regarding homelessness prompted a unit that included a chilly overnight without shelter.

“Teachers pretty much are given the autonomy to follow the kids’ interest and create classes that match the kids that are in the school,” says Wentworth. “The parents trust that we’re going to fulfill our ‘eight basic skills’ and bring in our philosophy of holistic education in whatever we do.”

The eight basic skills are posted in every room of the school: body knowledge, citizenship, communication, creative arts, environmental harmony, logical thinking, practical life skills and self-knowledge. Skills integration happens in the thematic studies the children help define, it happens in their play in and out of doors and it happens in the more traditional reading and math classes, which also have room to be shaped by student imagination and interest.

Further structure comes from each student’s annual academic, social and personal goals. At the end of each them, “shares” allow each student to present their learning and progress to the whole school community.

“It’s definitely hard for parents to build trust that play or processing is as important as learning to read,” says Wentworth. “So much research is coming out around the importance of play. Around the importance of giving kids time to deal with conflict on their own and get messy and that that develops the creative mind and helps problem solving. It’s nice that there’s research out there that’s backing up what we’ve been doing for so long.”

The school’s asymmetrical wooden building has areas for the younger group (K–2), the middle group (grades 3–5), and the older group (grades 6–8), but students are just as likely to flow from place to place and learn during extended “breaks” outdoors. Fluid scheduling allows students to get deeply involved in learning and play without imposing rigid transitions.

The 9–1 student-teacher ratio is key to the three teacher’s deep knowledge of each and every student. Teachers share their observations about student growth with parents regularly in narrative form without test or grades. “Even though Amy focuses on the younger group,” Laprise says, “she is just as in-tune with the children in the middle and the older groups and their needs and their own personal goals. And I really appreciate that.”

Each eighth-grader at School Around Us develops a year-long culminating project that includes a portfolio from each year of their schooling, answers to 10 reflective questions and a service piece that reflects who they are as a person and relates to their interests. Many students use their final project to leave a gift to the school—whether that’s solar panels purchased with a grant they applied for, a quiet room for students designed with the help of an architect, an herb garden or a now-mature, sweet-smelling rose bush and shade-giving apple tree.

While some School Around Us graduates go on to the New School (a progressive high school for which Marylyn Wentworth was also a founding member) others choose private school or homeschooling or opt for a  public school for a new experience or to pursue athletics. “One thing that we work really hard on is to have the kids know themselves and know what their needs are,” says Wentworth. “Because of that work, kids make choices that are pretty good matches.”

Anna E. Jordan (annaejordan.com) is a writer and editor. Follow her at @annawritedraw for news about #kidlit, rowing and politics.

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