Media Monday: A very alt alternative to college draws critics and fans

If you’re interested in keeping up with what’s new in the education tech world, the EdSurge podcast often introduces listeners to the latest trends and debates through lively discussions with experts and advocates. That’s the case with their latest episode, which covers a for-profit alternative to college called MissionU, which I hadn’t heard of elsewhere.

The MissionU program, which takes only a year to complete, is designed especially for young people who are ready to jump into a career immediately rather than exploring subjects through the traditional liberal arts and sciences curriculum of a four-year college or university or a two-year community college.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the program, which is based in the highly entrepreneurial San Francisco area, is that it requires no tuition upfront, but instead asks for payment after students are earning income. According to MissionU’s website:

There are no upfront costs for MissionU; we only get paid when you do. Once you're earning at least $50,000, you'll pay back 15% of your income for the first three years.

Take a listen to the pro and con discussion on the EdSurge podcast, and see what you think about this highly experimental approach.

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: “Care and concern for Texas kids, not a cheese sandwich”

Children should never be shamed when their family falls on hard times. If a family loses the ability to pay for lunch their child should receive care and concern, not a cheese sandwich.

—Celia Cole, CEO, Feeding Texas

In the rush of news stories that fly by via TV, radio, social media, and in traditional magazines and newspapers, one that captured a lot of attention recently was New Mexico’s ban on “lunch shaming.” A lot of us were shocked to discover how often kids are subjected to humiliation of various types because they are unable to pay for their lunch at school.

We often see statistics about the high percentage of public school students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, but not as much about those who are not signed up for those programs but still find they can’t pay for a standard hot lunch when family circumstances suddenly change. School districts might require these students to do chores in exchange for food, toss unpaid-for food in the trash, or serve the kids cold cheese sandwiches, all practices that may single children out for taunting or worse by their peers. New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, signed April 6, 2017, strives to ensure that all kids have access to the same nutritional lunch without shaming of any kind.

In Austin and school districts across the country, thousands of people responded to these stories and campaigns via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, with generous donations to pay off school lunch debts. As of April 11, Addie Broyles reported that all of Austin ISD’s school lunch debt was paid off —at least temporarily. AISD food services director Anneliese Tanner said that the district serves about 700 “courtesy” (unpaid) meals to students each school day, which costs about $350,000 annually.

Dallas ISD takes another route, as it declares on its website: “Breakfast, lunch, and after school meals are FREE to all students. . . . Our goal is to provide nutrition to students that fuels successful learning.”

Texas State Representative Helen Giddings (D-Dallas) responded to the media attention on this topic by pressing the legislature to pass HB 2159, a bill that defines minimum standards for all Texas public schools when a student’s lunch account runs out.

Giddings says, “I have filed HB 2159 to address this situation and ensure that every Texas child is well-nourished and focused on their education, not their next meal. Let us leave finances to the adults and keep our kids focused on actualizing their wildest dreams."

Currently there are no guidelines to ensure that children whose lunch accounts run out of money will not be stigmatized with lower-quality food or identified in the lunch line, and there is no requirement that schools contact families to check whether those children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Stay up to date onthe progress of HB 2159 here or by contacting Rep. Giddings’s office or Feeding Texas, a nonprofit network of food banks advocating for a hunger-free Texas.

Another group that tackles hunger among Austin families is Keep Austin Fed, which “rescues” surplus food from the thousands of commercial kitchens in the city and gives it to people who need it.

Both Feeding Texas and Keep Austin Fed happily welcome donations.

And in case you missed it back in January, check out the inspiring story of Kealing middle-schooler Ian McKenna, who grows veggies to donate to hungry families and the Central Texas Food Bank.

Shelley Sperry

2e: Twice Exceptional — Join us for a special movie screening and discussion

We’re proud to announce that Alt Ed Austin and SchoolFairATX are co-sponsoring a screening of an amazing movie called 2e:Twice Exceptional. The screening will be held Wednesday, April 26, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm, at KoSchool, just south of downtown Austin. Get full details and register to attend here. Children 12 and up are welcome. The film lasts about an hour and will be followed by a half-hour discussion.

The term “twice exceptional” is becoming more common among educators to describe kids who are gifted and talented in one or more areas, including the arts, language, math, science, and leadership, and are also identified as having a particular challenge—an emotional or learning disability, a physical disability, ADHD, autism, or something else. We recently did a short explainer about 2e in our newsletter (scroll to the bottom for the Question of the Month).

The film 2e, by Thomas Ropelewski, is garnering praise and awards around the country. New York Times best-selling author Steven Kotler says it’s “essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding where our next generation of game-changing outliers may be coming from.”

Check out the film site here, and watch the trailer:

Austin writing camps keep kids’ creativity thriving in the summer and all year long

Austin Bat Cave student group.jpg


Because of Jenna and other volunteers from Austin Bat Cave, my words finally feel important. Through her tending and caring, my writing blossomed into something I could never have imagined. Now that I’m in college I feel especially thankful for my Austin Bat Cave experience, which taught me skills that translated into my academic writing and make even my informative papers more engaging. The most important thing is for kids to write and express themselves. The best stories are those that make us laugh and cry, and the most memorable are the original ideas which make us stop and think, or help us see the world in a new way, and therefore both types of writing are essential. Austin Bat Cave understands that.

—Xochi, an Austin Bat Cave alum, and the first in her family to attend college


One of the things writers do, especially when they don’t want to start a new project, is read books and listen to podcasts and lectures about writing. I do it all the time. One of the notions I come across most often in discussions of the craft is, “I really don’t know what I think until I start writing,” or “The process of writing itself shapes my arguments, my characters, my plot.” Even writers who create detailed outlines before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard usually admit that the story they finish is very different from the one they started. When I decided to write a blog post about creative writing workshops and camps for kids in Austin, I learned this lesson again.

Ali Haider, program director at Austin Bat Cave (ABC), told me that when kids in their writing workshops learn to analyze how stories and poems are put together, they take that understanding on to everything else they study in school or read and see out in the world. If a student can learn to analyze and then write her own science fiction story, she can also learn to dissect an argument in a history book and write an essay about it—or critique a politician’s speech.

In the experiences offered by Austin Bat Cave and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation’s Badgerdog program, writing coaches demystify paragraphs and sentences, and students learn how stories are built from scratch. Ali’s approach at ABC reminds me of a tinkering workshop where budding engineers might learn to take apart and put together a toaster or a computer motherboard, gaining an understanding of how things work and the power to create their own entirely new inventions in the process.

World Gone Gray
     by Kurion Terrance, an Austin Bat Cave 7th grader
When the ice starts to shiver,
When the fire starts to fade,
When all the water’s in the river,
When you finally get paid.
The world gets cold and gray,
The sea no longer beautiful,
The night is in the day,
Beauty no more, the Earth is dull.
The world is cold or heartless,
It feels like hope is lost,
The smart one from the smartest,
Can’t even help our cause.
The underdog can’t save us all,
’Cause no one seems to care,
The pretty birds no longer call,
This world I cannot bear.

At Austin Bat Cave, about 1,700 students a year get creative in writing classes at participating schools, weekend workshops, and summer camps. Groups are kept small so that the one-on-one mentoring ABC values so highly can happen. “All writers need a good guide and mentor. So ABC builds workshops around one-on-one coaching and feedback,” says Ali.

“We’re lucky that Austin is the perfect place for an organization like ours,” Ali explains. “We have about 50 volunteer mentors each spring and fall, and about 40 more during the summer. They’re really teaching artists—people who write for a living themselves or have a lot of experience in creative writing or journalism and want to give back. They have a passion for storytelling, and it’s hard for kids not to get excited when their mentors are excited.”

At Badgerdog, manager Cecily Sailer finds a similarly talented group of writers fueling her camps and workshops. “Austin is home to a robust writing community,” she says. “Many of the teaching artists in our program are graduate students in the UT Michener Center or New Writers Program or Texas State Creative Writing Program.” Badgerdog’s summer camps and workshops are held in libraries, schools, and community centers all over the city.

Ali works with volunteers to prepare a curriculum that’s fresh each semester and interdisciplinary, brainstorming projects that encourage kids to make paintings, podcasts, or compile zines to showcase their stories. “We want to have projects each student can walk away with, and we want to reach different kinds of learners, so variety is important. Plus each school and each group of students is unique, so flexibility is key.”

Are there any constants in all the variety? “The one-on-one time is something we give all students because we know it’s important and something most teachers don’t have time enough to do. Feedback is important for the growth of a writer. The other constant is that we make sure each student has a notebook to keep—and we provide them if the school can’t afford them.”

Breath Notes
    by Emma Baumgardner, a Badgerdog middle schooler
I shape my way with movement
emerging in my throat
and slowly thread the needle
of song.
Bursting to breathe
open my lungs
sound takes moments. Standing
I move to the will of the way
my tongue clicks.
Lips hum,
body sways,
head resonates, bubbling.
And voices cling together,
linking arms,
thumbs pressed against index fingers.
Melody paints piano keys,
never grounded.
Lights pinch our eyes
Laced with sweat,
we burn
with the moment
of performing.
Teeth engulfing our sorrows
like we have wings.
Fourteen of us
living on the stage.
With our passion for music
curling around our chins
and stretching to our ears,
we smile.
We’re not going to be finished
as long as we carry
the note.

In Badgerdog’s many summer writing camps, each classroom has no more than 15 campers. A typical day might start with a free-writing exercise with sharing time afterward. Kids have structured lessons related to some aspect of fiction or poetry, followed by some time to stretch and relax and have a snack. Reading together and playing language games usually rounds out the day.

Even if campers start out as reluctant writers, Cecily says the welcoming, fun, and supportive environment inspires them. “The lessons are less about ‘You will like poetry!’ and more about asking what patterns they notice or why they think the writer decided to repeat herself. We approach learning more as an investigation, an inquiry, rather than a top-down hand-off of knowledge.”

Badgerdog’s philosophy is to offer kids options, not rules. “We show them how writers break rules effectively, and encourage them to take risks. We celebrate weirdness and new ideas, and take the pressure off the writing process,” she explains. “This go-for-it approach helps reluctant writers discover they have talent and interesting ideas and builds their confidence.”

Cecily also explains why Badgerdog emphasizes reading aloud as a way of sharing what the students have created. “Writing becomes immediately more meaningful when it’s read and enjoyed by someone else. It becomes even more real, it lives outside the page it’s written on and inside the imagination of another human being. Reading your own work aloud helps you hear yourself. It’s validating. You take ownership of something you created and then people tell you what it meant to them. It’s about connection and increasing the power of your work. What if Steve Jobs designed the iPhone and then put the plans in a box at the bottom of his closet? What if Prince played all of his songs alone his bedroom?”

I asked both Cecily and Ali if they have any writing tips for parents or kids who aren’t able to attend a camp. Cecily said, “Do anything that interests you enough to keep you writing, whether it’s journaling, writing down all the stuff your brother says, creating an imaginary place where you’re the boss of everything. Like any other skill, practice counts. Playing what if can be another helpful approach. Write for awhile about some absurd scenario. What if toasters spit out pizzas? What if traffic lights started flashing purple? What if your dog was actually helpful? Trying to imagine something unreal forces you to think of details, which is what makes writing powerful for the reader.”

Ali believes in always starting slow. It’s daunting for anyone to sit down in front of a blank page and try to conjure a story, so ABC mentors begin by building relationships and doing world-building and character-building exercises. Parents and their kids can do that too. “We do a lot of work with the building blocks of writing, and that’s more fun than just drafting a story from scratch. At one school students start by making maps and globes about the  worlds they will write about, and the next step is thinking about their characters and all their quirks.”

If you’re ready to stop reading about writing and sign up to WRITE, check out the programs, and consider donating to help them keep thriving.

Shelley Sperry


Media Monday: Come on, bring the noise! Girls rock, and so do boys

The clatter and crowds of SXSW are gone, spring is here, and that means it’s really time to get the kids signed up for summer camps, before they fill up. The number and variety of music-related camps in Austin is pretty overwhelming, and it’s not possible to talk about them all, but here’s a sampling that may get you started.

Most of the music camps in and around Austin lean toward rock and allow young musicians to improve their skills, play in bands, and learn a little about recording and mixing music, sometimes with a little songwriting thrown in. Rock camps include the intimate Eastside Music Summer Camp, the much larger University of Texas Longhorn Music Camps, Lone Star School of Music’s Little Rock Camp, Band Aid School of Music’s Summer Rock Camp, Rock Lab School of Music Camps, and of course, the Austin School of Rock camps.

If you’re into empowering girls with guitars and amps, check out the Girls Rock Austin summer camps. Theyre operated by a nonprofit dedicated to diversity and music education.

Beyond these staples of headbanging summer fun, there are a few smaller camps that you may want to investigate too:

Blue Frog School of Music offers songwriting, performance, and recording camps in its homey location near the Austin Waldorf School. 

Velocity Music Academy has a wide variety of camps for all ages, focused on learning to play the piano, guitar, violin, and other instruments.

Orpheus Academy of Music Summer Camps are offered all summer and range from world music to broadway to introductory instrument classes.

TexArts camps focus on musical theater.

Paramount Theatre hosts a small songwriting camp for kids in grades 6–10.

Creative Action, a nonprofit group of teacher-artists, has a variety of art- and music-themed summer camps planned for this year, including Broadway or Bust and The Studio: Performer camp, all about writing, mixing, and performing music.

If you live near beautiful Wimberley, Agua Fresca Studios camps all combine visual art with music. They’ve got a Ukelele and Drum Camp for ages 9–12, a Music Camp for ages 10 and up, and an Art and Music Extravaganza camp for little ones 6–8 years old.

For kids who love percussion instruments, Ratamacamp offers camps at area public schools for middle and high schoolers.

The Austin Girls’ Choir has an early June camp for beginning singers and a mid-June camp for advanced singers. Both introduce girls to many music genres, from classical to pop.

And if you have a kid who loves chamber music and wants to play in small groups, the Austin Chamber Music workshop is the place to be.

Most music camps in the area are day camps, but if your student wants an overnight experience you’ll want to explore Texas Jaam Camp on the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country in July. Music styles will range from bluegrass and cajun to jazz and Western swing.

Shelley Sperry

7 life lessons I've learned as a special needs parent

Kimberly Schuchman, RPh, CWC, is a Registered Pharmacist and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She has been working at her private practice, Strong Self Wellness Coaching, since 2014. Her mission is to support and empower parents to prioritize and practice regular self-care so that they feel strong and energized. She also provides educational/parenting support to families with special needs children. Before finding KoSchool in Austin, Kim spent nine years advocating extensively for her 2e son in public school. Were pleased to welcome her to the blog to share some of the most important lessons shes learned along the way. Kim may be reached through her Facebook business page or by email at

Parenting. It’s the most difficult job many of us will experience in our lives, and one that we receive the least amount of formal training for. Even if you were to become a “certified parent” prior to your first day of parenting, you would still have much learning to do, as each child comes complete with their own set of unique strengths and challenges.

When a child has a diagnosis such as autism, ADD/ADHD, a learning difference (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia), sensory processing disorder, health issues, or mental health issues, the parenting waters can become even murkier and more turbulent to navigate. Layer multiple diagnoses onto the same child, and it can feel like “man overboard”!

The good news is that parenting can also feel amazing, exciting, and downright miraculous. It is incredible what your children can inspire you to be, do, or have as a result of their mere existence.

The following are some pearls of wisdom that I’ve gained from my very own special needs parenting experience:

Take time every day to appreciate your child's strengths, no matter how difficult the day has been. Parents often feel a sense of urgency to “fix a problem” when they see their child suffering or struggling in some way. While there are many special needs related issues that may require additional outside help, that process can be all-consuming and deficit-focused. It is important to reconnect daily with your child’s positives, and remind your child of what those positives are. This will help your child develop self-efficacy beliefs.

Use humor, even during difficult moments, and laugh often. Despite our children sometimes embarrassing us with their behaviors, their shameless honesty can be downright funny. Life is too short to take everything so seriously. Laughter and humor can often diffuse a situation more quickly than anger and stern discipline. In addition, laughter reduces stress, elevates mood, and can even contribute to building a stronger immune system.

Build a support network. It takes a village to raise a child, and a city the size of Manhattan to raise a special needs child. Ask for help and support for yourself and your child often. Sources of support can include your spouse, professionals involved in your child’s care, support groups, family members, and friends. Don’t be afraid to share your story and learn from others with similar experiences to your own.

Connect your child with positive adult role models in areas of interest. You can't be everyone or everything to your child. It is especially important for children to have other adults, besides their parents, who can serve as their cheerleaders and mentors. Connecting your child to adults who share their interests can foster their innate desire to want to learn and grow, and help them envision their positive present and future.

Prioritize your concerns. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your child. Children with special needs often have multiple areas in their development where they are struggling. Pick one or two important goals each year that you want to focus on with your child. Ask for their input, if they are able to give it. This approach is less overwhelming for both parent and child.

Give yourself permission and time for daily self-care. It is vital for us as parents and caregivers to take time out each day to recharge our own batteries. As they say on the airplane, “Place your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.” Even if it means letting go of other tasks that need to be completed, take 15–30 minutes (or longer if you can) to do something that is especially for you. Ideas for self-care can include meditation, reading a book for pleasure, taking a walk, running a warm bath, or calling a friend.

Practice self-compassion. In a nutshell, be your own best friend each and every day. Life is not perfect, and neither are you. Pat yourself on the back for what you did well and forgive yourself for what you would do differently the next time. Share these thoughts with your children. They will appreciate your honesty and understand that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kimberly Schuchman