News that made a difference for Texas students

In the first week of this new year, we want to look back at some of the most consequential education stories—for both public schools and alternative schools—in Texas in 2016. As we look back, we see three major political flashpoints, and also some promising trends and innovations growing out of the alternative school scene in our area. Both flashpoints and innovations are listed below, with links for finding out more information about each.

Political Flashpoints

  • At the moment we were compiling this list, the Austin American-Statesman published a report revealing that “School districts across Texas pulled in lackluster preliminary grades under the state’s new letter-grade accountability system.” The new system, which won’t be fully implemented until next year, is based primarily on standardized testing and got a lot of complaints and pushback from school districts—including Austin ISD—even before the preliminary grades were released. Looks like this grading system will be an issue to watch going forward into 2017 and beyond.
  • August 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of the sniper attack on UT’s campus, the first modern-day mass shooting. August also marked the beginning of so-called “campus carry” at Texas’s public colleges.
  • A series of investigative pieces by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency may have mandated low special education enrollment in public schools, leading to the denial of crucial services for many children and saving the state billions. The investigations are ongoing.

Trends in Alternative Education around Austin

If there are trends or major issues in Texas education you want to see explored on our blog, let us know in the comments below, and we’ll make an effort to address them in 2017. Here’s to a happy new year for all Texas kids!

P.E. for the soul

Guest contributor Kim Hiles teaches physical education for Kindergarten through 5th grade at Austin Discovery School, a homegrown, progressive charter school in East Austin. She has training and expertise in special education, behavioral coaching, mediation, and conflict resolution and is a Third-Degree Reiki practitioner. She blogs at Kim's Korner. Empowering others is her passion.   

I have been fortunate to have found a school that thinks outside the box and encourages the students to do the same. This was a school that called to me, over 10 years ago, because of its weekly hikes, gardening program, academic philosophy, and positive approach to discipline. After working in a Montessori School, and learning so much about what respect looks and feel like, I knew I wanted a school that fosters the whole child. I wanted this for my child and for myself—a place where professionals cultivate this in each other.

I am a physical education teacher at Austin Discovery School. My job is to teach students to love their bodies, take care of their bodies, listen to their bodies, and feed their bodies nourishing things. This can look different from one person to the next, so I teach students to do their own research and find what works for them, which also helps nurture tolerance and acceptance.

I love starting the beginning of the year with our Cooperation unit. In this unit, our focus is on character building, integrity, and honesty. Students begin by practicing what it means to really trust someone by doing free fall and other trust activities. We encourage teamwork with games such as the Human Knot, Parachute, and BLOB. In this unit students also learn how to assertively take care of themselves by speaking up as well as listening compassionately.

Students at most schools are taught to go to an adult so that the adult can fix their problems. At our school, however, and in this class, we teach students how to problem solve so that they have the skills to go off into the world as solvers, innovators, and bringers of peace. We use Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey, a wonderful program that fosters love of self and others. Our school also uses restorative practices. Starting class with circle and ending class with appreciations/shares (and using the talking stick) fosters connection, and connection is the key to everything.

P.E. must be a positive experience for every student. In our classes, we introduce a wide variety of activities to help students find a love in something fun and healthy for the body, so they will enjoy an active life. I also offer dance, yoga, and guided meditation. The students love it when they practice “sponge” (a yoga pose) and I take them on a journey.

I like to think that I teach P.E. for the soul, wellness for the whole self. In truth, wellness isn’t just about what we do physically but is more about how we treat ourselves holistically. It is about the messages we give to ourselves and the focus of our thoughts and beliefs. When a student is struggling and saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I remind them that it is very true when this is their focus. Instead, when we give more positive messages to ourselves, we are feeding self-love into the body, which in turn can teach us new things and keep us strong, healthy, and confident. I tell the students that our bodies are listening to what we say, so it’s important to feed our body kind thoughts. In our classroom we have a Safe Place (all classes on campus have these), and on the wall are affirmations such as “I can handle it,” “I am enough,” and “I am doing my best, and my best is enough.”

P.E. for the soul is my journey. It’s a full and fulfilled life with no regrets. It’s a celebration of mind/body/soul and an awakening into awareness. It's a realization that I am doing what I came here to do. Look for my memoir coming soon.

Kim Hiles

Game of Village

My work at Alt Ed Austin includes visiting lots of great innovative schools and enrichment programs and getting to see some beautiful ideas in action. There’s no program I love more than Game of Village, so we’re thrilled to have Village director and consultant Cheryl Kruckeberg join us on the blog for a show-and-tell about its educational benefits and sheer delights. Read on to learn how you can get your kids signed up for Village this month!

Village is about Play.
Play stretches the imagination,
and imagination can lead us to
whatever and wherever we want to go.

Throughout history, children have prepared for their adult lives by observing and modeling the activities of the adults around them. They imagine, pretend, and practice, and through these activities they gain understanding, stretch their capacities, and explore new concepts and ideas. In play children are released from the constraints imposed by a fear of failure and are left free to experiment. In short, they grow! Play is, in fact, a natural and powerful way to learn, and Village is all about play!

Each game of Village is set in a particular geographical location and time period. It starts with the bare bones of a story line: some challenge to be faced, a problem to be solved, or obstacles to overcome. From this loose outline and the fertile imaginations of the players a world emerges.

Village is played on two integrated levels. On a 1/24 scale the players, known as “Villagers,” design and build a complete village. This aspect of the game includes a “Peep,” a 3" avatar, with an independent personality, life story, and hopes and dreams.

Peeps want a home; Villagers design it for them. Peeps want a piece of land on which to place their fine homes; Villagers get that for them as well! Peeps like party hats, rocket ships, furniture, and social gatherings. (Some of them, like the unique character below, enjoy hammocks, too.) They become embroiled in scandal and drama! There are weddings, fundraisers, funerals, kidnappings, and robberies.

Fulfilling the demands of the Peeps and keeping up with their antics keeps Villagers pretty busy. Using their Peeps’ home design and land as collateral, and inspired by the needs and wants of the Peeps, Villagers head off to the Village bank to secure a loan and begin making purchases for their many new projects. And here begins the second aspect of the game.

Now the Villagers are running their own dynamic community. With money in hand, they go to the Trading Post to purchase all manner of goods for building their Peep homes, general crafting, and various independent enterprises. Villagers open businesses; apply for jobs at the bank, trading post, newspaper, or post office; run for government office; or perhaps attend the Village University. There are many ways for Villagers to earn income and stay busy!

Money and time management and goal setting become important: some Villagers accumulate wealth, others overdraw their bank accounts. Will the Villagers form a government? If they do, will that government be ethical and trustworthy or crooked and out for personal gain? Will laws be needed to keep the peace and ensure that all are treated fairly? The Villagers themselves will determine all of this and more. As in real life, there are model citizens, civil servants, bakers, and artists—as well as scoundrels, loafers, and ne'er-do-wells. It's all learning and all valuable! The possibilities are endless, and the game takes a new turn each time it is played.

From designing and building the scale model village for the Peeps, to managing personal projects and jobs, to attending to civic matters and the myriad interpersonal issues that always arise where groups of people converge, Village is filled with valuable, real life learning. Village is dynamic, unpredictable, and messy. It's challenging, rewarding, and fun! Village, like life, is filled with unforeseen circumstances and opportunities and, although children may play it over and over again, it is never the same and never loses its appeal. Village is filled with peer-based learning, natural consequences, and “Aha!” moments. In Village, young people step into leadership, confront real problems, and collaborate to find creative solutions. They take on the world, and they do an admirable job of it!

As a teacher, mentor, and school director of 40+ years, I can confidently say that Village is the most powerful teaching tool I have ever encountered, and it has completely transformed my understanding of learning and teaching. Most importantly, it has transformed and vastly expanded my view of what young people are capable of. Village has provided me a platform from which to explore and teach applied academics in a meaningful context. I have learned to trust the natural learning process and have grown comfortable with the chaos and mayhem that can come with letting creativity, self-expression, and learning by experience take reign, rather than imparting knowledge in a controlled learning environment. Moreover, Village has brought the spirit of play, creativity, and trust back into my own adult life. Village has become my passion, and it's my goal to share it with as many young people and mentors as I can!

Village takes roughly 25 days from start to finish. It has been played as the central component of an integrated, academic school curriculum, with homeschool groups, and as summer camps. It is best played with 20–26 (or so) children, aged 9–14 years (or so). However, Village, like life, can be adapted to a wide array of circumstances and needs.

For the past 10 years Village has been the heart of the Austin EcoSchool/Village Academy curriculum. With the recent closing of this wonderful school, Village is now loose; unfettered by a brick and mortar location, Village is free to come to you!

If you would like to register your child in an existing Village program or are interested in bringing Village to your child’s learning community, please contact us at

A Friday Village program is starting at AHB Community School on January 6, 2017, and is open to the homeschool community. Applications are accepted through mid-January. We are also in the process of launching a Summer Village, complete details of which will be available soon.

You can keep up with VillageinAustin by liking us on Facebook. Our website will be launching soon!

Cheryl Kruckeberg

Synergy Middle School: “Together we can do so much.”

Rachel Green Soto is one of the most creative, hard-working, and accomplished people in Austin. She is a community organizer and educator with over 14 years experience in the public, private, and co-school communities. Rachel is best known as the founder, director, and teacher of Verona Schoolhouse, a pre-K and kindergarten program in southwest Austin; founder and board chair of the nonprofit Kairos Ed; and founder and executive director of the new Synergy Middle School. We invited Rachel to the blog to explain how she dreamed up the unique Synergy program and what makes it so special.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller recognized the power of a community that brings together its unique gifts to serve all more fully. I couldn’t agree more, and this thought has inspired me to continue my life’s work of responding to the educational needs of our community in collaboration with some of the biggest names in essential youth programs in Austin. Together, we have redesigned the middle school experience to be one where students thrive, not just survive as so many young teens currently find themselves doing in conventional schools.

Synergy Middle School’s vision, adopted from Kairos Ed, is to maximize meaningful learning opportunities within and beyond the classroom by facilitating a culture of collaboration that ignites curiosity, nurtures strengths, and empowers students, families, and educators.

Austin is bursting with amazing youth programs that offer learning opportunities as afterschool classes, spring break and summer camps, and homeschool classes. As a co-school family for many years, we have had the ability to pick and choose our own combination of classes that we consider “essential” parts of our schooling rather than “enrichment.” These programs have provided new experiences, broader content, and refined skills that, as my child’s primary teacher, I have been able to build on, connect to, and weave into our full learning experience. The combination of outside programs with integrated academic content has proven to be a very effective way to deepen learning and make it fun and relevant. Our “a la carte” version of schooling has gone far beyond the four walls of our house and my own expertise as a homeschooling parent. Instead of being limited to my skill set, my kids have had the privilege of also learning from a handful of other teachers with their own knowledge, skills, and passions.

Middle school can be an uncertain and sensitive time of life for students. So much is changing, physically, emotionally, socially, and academically, that these students require the most engaged learning environment possible. Additionally, middle school is an ideal time to introduce a more flexible, yet still structured, environment that allows students new freedom and independence where they naturally desire it, variety to keep things interesting, and a socially and emotionally supportive team of educators to help them navigate these crucial years of development.

Inspired by the positive experience of my family’s a la carte co-schooling years and with a heart to provide wraparound support to students and families during the critical middle school years, I created Synergy Middle School as a full-time, alternative education school that will open in Fall 2017 to its inaugural class of 6th graders and grow by one grade level each year to serve grades 6–8. Synergy Middle School is combining the expertise of established local programs already providing classes to the community and the skill and oversight of professional classroom teachers into one school program.

The handpicked essential youth programs with whom Synergy Middle School is partnering includes outdoor education from Earth Native Wilderness School, visual arts classes from The Art Garage Austin, theater and robotics through the Paramount Theatre, aerial yoga and mindfulness from Yogapeutics, and guitar/voice lessons from Don’t Stop Rockin’.

Teacher-Mentors, the Synergy name for classroom teachers, will provide the students with content area instruction in math, language arts, science, and social studies, multidisciplinary curriculum design skills, and the heart and training to mentor middle school students during these pivotal years. Teacher-Mentors intentionally weave together the five days of programming into one amazing middle school experience connecting academic, social, and experiential learning together in the minds, hearts, and bodies of middle schoolers.

Rachel Green Soto

Media Monday: If it’s fake, it ain’t news you can use

For many years, I worked as a fact-checker for a magazine with high standards for accuracy and fairness, so for me, one of the most galvanizing and frightening trends of 2016 has been the spread of inaccurate and/or misleading “news” via websites and social media. I believe there’s not much that’s more important than getting the facts right, so I am thrilled that teaching young people—including elementary school students—to hold the media to high standards and to fact-check what they watch and read for themselves is a growing trend in schools.

In November, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Learning,” a study from Stanford University, looked at how well middle school, high school, and college students understand whether they are looking at facts, opinions that are biased, advertisements, or absolute falsehoods online. The results were pretty discouraging. For example, in a survey of more than 200 middle-school students, the researchers found:

More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story. Some students even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article. This suggests that many students have no idea what “sponsored content” means and that this is something that must be explicitly taught as early as elementary school.

For many educators in the alternative ed community, the development of robust powers of analysis and critical thinking among their students is a foundation of the curriculum. Whether they rely on classical models like the Socratic method of interrogation or harness new digital technologies, the goal is to enable kids to navigate the murky depths of all the false, manipulative, and downright crazy information online so they can form educated opinions and contribute to civic and scientific conversations themselves.

One interesting effort, recently highlighted by NPR, is the National Literacy Project’s “Checkology” program, adopted in a few high schools in pilot form, and rolling out more widely in 2017. Checkology will initially be provided free to teachers who want to test the program.  The interactive, self-paced activities are designed to teach kids how to assess the validity of many types of information.

As highlighted recently by Bill Moyers’s PBS TV show, the Center for News Literacy offers a great toolbox for parents, educators, and students who want to improve their ability to see information more objectively. Teens might be interested in the six-week free online course starting January 9, 2017, called Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens.

For a little more information on what could very well be the essential topic in civics education for a long time to come, check out:

Shelley Sperry


Post-election in Austin schools: Finding comfort in community

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

The past few weeks since Election Day have posed significant and unusual challenges for educators across the country. When divisions among adults are as strong as they have been during the presidential campaign, tensions, fears, and misinformation inevitably come out among kids on playgrounds and in classrooms.

In a report released this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that schools and universities are the most common places that hate-based incidents take place—including attacks against immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, and the LGBTQ community. More than 10,000 teachers surveyed by SPLC detailed 2,500 fights and threats related to the rhetoric of the 2016 election, increasing use of racial and ethnic slurs, and the appearance of swastikas and Confederate flags around their schools. From the survey’s executive summary:

Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

We asked some members of the Alt Ed Austin community to talk about what they are seeing and hearing among their students and what kinds of constructive, positive steps they’re taking to support kids, parents, and each other.

Individual and group discussions, with the goal of intellectually understanding the dynamics of the political conflicts, as well as sharing and processing a variety of emotions around the election are important to all the educators we heard from.

Kristin Kim of Sansori High School says, “I encourage [students] to see beyond the layers of realities created by polarization, and be aware of when they are drawn in to reactiveness.” She wants to help them avoid repeating patterns of conflict. 

The team at Skybridge Academy focused on the question of vulnerability, and discussed bullying and how to be an ally to people who need support. Students were allowed to share their feelings anonymously and to discuss them in groups. Skybridge’s co-director, Ariel Dochstader Miller, says she believes the students’ open sharing and discussion helped students, but more discussions are needed to move forward “in a healed and unified space.” “We came to the conclusion that the way through these defensive walls, both literal and emotional, is empathy and compassionate relating and sharing.”

“We focused much more on what we could do for one another than dwelling on what we could not control,” says Antonio Buehler of Abrome. Antonio shares a detailed response on his blog, focusing on how Learners can “transcend electoral politics” and better society in myriad ways.

At KọSchool, the full student body of 8th–12th graders gathered to talk about personal empowerment in times of dramatic change. Students discussed feelings of victimization across the spectrum of political viewpoints and shared their own struggles to keep open minds and not condemn those whose beliefs clashed with their own.

There is also great value, for students and their families, in physical activity—whether it’s work or play—and intimately connecting with the natural world. Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms says she’s been contacted by several schools that would like to get out among the plants and animals on a “medicinal” field trip. “Teens are especially upset,” she adds, “so I will be putting them to work, giving them some nature therapy.”

Most important, we in the Alt Ed Austin community adhere to the belief that schools must be safe and nurturing homes-away-from-home for all children.  We could not say it better than Austin School Board Trustee Paul Saldaña said it in a moving letter to all the families of Austin ISD:

I want you to know how much I admire the concerns you have expressed this week for your friends, classmates, and schools. And I encourage you to have these thoughtful conversations among your peers and with your teachers in the classrooms. It’s okay for you to express any concerns you may have and to find your voice and use it with conviction. Most importantly, I want to reassure you, that your school and classroom is your home and your sanctuary. It belongs to you and you are safe.

Please take a look at Paul Saldaña’s letter here.

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

You may also be interested in some resources designed for Teaching Tolerance by the SPLC. Using the hashtag #StudentsSpeak, the Teaching Tolerance program is collecting photos with a wonderful variety of heartfelt advice for President-elect Trump on their Facebook page (a sampling of which we’ve included in this post). Take a look, and see how your students can participate here.