Need to find the school that fits your kid?

We have the answers you’re looking for at the Austin Alternative School Fair. Read on for all the details!

When?  Saturday, February 17, 11am–2pm

Where?  A brand-new venue for our event: Spider House Ballroom, 2908 Fruth Street. Park in one of Spider House’s two parking lots, or in the free street parking in the surrounding area.

What?  A chance to talk with some of Austin’s most effective, innovative educators from learning communities where children and teens grow and thrive.

Each booth has some fun activities to engage kids while parents talk with educators about their schools and special programs, which are tailored to all ages from pre-K through high school. The schools represent unique, transformative programs from all over the metro area, including Cedar Park, Pflugerville, and Dripping Springs.

Food and beverages available for purchase next door at Spider House Cafe.

How is this school fair different?  Unlike many of the larger, generic fairs where schools compete for your attention, this one is a collaborative effort by alternative educators who know there’s not one right way to reach all learners.

Is it really FREE?  Yep. Just bring your kids and questions!

Who is throwing this shindig?  It’s brought to you by the Education Transformation Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and co-sponsored by Spider House Ballroom and Alt Ed Austin.

I’ll be there to chat and help find answers to all your questions about schools and transformative education in our community.

And we have a Facebook page you can check out to remind you of the time and place and to share with other parents.

I look forward to meeting you there!


Come one, come all, to the Austin Alternative School Fair 2017!

Get out your calendar, circle February 25, and rally the kids of all ages!

The nonprofit Education Transformation Alliance is joining with sponsors Free Fun in Austin, Whole Foods Market, and Alt Ed Austin to host the annual Austin Alternative School Fair on February 25, from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Whole Foods Market rooftop plaza.

Check out the event’s Facebook page for updates over the next few weeks.

We like to think we’re doing our part to “Keep Austin Weird” for kids by bringing together highly innovative, creative educators to share information about the number and variety of learning options in our area.

Parents and kids will have a chance to meet with the folks who run schools, enrichment programs, and educational services. The fair is set up on the plaza near the playground and features engaging activities for teens and younger kids, including virtual reality experiences, 3D printing, computer games, a mini nature museum, assorted crafts, as well as movement-based fun like sock poi and flow arts. And of course, there will be healthy food and drinks for sale from Whole Foods.

Alt Ed Austin is proud to sponsor the event again this year. It’s always a chance to talk and share in a relaxed, fun setting. We’re lucky—and more important, our kids are lucky—to have such a caring community of educators.

Participants this year include:

  • Abrome (K–12th)
  • AHB Community School (K–8th)
  • Clearview Sudbury School (K–12th)
  • French School of Austin (PreK–8th
  • Fusion Academy (6-12th)
  • Game of Village (enrichment program for ages 9–14)
  • Growing Curiosity (PreK)
  • Inside Outside School (K–5th)
  • Integrity Academy (PreK–12th)
  • KoSchool (8th–12th)
  • Progress School (K–8th)
  • Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse (K–8th)
  • Sansori High School (9th–12th)
  • Skybridge Academy (6th–12th)
  • Synergy Middle School (enrolling ages 11–13 for 2017)
  • Whole Life Learning Center (PreK–8th)
  • WonderWell (ages 2 through PreK & Kinder)

Austin Alternative School Fair 2016!

Mark your calendars for February 20th, and plan to bring your whole family for a whole lot of fun! Our friends at the nonprofit Education Transformation Alliance are gearing up to put on the annual Austin Alternative School Fair, and I can see already that it’s going to be the best ever.

I’m pleased and proud that Alt Ed Austin is sponsoring the fair again, along with the good people at Whole Foods Market and Free Fun in Austin. I always have a great time talking with families at the fair, so please don’t be shy! Come on up to the Alt Ed Austin table and feel free to ask me your burning questions about Austin area schools, from pre-K through high school.

Then make your way around the Whole Foods rooftop plaza and playground, visiting with educators from 21 innovative schools, enrichment programs, and educational services. Each booth will offer a different hands-on activity for kids—including some very cool stuff for teens!—so while they're happily engaged, you can talk to the educators about their unique programs. Check out who will be there:

If you have kids in the preschool-to-elementary range, don’t miss the special show at noon! Lizzie Samples has been enchanting young audiences and their parents all over Austin with her Happy Face Storytime Performances. This is a perfect chance to see Lizzy enact a beloved children's story, in costume, with her signature charm and artistry. And, just like the fair itself, it's FREE!

Thinking ahead to potential hunger meltdowns or thirst-induced doldrums at the fair? The friendly folks at Whole Foods Market will be on hand with healthy snacks and beverages for sale! So plan to stay a while, play, talk, munch, and learn with us. If you have questions for me or any of the participating program directors before the fair, please leave them in the comments below, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Be sure to follow our Facebook event page for updates as we announce more fun, engaging activities for your kids.

See you at the fair!


My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg

Join us at the Austin Alternative School Fair!

Looking for something fun, informative, and free to do with the kids this weekend? Head over to the downtown Whole Foods rooftop plaza on Saturday between 11am and 2pm. The Education Transformation Alliance is putting on its fifth Austin Alternative School Fair, its biggest and best yet.

If you have school-aged kids, you’re probably in full-on exploration (and perhaps application) mode this time of year. That’s why you need to bring your family to the fair! With 17 unusual schools and other innovative educational programs participating, you’ll have a chance to learn about many different learner-centered approaches to education. You’ll meet some of the most creative, effective, and beloved educators around and learn how their small, nonstandard and nonstandardized programs can help develop the very best in your child.

Check out this list, which includes programs for teens, tweens, and younger children:

Alt Ed Austin is thrilled to sponsor the fair, along with the good folks at Whole Foods Market and Free Fun in Austin. Look for me at the Alt Ed Austin table. I'd be happy to answer your questions, help you find the programs of most interest to your family, and guide your kids to fun, hands-on activities they’ll love. I can’t wait to meet you and help you find the right fit for your kid!



Wilderness Awareness School: Professional development for alternative educators

This interview is adapted from one that recently appeared on Dandelion, Breana Sylvester’s blog about her family’s adventures in exploring educational alternatives. Thanks for sharing it with us, Breana! You can meet all three of the fiercely committed educators involved in the interview at this Saturday’s Alternative School Fair.

Ever wonder what your teachers did over the summer? Chances are, whether you went to public or private school, large or small, your teachers did some sort of professional development to become better at what they do. That might mean they took classes at a local university or attended a conference, or worked with other teachers to learn from experts in their field. I know teacher learning is very important, but I wondered, just as each alternative school tends to have its own style, does teacher learning take on its own flair in an alternative setting?

Laura and Michelle, two Austin alt educators, went to Wilderness Awareness School to learn the Art of Mentoring from experts. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, though, they made the great outdoors their classroom, learned through experience, and brought home lessons in becoming better teachers and happier individuals. They shared experiences neither is likely to forget! 

Michelle Carbone, youth programs coordinator and instructor, Earth Native Wilderness School, an outdoor education program. Job description: Facilitating the building of connections with nature through games and songs, as well as teaching survival skills (e.g., friction fires, learning about edible plants). Background: Studied Environmental Affairs, worked at Keep Milwaukee Beautiful and Outdoor Education programs in Texas and Ohio.

Laura Ruiz Brennand, teacher, Radicle Roots Community School-house, an experiential democratic school. Job description: Mentoring child learning based on play, place, projects, and inspiration; balancing class lessons and self-directed time, with a focus on sustainability and connecting to nature. Background: B.A. and Masters from Texas State; taught 4th grade in Kyle, Texas, before learning about alternative schooling opportunities through Caitlin Macklin.

An interesting side note: Michelle and Laura did not know each other prior to this experience. Even though Radicle Roots was planning on working with Earth Native in the fall, these two educators hadn’t yet met. They were on the same plane and saw each other with their gear and wondered, but when they got to Wilderness Awareness School, they ended up together in the Chipmunk Clan. So it was quite a way to meet!

I had some questions for Michelle and Laura about their experience, and I had so much fun learning about their learning that I wanted to share it. So here’s my interview with these two amazing teachers!

*     *     *

What appealed to you about Coyote Mentoring before you went?

Laura: Wilderness awareness school is a model school for Radicle Roots, along with the Albany Free School. Caitlin [the school’s founder] had attended the Art of Mentoring program two summers before, and so she knew a lot about it. She talked to me about the 8 shields and the different philosophies. She gave me this big textbook, and it was really dense. She’s like, “Yeah, you’ve just got to go. You can’t read about it, you’ve just got to experience it.” This past summer we were able to afford to go. She wanted me to experience what she experienced, so that way our visions could be more connected. When I got there I was like, “YES! This is what she was talking about.”

Michelle: Dave Scott, the founder of Earth Native, he got his start at Wilderness Awareness School, so it is the model we look to for Earth Native. He went there and learned and he was very involved and then he stayed and taught there. It was his inspiration for starting Earth Native. [My experience with] outdoor education is definitely less structured than classroom education, but it’s somewhere in between a Wilderness Awareness model and public school. I’m still trying to figure out where I can use my experience as an outdoor educator. Going to Earth Native was very important for me to experience. I was teaching summer camp this past summer, and I threw myself into that, and part of me didn’t feel ready to go and have another experience, but it was the most rejuvenating experience I have ever had. Everyone should go, it’s magical. 

From your perspective, based on your experience, what is the philosophy of the Art of Mentoring program?

Laura: Finding your role as a mentor, getting to know your students really well as a mentor, and figuring out where your students are using the 8 shields, and then you get to help them grow. For example, if a student is highly motivated to a project but they’re not very organized, you can help them in that way. Or if they’re struggling with motivation, you can come in as the coyote trickster and get them super motivated by being goofy and silly and bringing joy to the process, and also remembering they’re kids and they have child passions in them like playing and singing and storytelling, and remembering that adults need to play as well. When you’re mentoring a student, when an opportunity arises, you find those opportunities and you figure out what kind of teaching style you want to use. If they’re ready for lots of information, you can use a more didactic style; if they’re curious, you can be more inquiry-based.

Out of everything you learned from the program, is there something that you either immediately wanted to share, or while you were learning you made a connection to how you could have used it in the past?

Michelle: My biggest struggle has been setting boundaries guidelines, because the idea of outdoor education is letting a lot of that go—so knowing when to intervene and when you just need to let the kid figure out their own boundaries through natural consequences. For me that’s really hard. When I see a kid struggling, my instinct is to help them and do whatever I can to keep them from harm. Trying to find that balance is really hard, so going into it that’s what I wanted to figure out. Students are often asking for something, like, “Hey, I’m really thirsty, and I have been running around and I’m dehydrated and now I don’t want to drink water, so I really need you to make me drink water.” Being able to go outside your comfort zone a little is important. I spend so much time doing trickster, and being goofy and crazy. I realize I need to be a little more didactic or use the art of questioning. It was humbling, and made me realize I had a lot to learn. Maybe children respond in another way, and not always the way I tend to do things. Learning that I need to get to know my kids on another level, it was really helpful.

Laura: I think the most beautiful thing about the whole process was that there were all kinds of people coming together. We all are naturalists, and all work with kids, no program was alike, and just knowing that all these people are coming together for the same things and then dispersing back to our homes to spread the warmth and nurturing we learned there was really amazing. I am really looking forward to storytelling. There was this amazing storyteller. He was a performer, and the way he told stories was really artful and inspiring. He brought in these characters that were really interesting, and so real. He brought lots of movements; his body was so dynamic. I want to do that, I want to be a better storyteller. He was so great that you realize the possibilities of storytelling are endless. I felt like I didn’t have stories to tell, but he mentioned that everyone has their own stories to tell. Use your own life experience, and stories will come to you; everyone has something to teach. I am really excited about using the different teaching methods as they arise, especially the trickster, because I think that is my discomfort zone. Thinking about putting on a costume or a mask and then coming into a character, it sounds so fun. I think I’m going to be a raccoon. I’m going to put on a mask and become a raccoon. 


What was something about the experience that surprised you, that you didn’t expect going in?

Laura: I was surprised by how much everyone let themselves be themselves, even in the mornings at 8:00 a.m., when we were all pretending to be penguins or salmon. Everyone got into it and was so open to the program. There were some pretty emotional experiences for some people, because it was such a safe environment. Everyone was really supportive. It was amazing to hear 30 adults singing these songs. We learned a lot of songs. I sing them in the shower, on my bike, on my walk. We wrote them all down. It was so beautiful out there, incredibly beautiful, and the connection with the land that everyone within the community had was also really beautiful.

Michelle: I met someone there, and he was a quieter individual. I could feel him watching me sometimes, and after a while he approached me. He said, “I don’t want to infringe upon who you are and what you’re doing, but I noticed you’re constantly apologizing for who you are and what you’re doing.” I do that. He challenged me that every time I apologized I had to say something nice about myself out loud. To me that felt gross, it was scary and uncomfortable, but I did. Since I’ve gotten back I still do it, in my head, and I’ve been really watching that when I do say I’m sorry, I truly am apologetic for my behavior, because I want to work toward being a strong woman. I was going to learn about mentoring, and I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to grow so much in such a small time. Everyone there was so awesome. You could just feel the love, and it was awesome. It was hands-on, experiential education, and I learned so much!

On leaving:

Michelle: At the end we were asked to say goodbye, to leave the space empty and not leave ourselves, and to leave our clan. It was really difficult! So we lay down on the ground with heads touching and made noises. The noises started working together and harmonizing and it ended up feeling sing-song, and then it was beautiful—we all stopped at the same time.

*     *     *

What a great way to say goodbye to the people, and the place, and the experience. Thank you, Laura and Michelle. I am really excited to have gotten to share some of your experiences with my readers!

A final note: Earth Native will be holding an Art of Mentoring program here in Austin this March! Please click here for more information.

Breana Sylvester