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

The Six Seasons: Empowering kids to deal with climate change


That environmentalists need the goodwill of children would seem self-evident—but more often
than not, children are viewed as props or extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.

—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

I recently attended a preview performance of The Six Seasons, a uniquely beautiful and moving play about climate change. Glass Half Full Theatre adapted its original award-winning show aimed at adult audiences into this brilliant production for ages seven and up. Using tiny puppets, ingenious sets made of recycled materials, gorgeous music from around the world, and simple language that made complex socio-ecological processes come to life, these artist-environmentalists earned the goodwill of the children watching with me.

Presented on ZACH Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, the story depicts people and ecosystems all over the planet coping with the very real effects of climate change: polar bears stranded by melting Arctic ice, families in Texas and Malawi forced to leave their farms because of severe drought, villages and entire islands disappearing in the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh as sea levels rise and uproot mangroves no longer able to hold coastlines together. Heavy stuff for children, right?

Concerned parents and educators struggle to find the right tone, the right images, the right amount of detail when talking to kids about the climate crisis. Most experts agree that kids can handle scary truths, presented in age-appropriate terms, as long as they’re also given the chance to do something with that information. As Alfie Kohn, best known as a crusader for more humane education, writes in his book Unconditional Parenting, “Empowered kids are in the best position to deal constructively with disempowering circumstances.”

Zach Scott education director Nat Miller and his team are working hard to make sure that the young (and older) people who see The Six Seasons feel empowered. Immediately following both family shows and special performances for school groups, they lead “talkback” sessions to draw out questions and concerns. They’ve also created a free study guide that parents and educators can use to help kids delve deeper into the geographic, historical, social, economic, and ecological issues the play addresses.

Most importantly, the talkbacks include suggestions for specific actions that young people can take to address the causes and effects of climate change. Some of these suggestions came out of a post-performance discussion I participated in along with other invited audience members representing local environmental organizations, including Austin Citizens Climate Lobby, Environment Texas, Keep Austin Beautiful, and TreeFolks. Miller and Caroline Reck, the play’s director, writer, and puppet designer, asked these leaders important questions and listened carefully to their input on the kinds of direct action that are most effective.

Also in the audience were students and teachers from the Austin Ecoschool. This was an especially appropriate group to preview the play, as EcoSchool kids are accustomed to learning in the company of very small puppet-like figures they call “peeps” every Thursday in their ongoing role-playing curriculum called Game of Village. During their talkback, the students were engaged and forthcoming. Clearly, they not only enjoyed the play (especially the polar bears, which the kids mentioned repeatedly) but also really got it. Some remarked that parts of the story were sad. And indeed they were.

But the play’s later scenes are more hopeful, imagining futures in which people come together creatively to build more resilient communities and where concrete cities become revegetated. Finally, the puppeteers circle back to the beloved polar bears we met in the first scene, reminding us that their habitat remains precarious and precious.

Grab a kid, or a bunch of them, and head over to see The Six Seasons while you can. Tickets are available for Saturday family shows through January 31 and weekday school group performances through February 13. And let’s keep the conversations about climate change going—with our kids and with each other. 


Why did the chicken cross the schoolyard?

One of my clients, new to Austin, recently asked me, “What’s up with chickens on campus? Seems like all the cool schools around here have them.” We Austinites love our backyard chickens, and I am no exception, but her question got me thinking. Why do so many alternative schools, each with a different educational approach, make hens and other domestic animals important parts of their curricula and learning environments?

I asked educators and students in the local alt ed community. Their answers—some detailed and complex, others beautifully simple—were full of surprises and insights. Here’s what they shared, in words and pictures.


Animals are an important part of our community at the schoolhouse. They help us meet our commitment to real sustainability, and they are wonderful companions too! We keep chickens at the neighborhood garden on our block. Every day the kids have jobs to contribute to the work of the schoolhouse. Each week they take a turn on Kitchen Patrol or Chicken Patrol. The Chicken Patrol feeds, waters, fills the nesting boxes with straw, collects eggs, and enjoys the company of our eight hens. We find it a wonderful way to build connection, feed kids’ curiosity about living things, and teach responsibility and practical skills as well. It is also a visceral encounter with “closing the loop”: we use our chicken poop to fertilize our garden beds via a “chicken tractor”; the feathered ladies scratch and turn up the ground, eating bugs and depositing free fertilizer in the garden!

The kids just love playing with the birds, and are so proud to take home eggs each week. We have a Coop Co-op where participating parents bring in a bag of feed in exchange for a turn on the egg rotation. Fresh eggs can’t be beat! And the kids get the pleasure of sharing the bounty with their families at home.

We also have two cats at the schoolhouse: Super Cat, and the more elusive Guthrie. Everyone works to build the trust of the cats, learns how to pet them gently, and is always on the lookout for a Guthrie spotting. (She is the more skittish and of course becomes the prodigal cat when she sneaks up on the porch during the quiet of Class Lesson time!) The kitties often provide a cozy comfort to someone who needs a little love.

—Caitlin Macklin, founder and mentor, 9th Street Schoolhouse


The Austin EcoSchool community was recently joined by a cheerful flock of seven fowl: six hens and one rooster who has very feathery feet! Our flock was donated by a parent who has been raising chickens and goats in the city for some time.

In our Morning Circle last week we talked about chickens, what we know and don’t know about taking care of them. Many of the kids have had some experience and were generous with their knowledge—thank goodness, since I know so very little about the subject!

The kids are, of course, all agog at the new additions and spend time with them every day. We’ve been collecting eggs and using them in various cooking projects. There is talk of selling eggs a little later on. We’re also planning to add some chicks to the flock, and eventually we’ll even have pygmy goats!

On the subject of urban school farms, our squash plants are going bonkers; there are squash blossoms everywhere! The baby fig tree has wee, cute baby figs on it, and the asparagus plant is pushing up more asparagus shoots. It’s amazing what some rain will do!

We’re so excited to be expanding our school farm and edible campus, and I invite everyone to come by and check it out.

—Cheryl Kruckeberg, campus director, Austin EcoSchool


Our animals are a great asset to the Tinkering School. They are often the first thing that kids connect with when arriving; they help in adjusting to the new environment. They’re a comfort and provide a lot of comic relief and entertainment!

—Kami Wilt, director and founder, Austin Tinkering School


We have chickens, a donkey, two mama goats, and three baby goats at Inside Outside School, with more babies due any day. The students feed the animals, collect eggs, hang out in the barnyard, and love on our animal friends. Soon we will all be learning how to milk a goat and how to make cheese and soap.

The students have integrated study projects to learn more about animal husbandry and also grow foods in the garden for the animals. Three of our own hens’ eggs hatched last spring, and the students got to watch them grow and change daily. In a world that sometimes seems short on compassion, caring for animals is one incredible way to grow children with big hearts!

—Deborah Hale, executive director, Inside Outside School


Animals are an important and personal way to experience the life cycle and to accept and marvel at how amazing it is.

—Paula Estes, director and teacher, The Living School


They love us no matter what, and they teach us to love and care for something other than just ourselves.

—Adam, student, The Living School


The kids absolutely love them! At Whole Life Learning Center we have 20 chickens, a goat named Eleanor, and a mini-donkey named Gertrude. The kids help with their daily care, collecting eggs and tossing chicken scratch, putting out hay and water, and, most importantly, giving them love and attention. They learn about meeting those basic needs as well as some of the more involved aspects of animal husbandry, like training a stubborn donkey to walk on a lead!

The kids are so sensitive to the animals’ needs; it’s beautiful to see their senses of empathy and responsibility develop in relation to our feathered and four-legged friends. And it goes both ways: when a child needs some quiet time or wants to practice reading, she can go sit with Gertrude and Eleanor and chat or read with them—good friends always listen.

Oh, and finally, they get to see how the animals fit into the whole ecosystem. The chickens give us tasty eggs, the donkey protects the chickens from predators (and protects the gardens from vegetarian predators too), and Gertrude and Ellie serve as our lawn service, complete with fertilizer for the gardens!

—Michael Carberry, founder, director, and mentor,
Whole Life Learning Center


Hi, my name is Averi, and I’m a student at the Whole Life Learning Center. It is a really awesome school and we really love animals. This school really helps fullfill my passion for animals because it has tons of animals, like Gertrude the mini donkey, Ellie the goat, and a lot of chickens. I think that animals can teach just as well as humans, just different things. As Nelly, one of my friends at WLLC, says, “Animals can be teachers too!” Human teachers teach stuff like math, reading, and writing, and animals teach things like love, responsibility, and a sense of purpose. I wrote a quote: “You can study all you want, but true learning comes from experience.”

—Averi, student, Whole Life Learning Center


Big learning in miniature

Every Thursday students at the Austin EcoSchool play the Game of Village, a complex, thoughtfully structured, open-ended game in which “children explore the world at large by creating a world in miniature.” Throughout the school year, they establish and run a society, take on individual jobs, and work together to form a government; together they solve problems major and minor— all on a scale of 1:24.

The geographic setting and time period change each school year. This year the game has taken place in ancient Egypt, under the tough scrutiny of Queen Cleopatra and her Roman spies. The Villagers—tiny figures called Peeps that the students create, complete with well-developed personalities, social and economic roles, and personal histories—spend their time building and maintaining homes, businesses, and public institutions. In the process, the students learn heaps of history, economics, physics, math, art, writing, and many practical life skills.

A Peep: three inches of personality and power.

When I visited the school one Thursday morning earlier this semester, it was buzzing with activity. Students were applying for positions as town crier and managers of the trading post, bank, and post office. Outgoing managers were checking references of applicants and preparing to train the new employees in systems they’d developed over the course of the previous semester. Architects and engineers were finalizing construction plans for a mummification temple. An accounting team was processing invoices, issuing paychecks, and auditing the bank.

I asked one young accountant, a twelve-year-old named Holland, what she liked about the game and her (Peep’s) role in it. “Well, I don’t know any other kids my age who know how to balance a checkbook,” she said. With a smile of satisfaction, she added, “I also know how to make a spreadsheet.”

Cheryl Kruckeberg, the school’s director, serves with other faculty members as one of the Village Commissioners who periodically “squeeze the game” by scheming behind the scenes to create new situations or problems to be addressed. For example, in the early spring they nudged the Villagers along in their construction projects with a letter from Cleopatra announcing an imminent visit. “That lit a fire under them!” she said. The students finished most of their buildings before the royal visit in hopes that the queen would look upon their village with favor.

Cheryl said that the Game of Village “fits in with everything else the school is about”: making learning natural, relevant, and lasting through a cross-disciplinary and theme-based curriculum that empowers students to realize their own personal goals. Through extended play, students learn real-life lessons—many of them about themselves. After spending a semester as a bank clerk, one student may gain the skills and confidence to apply for the bank manager position next time. Another student doing the same job may experience that all-too-common sensation of being trapped in a demanding job with little room for creativity. Both lessons are equally valuable. As Cheryl said, “I am not banker material. I am a craftsman.”

Village job postings. Must be a qualified Peep to apply.

This kind of self-understanding is something the school seeks to cultivate every day of the school week, and it can be seen in full blossom on Village days. Reflecting on speeches given by candidates and their nominators about their qualifications for office before the Peep government elections, Cheryl wrote on the Village Blog:

This was just one of the many times that I have wished that you parents could be a “fly on the wall.” To hear these amazing young people acknowledge themselves and each other for such qualities as honesty, compassion, diplomacy, visionary thinking, and all the rest was beyond description. I walked away inspired that these are the ones to whom our future belongs.

You and your family can experience the miniature world of the EcoSchool’s Village at its sixth annual
Mini Fair on Thursday, May 24, 5:00 to 7:30 pm. Students sell Mini Fair tickets, much like carnival tickets, up front, and you can use them to make your own Peep and take it on miniature rides or exchange them for snacks and various Peep goods. Tickets can be purchased with cash or traded for gently used books, pet supplies, or canned goods, which will be donated to local nonprofit organizations.

Lots of opportunities this week!

This week is brimming with public events at local alternative schools. Each is a great chance to check out the school’s facilities, learn about its programs, and meet staff, students, and parents.

  • The Austin EcoSchool will open its doors on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons for a Barefoot Books fair, with sales benefitting the school.
  • On Tuesday evening you can attend an information session at Clearview Sudbury School and get answers to all your questions about the Sudbury model of education.
  • Also taking place at Clearview this week is the school’s first movie night. Everyone is welcome to join the local Sudbury folks on Thursday evening for a showing and discussion of Voices from the New American Schoolhouse, a documentary about the well-established Fairhaven Sudbury School in Maryland.
  • Friday is the Inside Outside School’s Expo Day, where kids will present the projects they’ve worked on all semester. You can also buy cool stuff handmade by the Apothecary Class.
  • Later on Friday, head to the Whole Life Learning Center’s open house to learn about its unique programs, including “Freedom Fridays,” which feature enrichment classes that are open to the homeschooling community.

For more details, go to the Alt Ed Austin Calendar, where you can click on any event to find the time, location, and other specifics. If you can’t make it to these special happenings, no worries: contact any of the schools listed in the Directory to arrange a visit of your own.