Movers and shakers

Austin’s alt ed community has seen lots of movin’ and shakin’ this summer. Here’s a roundup, in no particular order, of some changes you should know about as you're looking for schooling options for your kiddos.

A new school serving ages 3 to 103 is forming in Central Austin, just south of the river: Integrity Academy at Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies. Led by executive director Ali Ronder, formerly of AHB Community School, and founder Eduardo “Wayo” Longoria, the school is currently enrolling (and hiring!) for the 2014–2015 school year. You can help shape the school’s future or just enjoy a stimulating discussion about how humans learn by attending one of Integrity’s weekly salons.

Taking over the helm at AHB is M. Scott Tatum, who brings a wealth of experience in arts education, administration, and integration. Meet Scott and learn what makes this part-time elementary school in Hyde Park special by watching its new series of short videos.

Bronze Doors Academy has a new campus and a new name. According to director and chief motivator Ariel Dochstader Miller, Skybridge Academy will continue the same liberal arts college–like program for junior high and high school students for which Bronze Doors was known, but with some additional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) opportunities made possible by its new location at the Stunt Ranch in Southwest Austin. As always, both full-time and à la carte options are available.

Accompanying Skybridge in the move to Oak Hill is its elementary school partner, the Soleil School. Cofounder and head of school Carly Borders says the new location on the Stunt Ranch will give her young students access to a ropes course, a pool, and more than 20 acres of beautiful land to explore.

Another unique school on the move this summer is Acton Academy. Construction on its permanent home on Alexander Avenue in East Austin is nearly complete. Laura Sandefer, Acton’s cofounder and head of school, invites you to check it out at the open house on October 24; meanwhile, take a peek at this architect’s rendering. It looks plenty big to house the academy’s current elementary and middle school students as well as the high school program slated to open in 2016.

The Olive Tree Learning Center, a Reggio Emilia–inspired preschool, recently opened its second campus, at 6609 Manchaca Road, near Garrison Park. Like the original Bouldin Creek campus, the new one is currently enrolling children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Director Michelle Mattalino says she is “very proud of the staff at both locations” and excited to fill the beautiful campuses with happy children.

Mariposa Montessori is also opening a second campus in South Austin. It will house this American Montessori Society full-member school’s new Lower Elementary program. Head of School Whitney Falcon recently reported that there were a few spots open for fall enrollment.

Progress School is expanding this fall to serve kindergarten through 5th grade. Located in Hyde Park, Progress offers “authentic education for natural learners,” with full- and part-time options as well as an after-school program. More exciting news from director Jennifer Hobbs: “We're getting chickens!”

Likewise, the Inside Outside School has expanded to serve kindergarten through 6th grade this fall, says executive director Deborah Hale. Its current enrollment of 24 will make up three classes—primary, intermediate, and upper elementary—on the school’s seven wooded acres in Pflugerville.

9th Street Schoolhouse is growing, too. The East Side home-based school will serve ages 5 through 9 this fall, with 8 students currently enrolled. 9th Street now has two mentors: founder Caitlin Macklin and Laura Ruiz.

Finally, the Whole Life Learning Center is rolling out a new nature-based one-day program called Mother Earth Mondays, which fosters a connection with the earth through gardening, wilderness survival skills, arts and crafts, games, and other fun activities with mentors Braden Delonay, Caroline Riley Carberry, and Leesalyn Koehler. In addition, director and founder Michael Carberry says he is excited to introduce the newest mentors for the Teen Mentorship Program, Kizzie, Etienne, and Adam, whose bios will soon be posted on the WLLC website alongside those of the school’s veteran staff.

Any questions or comments for these movers and shakers? Feel free to leave them below.


Celebrating failure!

In this very personal guest post, Ariel Dochstader Miller argues for embracing failure as a positive and necessary experience in school and beyond. Ariel is cofounder and chief motivator at Austin’s Bronze Doors Academy.

My birthday was a few days ago, and my husband fulfilled my lifelong dream of having a party for me at Peter Pan Mini Golf. One of the partygoers was my eight-year-old birth daughter, whom I carried for my dear friend, who is infertile.

At one point during the party, her mom told me that she was very upset and crying because she was not doing well at mini golf. I went to her and discussed how she was feeling. This child was crying and wanted to leave because she was not performing up to her expectations.

One of my concerns for this child of my heart is that she is becoming a perfectionist because she is attending a school where the factors that determine success are all external. She is living in a world that values a memorize-for-the-test-then-forget mentality versus learning how to fail fabulously and celebrate learning because it is fun. The other young party attendees were students who attend the progressive school I own. None of them were keeping score, and I could tell the amount of fun they were having by the peals of laughter issuing forth from the golf course.

Bronze Doors Academy kids celebrate the prospect of failure at the mini golf course on this special occasion—and at school every day.

One of the things I fear most for public school youth (and those at many traditional private schools as well) is that too often they are taught that failure is the worst thing that can happen. I could not disagree more. I believe failure should be celebrated. Milton Hershey started seven businesses that failed before he found his recipe for success in his hometown of what is now called Hershey, Pennsylvania. Walt Disney went to more than three hundred banks before he found one that would fund his dream of Disney Studios. How many people would have stopped at one or two failed attempts?

The determining factor for today’s students’ future will not be how many degrees they have, their test scores, or grades but rather their entrepreneurial skills and ability to think critically. Microsoft specifically says it hires people who fail often because that means they are innovators who are not afraid to push the boundaries of whatever they are working on.

Both of my parents died young, and thus I am a huge joy advocate. None of us knows how much time we have, so why waste it not experiencing joy because we are not performing to some external measure? At Bronze Doors Academy, the adults model the attitude that failing can be spectacularly fun and is actually quite important, because it means you are stretching yourself and trying something new and different. We also model that perseverance is much more desirable than striving for perfection. In my study of business and owners of successful companies, I have found that their unwillingness to give up was much more important to their success than their grades. A study I read a few years back found that most successful business owners were C students.

Solving the problems we are facing as a society will require serious out-of-the-box thinking. Why not enjoy ourselves while pushing the boundaries of what we know is possible, even if it means the ball never goes in the hole?

Ariel Dochstader Miller

A garden, a dream, and the sun

Carly Borders, director and guide at The Soleil School, joins the Alt Ed Austin conversation with this guest post about her journey as a parent, professional educator, and entrepreneur toward a new model of education called the Whole Learning Framework.

Imagine planting a large and diverse garden. You’ve planted all types of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs—all at the same time. Suppose you cultivated them all in the same way, ignoring each plant’s unique requirements? Every day, you water all of the seeds the same amount. You give them all the same amount of fertilizer. A few of the plants are sprouting and appear to be doing fairly well. But you notice that the rest are weak and brittle, if they’re growing at all. Yet you continue to do things the same way, all the while wondering why all of the plants aren’t thriving.

But what if you had more flexibility? What if you got to know each flower and each peapod more intimately? You’ve taken great care to understand the different plants and the care it takes to bring each one up healthy to flower in its own way. And so you plant them according to their unique needs—at the right times, with the right amount of sunlight and the right kind of food. After a time, they’re all sprouting. They’re being given what they need, because they’re being treated with the respect they need. And look at the colors that begin to emerge! From the pinks of the roses to the yellows of the squash flowers: it’s beautiful. Throughout the seasons you take great care with each flower and each fruit. And the reward is greater than you could have imagined.

I hope you see where I’m going with my little education allegory. As my own child was quickly approaching school age, I knew I had to listen to my instincts. I knew I wanted him to be somewhere he could thrive. We knew the public schools weren’t right for our family. And given my background as an educator, not to mention the way I feel about alternative education, I knew I had something to contribute.

I have been trained in the Montessori method, which is rooted in values like independence, internal motivation, and hands-on experiences. Maybe I could have taken a job at a nice Montessori school. Happily, though, a friend introduced me to Ariel Miller, who had recently started a middle and high school program called Bronze Doors Academy. She met with me and expressed her desire for someone to begin a new program in the same building for younger students. The idea was daunting, but I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Could I be an educational entrepreneur?

I could easily have said no to this question. I had to ask myself what was holding me back. Was it that I didn’t feel qualified? Or was it simply a fear of failure? I decided to channel what I had learned about other successful people and take a chance. Success doesn’t come to those who are unwilling to take risks. I allowed the idea of the school to germinate in my mind, and I started piecing things together bit by bit. After several weeks, what would become The Soleil School started to take shape.

Now, as we’ve begun our first full school year, I am delighted at what is emerging: Students at The Soleil School are part of a family and school community. They are encouraged first to pursue areas most of interest to them and explore outward from there. So we begin by setting goals. Taking what I learned from my training in the Montessori method, experience in project-based education, and my appreciation for Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, I have devised a foundational philosophy called the Whole Learning Framework. It is a holistic approach in which students are encouraged to develop through a process of continuous discovery. By allowing them to work toward personal goals—which are set with guidance by both parents and the guide (me)—the students are intrinsically motivated. Contrast this with a quizzes-and-pellets method in which students are rewarded for conformity and regurgitation.

In keeping with the “soleil” (sun, in French) theme, we’ve created ten learning areas in the classroom, which we call “satellites.” These subject areas revolve around the children (not the other way around). The satellites are not exhaustive, but they’re designed to let kids visualize, categorize, and contextualize different paths to learning discovery that are open to them.

We began this year by talking about the idea that the students are on a “quest.” I asked them to think about the question: What is your quest? Our first project was to create a “quest comic.” Each student was to come up with a main character who has strengths and weaknesses. Of course, the main character sets out on some sort of quest, where her strengths are to be employed and weaknesses overcome—all to reach a goal and overcome obstacles along the way. In this way, the students are able to use their creativity to delve deeper into the metaphor of the quest.

This idea will permeate what we do, whether it be academic, social, or spiritual. Ultimately, I believe in what is happening at The Soleil School. This is my quest, after all. We are different from a Montessori classroom in that we embrace technology, imagination, and collaboration. But the inspiration from Maria Montessori is certainly present in the philosophical underpinnings, in that my role is not so much a teacher but a guide. I follow the students, observing and encouraging each. I believe in them and I stress self-reliance even as I guide them. Their goals should be challenging, but realistic. Unlike most traditional forms of education, The Whole Learning Framework provides tools for creating a highly individualized curriculum based on the passions and needs of each child. We are here—and we’ll continue to be here—because we believe every child is unique, beautiful, and ready to thrive.

Carly Borders