Transforming education: How a grassroots movement is changing the world

Michael Carberry is the founder and director of the Whole Life Learning Center in Austin and a cofounder of the Education Transformation Alliance. He is also a writer, speaker, and educational consultant. Michael is currently completing an M.A. in Holistic Education from the SelfDesign Graduate Institute. Here Michael sums up his views on the current state of education and what truly meaningful reform looks like. At the end of his guest post, you can watch a lovely new video about his revolutionary (and expanding) school.

I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.
                                                 —Albert Einstein

It seems like common sense today that a highly standardized education system will only hinder the creativity of both teachers and students, ultimately damaging their ability to teach and truly learn. Students are often lost and disenchanted within this vast, competitive system. I propose that the highest aim of education ought to be supporting every student in discovering and cultivating his or her unique gifts, while promoting a lifelong love of learning.

Rather than stressing and obsessing over grades and test performance, we educators and leaders in the alt ed movement shift the focus to guiding and mentoring youth toward living more fulfilled, empowered, and joyous lives while promoting health and wellness, ecological awareness, and social justice. Author Ron Miller describes education as “the primary vehicle for cultural transformation.”  This is why it is so important to take a hard look at our traditional education system while researching the myriad alternatives that are sprouting up.

When choosing a school for your child, or deciding on an educational philosophy that you are aligned with, you have to ask the questions: What is the purpose of education? What do I want for myself and my child? And what kind of future do I want to contribute to?

A 2012 Gallup poll demonstrated that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become with their own education. The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades 5 through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states. It found that about 80 percent of elementary students who participated in the poll were engaged with their education, measured in terms of “involvement in and enthusiasm for school.” By middle school it fell to about 60 percent, and by high school, only 40 percent of students would be considered engaged.

It’s no secret: public schools (and traditional private schools too) are focusing on the numbers and forgetting about the students. The most-watched TED Talk ever is “How Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson. He makes the case that over the past hundred years our education system has basically emulated the industrial, assembly line model. What we need to return to, then, is a more organic model that understands human unfolding and learning as a natural process that requires diverse environments, specialized attention, and unique inputs in order to nourish optimal growth and well-being.

A glimpse of organic learning at the Whole Life Learning Center in Austin, Texas

John Taylor Gatto is another outspoken advocate of education revolution. Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.  He shocked administrators upon his acceptance of this award by lambasting the public school system in a speech that he later expanded into his book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto asserts that schools confuse students by presenting an incoherent array of information that the child needs to memorize in order to compete in school. He explains that rather than teaching kids to be independent, creative, confident individuals, schools are teaching (through built-in contexts) emotional and intellectual dependence and indifference.

Despite these clear arguments for radical reform in our public education system, pervasive and corrosive programs like No Child Left Behind continue to stifle school districts throughout the country by attaching funding to test performance. The good news is that there is a growing movement of families and educators turning to a rapidly expanding array of alternatives.  The increasing drop-out rates and the steep rise in the number of medicated students are just a couple of examples of the fractured system they are leaving behind.

In the past, alternatives were fewer and farther between. Awareness around these alternatives was quite limited; perhaps people had heard through mainstream sources about Montessori or Waldorf education, but they probably had a very limited understanding of what those were or why they might be better choices for their families than the public school system.

Today the education revolution is in full swing, and it’s not led by any one model of education to universally replace public schools. It’s a movement comprising homeschoolers, unschoolers, co-ops, small independent schools, charter schools, families, and educators choosing options that they’re aligned with—options that see their children and students as more than cogs in a machine being prepared for the workforce, options that recognize that everyone learns differently and honor and support each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses, that recognize the importance of social-emotional learning along with academic study, options that facilitate a connection to nature and promote ecological awareness, social justice, and global citizenship.

Happy learners at the Whole Life Learning Center

An invaluable resource in this movement is the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), which hosts an annual conference and acts as an international hub for all things alt ed. In Canada, a great example of government-funded measures to support homeschooling efforts can be seen in the organization SelfDesign, which supports parents financially and with a “Learning Consultant” who helps them create and follow through on an individualized learning plan for their child.

One of the cities at the forefront of this education revolution in the United States is Austin, Texas. Yes, that’s right, the home of the President who brought No Child Left Behind to the nation is also one of the most supportive states when it comes to homeschooling. Austin also happens to be a progressive oasis in a conservative state, so it has drawn a multitude of educational options for the many families moving to Austin every day. Beyond the typical alternative options of the Montessori and Waldorf schools, dozens of small, independent schools have sprouted up, each with its own unique learner-centered approach.

In 2012 educators representing a handful of these schools came together to create the Education Transformation Alliance (ETA). The ETA, a growing 501c3 nonprofit organization, now shares resources and organizes school fairs and other events to reach more families and let them know about all the great options out there. Alt Ed Austin, the family consulting service and online resource center that publishes this blog, works closely with the ETA and serves as a one-stop shop for parents interested in comparing the many educational options around Austin. Hopefully, more and more communities will catch on and follow this model of synergistic collaboration. 

Ultimately, the education revolution is not about fixing the current system or finding/creating another system to replace it. It is about supporting the creation of a diverse range of options for families to choose from, while making those options accessible for families, whatever their economic circumstances may be. Every child is unique, every family is different; so why should we continue to pump billions of dollars into a homogenized, one-size-fits-all education for our future generations? It is time we recognize that in order to transform our world to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful place, we need to start by transforming education.

We’re doing just that at the Whole Life Learning Center, and you can be a part of it! Please consider supporting our work by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign. Watch the new video below to learn more about our unique programs, our expansion project, and how you can help.

Michael Carberry, M.S.


Meet me at the fair!

Looking for a school that really fits your kid? Don’t miss the Education Transformation School Fair this Sunday afternoon! The event is a reprise of the fabulous fair that the Education Transformation Alliance (ETA) organized last February, and Alt Ed Austin is proud to be a returning sponsor. Once again, it’s free and features fun hands-on activities for kids of all ages, tasty and healthy snacks, and opportunities to meet some of the most brilliant and effective educators in Austin.

Your family will also have a chance to win one of several great door prizes. Drop your name in the box at the ETA table, and stick around; they’ll be announcing winners periodically throughout the afternoon. Here’s a sampling of items donated for the drawing:

I’d love to meet you and help answer your questions, so please stop by the Alt Ed Austin table too! Who else will be there? Representatives of a dozen educational organizations, including elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as preschools, camps, and enrichment programs—each with its own child-centered approach and unique learning environment. The flip side of the event flyer you may have seen around town has the roll call:

You can get updates, connect with the organizers, and invite your friends on the Facebook event page. See you at the fair!


Open houses and open doors

On the heels of last weekend’s wildly successful Education Transformation School Fair, many participating schools and other alt ed programs are following up with open houses, tours, and special events for this week. In fact, the entire month of March is positively bursting with opportunities to get to know the people and places of Austin’s alt ed community—and find the right fit for your kid. Check our calendar for all the details. Here’s a preview:

On Saturday, March 2, visit The Natural Child Learning Community, a Montessori-inspired, nature-oriented preschool in the heart of Georgetown. The program provides a part-time, holistic learning environment for children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5.

The next day, Sunday, March 3, head over to the 9th Street Schoolhouse in near East Austin to meet Caitlin and Laura, who place radical faith in children and, following the Free School model, offer guidance and experiences to develop lifelong learners. They have one immediate opening for a girl and are enrolling boys and girls age 5–12 for the fall.

Monday, March 4, is a great day to check out two South Austin alternative schools. The Whole Life Learning Center, part of the Self-Design network, is a two-acre school where kids age 5 and up work with mentors to develop holistic, individualized learning plans, honoring each learner’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. The Austin EcoSchool is offering a family tour of its "Edible Campus," where you’ll see students’ work, meet the staff, and learn about the school’s unique programs, including Game of Village. It is currently enrolling for ages 5–14.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 5, the Clearview Sudbury School will host a free talk and Q&A with scholar and author Peter Gray (who is also speaking in town this week at the SXSWedu conference). Dr. Gray, a research professor at Boston College who blogs regularly at Psychology Today, is a leading authority on the role of free play in children’s development; his new book, Free to Learn, will be officially released the same day. Clearview staff, students, and parents will be on hand to answer questions about this democratic K–12 school in Central Austin.

Friday, March 8, is your next chance to visit the Inside Outside School. Let them know to expect you, and you'll get the full tour of this community-based, intentionally small learning community situated on more than seven wooded acres in Pflugerville. “Teaching for Human Greatness” is their creed, and they’re now enrolling kindergarten through 5th grade.

And now for something completely different: On Wednesday, March 13, the Growin' Together Hands-on Afterschool Program will host a SXSW Youth Showcase, featuring some of the hottest bands in the 18-and-below universe. It’s free for all ages (donations accepted) and will rock the Austin EcoSchool campus.

After spring break, on Wednesday, March 20, join the parent tour of AHB Community School, a creative and collaborative educational alternative that seeks to cultivate authentic, balanced critical thinkers who are prepared for a life of learning and community engagement. AHB serves ages 5–12 in Central Austin. Be sure to give them a heads-up that you’re coming so they can prepare the best tour possible for you. Can’t make it that day? You’ll have another chance on March 27 and on other Wednesdays in April and May.

To stay up-to-date on alt ed events, make a habit of visiting our calendar and clicking on any listing for details. Much more is coming up this spring, with many doors opening to you and your children.

A school fair like no other

What's so special about the free Education Transformation School Fair coming up on February 24? Let me count the ways:

It’s about helping you find the right fit for your kid. 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. Ten schools, a preschool, and an after-school enrichment program have come together to let you know about their diverse array of educational approaches, all with your whole, individual child’s well-being as their focus. At each booth, your kids can join in a fun, hands-on activity while you talk with educators about their program’s unique approach and pick up information to take home. Here’s a preview of the participating programs:

It’s going to be a ton of fun! In addition to the children’s activities at each school’s booth, there will be  entertainment for the whole family. The multi-award-winning Singing Zoologist, Lucas Miller, will perform some of his most popular original songs beginning at 2pm. Hennakim will be on hand throughout the afternoon for hooping and henna fun. There may be a few surprises as well!

It’s in a beautiful place you’ll enjoy visiting. In contrast to the noisy, overstimulating environment of a typical school fair, this one may cause you to arrive home feeling less stressed than when you left. Soma Vida, a work/life balance and wellness center in central-east Austin, is a peaceful and welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon. If your kid’s energy (or yours) takes a dip, help yourselves to free nourishing snacks and beverages, including organic fair-trade coffee courtesy of our friends at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.

Did I mention that it’s FREE? Yep. And if you’d like to print out some free flyers with all the details to pass along to friends, you can do so here. Special thanks to Megan Zvezda of Om Girl Marketing for the lovely design. You can also help spread the word by sharing the event on Facebook.

It’s sponsored by 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. I look forward to meeting you!

Looking back, looking ahead

Today is the first anniversary of Alt Ed Austin’s official launch, and with a memorable date like 12/12/12, it’s an auspicious start to another promising year of support for authentic education in all its forms. It’s also a good time to pause and reflect on what this growing community (both online and off-) has accomplished over the course of the past year, acknowledge our partners who’ve made it all possible, and look ahead to what’s in the works for our second year.

When I created this website and blog last fall, I had modest hopes that it would help connect the handful of small independent schools I happened to know about with local parents who were searching for different kinds of learning communities for their kids who, for a variety of reasons, were not thriving in public, charter, or traditional private schools. Since then, I’ve discovered that there are many more of these unusual schools and innovative educators in the Austin area—and many more parents looking for them—than I’d imagined. When it launched, the Alternative School Directory comprised eight programs serving K–12 students; it currently lists twenty-one. The Map of Alternative Schools now stretches from Leander and Round Rock in the north to Oak Hill and Dripping Springs in the south. Likewise, Alt Ed Austin’s readership has steadily increased, with more than ten thousand unique visitors and a growing and active Facebook community. Likewise, the Calendar has become a busy place, with open houses, information sessions, and workshops posted every month.

Almost immediately upon launch, I began receiving requests to add a directory of preschools that could be described as “alternative” in approach. That page has proven to be one of the most visited on the site. Soon I began hearing from both educators and parents who were looking for a way to get the word out about camps, after-school programs, and other, less easily classified educational programs; in response, I created the More Alt Ed Programs list, which is our most frequently updated page. Watch for the return of our popular directories of off-the-beaten-path summer camps in early 2013.

The most exciting and enjoyable aspect of managing Alt Ed Austin has been working with and providing a forum for the many brilliant educators who’ve contributed guest posts for the blog. They’ve generously shared their experiences, insights, struggles, and triumphs large and small. In twenty-one posts to date, they’ve written about both theory and practice in ways that are relevant and accessible to parents, education professionals, and anyone with an interest in alternative approaches to education. I’d like to thank all of them for not only helping provide a steady supply of excellent content for this blog but also adding their clear voices to the important ongoing community conversations about what education can be. I invite you to add your own voice by commenting on any blog post that interests, troubles, or inspires you.

I’m particularly pleased to report that these conversations are not limited to the blogosphere. Over the course of this year, I’ve become aware of and had the privilege of participating in a movement that has great potential for positive social change. Independent educators are coming together, exchanging ideas and best practices, collaborating and supporting one another, joining with esteemed colleagues working within the public school systems, creating ways to make these alternative models of learning accessible to all children, and changing the educational landscape in ways that I believe will ultimately benefit everyone. You can expect to hear a lot more about the Education Transformation Alliance in the coming year.

You’ll also hear about more public events like the independent school tours and fairs that Alt Ed Austin sponsored this year. In addition, we’re planning some brand-new ventures, including film screenings, panel discussions, and workshops on topics of concern to parents and educators. Stay tuned for details about the first of these, which will deal with a very timely subject: talking to kids about climate change. What other topics or types of events would you like to see Alt Ed Austin delve into? Please speak your mind! The comments section below is all yours.

Creating, maintaining, and promoting Alt Ed Austin truly has been a labor of love, but I haven’t done it alone. Many thanks go to my family, who have been unwaveringly enthusiastic about the project, even when it has meant long hours at the computer or away at meetings. I am also deeply grateful to those who stepped forward recently when I opened the sidebar for sponsorship to help offset the costs and time required to maintain the site: AHB Community School, Austin Creative Art Center, Edible Austin, Joyful Garden, Kairos Learning, Progress School, and Soleil School. Most of all, right from the beginning, it’s been the audience making this thing work. Without all of you reader-collaborators participating, supporting, and spreading the word, Alt Ed Austin could not have become the useful resource and thriving community it is today. Thank you!

I look forward to working together in the coming year to support diverse, wonderful ways of learning in Austin and beyond.


Becoming established

Caitlin Macklin, 9th Street Schoolhouse mentor and founder, recently visited the famed Free School in Albany, New York. In this guest post she shares some images and insights she gained there about building a democratic school community and culture over time.

“Wow. I’m really here. The place of my inspiration.”

This summer I made a pilgrimage to Albany, New York, to visit the Free School. This decades-old institution has long been a guiding light for me. It was my first introduction to the concepts of non-mandatory classes, democratic participation by students in conflict resolution and school governance, and putting children truly at the center of education.

As a new teacher (of four years) and a new school (into our third here at 9th Street), the thing that sank in most for me is the sense of being established that the Free School exudes. The feeling of rootedness settled in as I climbed up narrow stairways and stood on wood floors with lived-in scuff marks—I mean, even the disaster area of the summertime kitchen made my heart ache to have a SPACE to CREATE.

I currently teach out of my home on East 9th Street. This year, Laura Ruiz joined the Schoolhouse, and collaborating feels great! We intend to grow slowly but surely into a larger community of families more the size of the Free School, about sixty kids with a staff of five or six. During the visit to Albany, I was just soaking it in—in awe of what people have built together, just “making it up as [they] go along,” doing what makes sense, not what a bureaucrat tells them to do. Working with families, giving kids opportunities and mentoring, so they may discover and grow while staying whole, messy, in touch with their inner selves.

YouthFX program participants rehearse scenes for their summer narrative film project in the great room at the Albany Free School.

I have put so much thought into how to implement in my teaching and in the Schoolhouse structure the lessons AFS has learned that to see it and know it as a place with a particular community and history helped me understand their context and refocus my efforts in recognizing and building on what our community’s strengths are. Getting to ask Bhawin, a longtime teacher, some of my burning questions about the how of their lives together, talking with him about their process of becoming the school they are now, gave me an infusion of patience with our process.

Bhawin stepped out of the frame as we discussed the community-created Rules on the wall behind us.

I left feeling encouraged to give time to developing the particularities of our program, staying true to who we are as teachers, youth, parents—as people—and to respond from those real relationships to create better and better opportunities for living and learning together. Part of that is my commitment to making democratic, learner-centered education accessible to people in Austin who might not be able to afford it. In addition to an affordable tuition and part-trade options, I’ve also been working with the Education Transformation Alliance to collaborate on creating a scholarship fund.

Making meaningful education available to more folks in Austin is what our work with the ETA is guided by. And I think finding meaning is what this shift in education in Austin is all about: this is a growing movement of people who want more than cookie-cutter experiences for their kids and their lives. People in Austin are more than ever feeling acutely that the current system is just not fulfilling their dreams for their kids. We all want our youth to live lives that are prosperous and flourishing, and I want the young people in my program to identify and define that success for themselves within a strong web of community, where they are known and where they know what resources are available to them.

We are seeking meaning in our learning and in our relationships, and we are creating institutions that respond, that put down roots, that take time to get established, that work together. I invite you to find out more about the many alternatives available across the city on the ETA School Tour this Saturday, Oct. 20!

For further reading on the Albany Free School, pick up any of Chris Mercogliano’s works, watch Free to Learn by Bhawin Suchak and Jeff Root, and check out the school’s website or this blog post from an intern.

Caitlin Macklin