Austin alt schools are expanding and diversifying


“Spring is the time of plans and projects,” said Leo Tolstoy. Or maybe it was Martha Stewart? In any case, plans and projects are happening at many of Austin’s alternative schools right now, and we’re excited to share them with you. Here’s a roundup of major changes happening in the near future at Austin-area schools. For more information about any program, check the school’s website or give them a call.

This summer the Whole Life Learning Center is building a new math and music classroom indoors and adding new playground equipment outdoors for kids who want to climb and spin.

Are you in need of an enrichment class for a child 5 to 10 years old? Terra Luz Community School's Karen Hernandez soon will welcome Terra Luz students as well as homeschooled kids to a new class on Fridays. The school is also expecting a new teacher to join the team in the fall.

Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse is adding a class for 5th graders next year. If you’re interested, apply via their website as soon as possible. In addition to new students, RRCS will welcome a new teacher to replace 3rd–5th grade teacher Aaron Goldman, who is heading to Baltimore to study for an MFA. Everyone wishes Aaron all the best as he pursues his dreams.

New adventures are on the horizon at Progress School. Starting this fall, Progress will offer a three-day program focused on interdisciplinary, project-based learning for kids 11 to 13 years old. The program is all about collaboration and relationships and is designed around student interests. Portfolios will allow for self-assessment and sharing learning with others.

As of August 2015, Integrity Academy will expand to include 11- to 13-year-olds in Level 5.

The folks at Inside Outside School have chosen “May the Forces Be With You,” as their theme for the coming school year. During the summer kids will be helping with the school’s CSA and participating in the farmer’s market.

Is your child a maker and an artist at heart? Creative Side Jewelry Academy is now serving students aged 10 to15 years old and starting a new after-school program in the fall. The school’s curriculum is expanding to include bronze and silver casting techniques for Summer Apprenticeships and Jewelry Biz for their Kidz Homeschool program.

Clearview Sudbury School is growing—with 40 percent more space, more students, and more diverse activities. Clearview’s tech offerings are expanding, too. Through a grant from V M Ware, the school is adding a new virtual machine server, which will give school members access to powerful new computing resources on their laptops and tablets or through the school’s own clients. Students will be trained as administrators of the new system, which will include software environments for video, image, and music editing; animation; scientific computing; and even Minecraft.

Shelley Sperry

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
 

Step outside for learning

The Inside Outside School is known for its innovative incorporation of the outdoors into its academic curriculum. This guest post from IOS director Deborah Hale is adapted from photo essays she posted earlier this month on the school’s blog. Reading this might just lead you to try a few of these activities with your own kids this summer!


We are always looking for ways to get outside for math and science. Some of the most popular ways at our school involve math trails. In fact, a few months ago I decided to write a book about math trails. I thought it would be easy because I am so passionate about the topic, but it’s hard to convey on paper the excitement of an outdoor math adventure. I'm wondering if this should be a movie instead.

On this math trail there are a few stations where students find a whiteboard with a problem typical of what we've been doing in class. They have a trail map to record their work and answers on a clipboard.

The magnetic garage door of the theater building is an excellent stop on the trail, now that we have a set of large magnetic money.

 

By the way, when you are studying money-related math outdoors, money can grow on trees . . .

 


. . . and even in the garden. This kind of math adventure is so much fun because it is a lot like an Easter egg hunt!

 

 

Speaking of Easter egg hunts, at station #3 on the trail, students found three eggs hidden under a traffic cone, each with six shells in it. The traffic cones are a great way to make it clear where the math stations are set up.

The driveway is part of our outdoor classroom. We used concrete paint to mark large number lines and a blank hundreds chart.

 

Here you can see examples of some of our manipulatives: wooden number blocks that the shop classes helped to create, felt number patches made last year in sewing classes, and wooden ten sticks. This student has just solved 82 minus 29. These activities all happened on the school grounds not far from the buildings.

Next we found out what a math trail can look like in the woods down by the creek. Upper elementary students used the stick method to measure the height of trees. All you need is a stick and a measuring tape. They also worked to find the diameter of trees after determining the circumference. The circumference is measured at 4.5 feet up from the ground. Then you divide the circumference by pi (3.14). It is great to estimate before measuring, and then you can always throw in a little subtraction when you determine the difference between the estimate and the actual measurement. A final activity was measuring the canopy of a tree.

Another great way to integrate math and science is with a square foot garden. You can see the string that the students used earlier in the year to mark off the squares after measuring the perimeter and area of the planting space. Once the garden is divided, students must research the plants they want to cultivate to find out how many each square will support. We have harvested and replanted this garden throughout the school year. Growth of plants can be measured, recorded, and compared.

Another part of gardening is weighing the harvest and recording the data. Then you get to use the basil and tomatoes for making lasagna! Integrating math into cooking is another great way to make connections. This has been indoor work for us so far, until we get the rest of our outdoor kitchen set up (unless we are using our cob oven).

During our Native American cultural study, students created active learning connections in the garden by setting up a “three sisters” garden with Helen, our nature science teacher. We even “planted” a dead fish from our creek to enrich the soil. The corn provides a pole for the beans, the beans stabilize the corn plant and fix nitrogen, and the squash acts as mulch to prevent evaporation of moisture in the soil. The nutritional elements of these foods add additional material for learning.

Helen recently noticed some caterpillars and chrysalises on a mustard plant, so she brought in a number of books for the students to use to find out what they were seeing. It turned out to be a cabbage butterfly, and the following week we all got to see one of them freshly emerged and drying its wings.

We encourage you to step outside whenever you can, too, and see what you can learn!

Deborah Hale


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

Teri

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.

Teri

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.