A Model for Schools That Works

In this uncertain economy, we as parents are naturally preoccupied with our children's future success. And this seems to lead us to crucial questions as we seek to reform schools that are mandated to prepare our children for adulthood: What is success? What does childhood need to look like in order to nurture our children toward the type of citizens, the type of human beings we wish them to be? What value do we place on human relationships, on our relation to the environment, on honesty, and self awareness? How does kindness get scored? What track does creativity live on?

When we talk about children's education in the United States, we face some staggering facts. A growing number of children are being diagnosed and medicated for attention and behavioral disorders. Bullying, and the incidence of child suicide, depression and anxiety have increased nationwide; and this country invests millions more in prisons than in schools.

Recent documentaries, Waiting for "Superman" and Race to Nowhere, evaluate the consequences of No Child Left Behind, the number of dropouts, and the limited spaces in successful public schools and colleges. The films present students as victims of a system that values bureaucracy, test scores, and quantity of information over depth of understanding, thinking, and the whole human being.

Failing schools and struggling kids point to a disconnection. In our preoccupation with achievement and success, I fear we are losing sight of the children, not only in school, but after school and at home. Many of the things that past generations and I took for granted as children -- hours of unstructured and unsupervised play, gathering with neighborhood kids for impromptu adventures, times of boredom and dreaming that led to creative inventions, chores, family dinners and traditions, climbing trees and taking risks-- are more often not aspects of children's experience today. School blends into afterschool with a myriad of structured and supervised activities devised to enhance and prepare our children to excel and not fall behind. In addition to these highly managed days, hours of television, computer games, internet use, and texting often constitute our children's down time and take the place of actual play, social interaction, and family time.

What did our less structured and driven childhoods provide those of us who had them? It gave us time to connect with ourselves, our thoughts, our wishes, and to derive meaning from tangible experiences. If we allow kids the time and space to make real connections to life, and to find meaning through their own inquiry, I believe they will bring our awesome human ability to learn to their studies at school, and in time, grow into successful adults.

As the Director of a small not-for-profit school where teachers know every child's name, I have seen firsthand how important it is for the students to work together and bring their own passions and strengths into the classroom. When one student's research project becomes an inspiration for another, when children's desire to learn is not out of fear of a grade and college acceptance, but because of the excitement and curiosity for the material at hand, school becomes an optimal environment for learning. At our school, children learn so much from sharing, collaborating, giving each other feedback, helping younger students, and looking up to the support and modeling of older children. Small classes afford teachers an opportunity to know each child and tailor their instruction to meet the individual and group needs of their class.

If we invest as a nation in small schools we might see big changes.

Small innovative schools can graduate students proficient in academic subjects and the arts who are also curious, creative, and compassionate human beings with experience working with others. This is not a dream. I know this for a fact; the school I work at is twenty-four years old, has about ten children per class, and functions on less average income per child than many public school districts. It can be done, but it requires us to look carefully at what we are doing ...and how we envision the future.

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