Learning From and About New School Models

June 02, 2017 by Tony Lewis

Education funders are funny animals. They demonstrate deep commitment and passion for their chosen funding priorities, a strong sense of purpose and focus, and the stunning ability to close their ears and eyes to alternative ways of providing a quality education to kids. We divvy up the world of our funding into discrete pieces – districts, public schools, charter schools, micro schools, private schools, for-profit coding schools, religious schools – and never the twain shall meet. Many believe deeply in early childhood education and the vouchers needed to provide low-income children with the opportunity to attend high quality private centers, but scream and howl if anyone suggests the same strategy in the K-12 realm. We universally ignore strategies like home schooling, falling back on old stereotypes of homeschool parents as religious or conservative fanatics.

So into this fray we wade. At the Donnell-Kay Foundation (“DK”) we’re making it a priority to visit schools and talk with students to expand our thinking – regardless of model/governance type or if we would consider them for funding. We have a lot to learn individually and as a team about education and what actually works for kids. We believe we'll find that learning everywhere. Our recent visits to such schools as the Highlands Micro School and the Turing School of Software and Design have challenged our thinking and made us consider anew what school is and what learning can look like.

To this mix we recently visited the Journey School in Colorado Springs.  Led by the visionary and deeply principled Emily Hill and her two co-founders/leaders, the Journey School blends homeschool education (three days a week) with low-cost ($1,200/year), high quality in-school learning two-days a week. This is hyper-local education at its best – a group of homeschool families found that by leveraging the expertise they had (parents who had deep content knowledge and could provide the instruction) they could create a values-based and personalized education for their children for a very small amount of money.

Core to every class taught, every subject explored and every interaction is its relation to the core values these families espouse:

- Children are inherently curious about the world and school should stimulate that curiosity.
- Children need experiences that encourage and build their sense of agency, self-worth, and direction and that these experiences will serve them well for their lifetime.
- Older children can and should provide instruction and guidance to younger children.

The instruction we saw was superb – rivaling the best we’ve seen in high performing schools across the nation. The students were confident, joyful and – to a student – deeply engaged in their learning. Their interactions with each other and with adults were respectful, loving, and thoughtful.  These families with their 60+ students (grades K-5) are blending the best of what we at DK hope for in educating all children. No, they’re not super low-income. No, they are not minority families. No, they don’t want to expand or replicate. This group of families is proving out that there are educational solutions that work for groups of people who hold shared values and can innovate to implement creative approaches. They show us – as funders – that all schools and learning paths hold value in demonstrable ways if we can listen and learn with open eyes and minds.  This is one path in the future of learning.

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