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Learning at its Best

Human-scale Schools and the Struggle to Survive: the Garden Road Story

Last week, while at the AERO conference in Portland, OR, I had the privilege to attend one of the most courageous and honest workshops I have ever witnessed.  The Co-op’s own Donna Mikkelsen and her partner/colleague Terese Giammarco gave a beautiful introduction to the Garden Road School’s unique approach to small-school holistic education, called Community Supported Education (CSE.)  The gist of this way of eliciting increased participation from the school’s parent community through a model based on “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA’s) will be familiar to attentive Co-opers as it was the subject of a post HERE.  What was less familiar and something of a shocker to those in attendance at the workshop was that, as of June, the Garden Road School has shut its doors.

Again and again during the workshop Donna and Terese proudly extolled the virtues of their innovative CSE approach and proclaimed without equivocation that it works!  After ten years of struggling to sustain this school and share the burdens and responsibilities of running the school equitably among the school community, they had finally hit on what seemed to be the winning formula.   “Did we achieve greater parent engagement? Yes.  Did (the CSE approach) relieve some of the pressures on the school’s administration and staff? Yes.  Did it create a fantastic learning environment for kids? Yes.”  But in the end the school was unable to sustain itself primarily, it seemed, because of the simple economics of running a small independent school.

Towards the end of the workshop, while somehow mustering miraculous good humor and optimism, Donna and Terese showed a heart-wrenching video of their last day of school.  The kids were creating art, laughing, playing together in an environment that clearly nurtured their whole selves, while simultaneously in a meeting room, the staff was tearfully making the decision to close the school due to a combination of uncertain enrollment and pure exhaustion.  The workshop ended with a brainstorming session full of hope and visioning as attendees tried to imagine and share ways in which a CSE approach could be modified for long term economic as well as pedagogic success.  But I was left with a deep feeling of melancholy.

Although private education is often regarded with disdain by public school teachers, social justice advocates and critical pedagogues because of its service to what is perceived to be a privileged clientele, on the ground and behind the scenes small alternative private schools, and those that love and sustain them, are struggling.  Commiserating with Donna later and finding many other independent school teachers and leaders at the conference who had a similar story of personal struggle and sacrifice to tell, became one of the most memorable aspects of the conference for me.  Everything Donna and Terese said was all-too-familiar to me as a small school starter and leader myself.

As I said to Donna on the last day, we want to have schools with small, intimate classes.  After all that intimacy more than almost anything else facilitates the kind of human-scaled and relationship-based educational models many of us long for.  We want to keep tuitions low and aggressively offer scholarships to lower-income families.  Attendance at these schools should absolutely be open to everyone who would benefit, regardless of income.  And we want to pay a livable wage to all staff.  Why is it that deciding to teach at a private alternative school must inexorably mean relinquishing medical benefits and retirement and taking a 30% pay cut or more?  Yet balancing these three needs: small classes, affordable tuition and livable staff wages seems like a nearly impossible equation to solve.

At least in this case, making the difficult decision to leave the too-often inhumane and out-of-scale industrial model of contemporary public education and set off into the treacherous waters of alternative school starting was a heroic and courageous act of service and sacrifice.  Donna and Terese made this sacrifice for ten years.  While often fun and rewarding in the classroom, this choice meant that they doubled as administrators, janitors, PR directors, fundraisers, etc. all while working more than full time as engaged classroom teachers.  And looking decade number two squarely in the face, they made the decision to allow this sweet little school,  The Garden Road School, which should be a model for how to educate holistically, progressively and humanely, to close.

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About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Human-scale Schools and the Struggle to Survive: the Garden Road Story

  1. Whoever would be willing to answer the questions raised here–as well as checking some of the assumptions presented as axiomatic–would be providing a valuable service to schools such as The Garden Road School.
    Why, indeed, does a service that seems to be highly valued by its customers fail to reward its providers to an extant that makes it reasonable for them to continue?
    I suspect that there are some basic business principles that were unknown or ignored here, largely due to the compassion of the directors and their tendency to put their clients’ immediate needs ahead of the whole community’s long term need, which is for the school to become sustainable.
    Here is but one example of how progressive school people might adjust their thinking (which is not to say that Donna & co. didn’t–I don’t know): calculate tuition by dividing total cost of running school (including good salaries, etc) by number of students you can reasonably expect to enroll. Then set tuition at a level well in excess of this number. Most likely, more than half won’t be able to pay full amount, so you offer them bartering options but primarily for services you would otherwise have to pay out for. Real hardship cases can be offered partial scholarships. Everyone pays something, even if they barter for the majority. Fundraising therefor goes primarily for new equipment, special projects–not basic operating expenses.
    My basic point is that humanistic educators tend to under value their services, then complain (or at least suffer) when their clients do the same. It’s easy for them to say the can’t imagine sending their young people anywhere else–do let them prove it by paying a reasonable tuition.

    Posted by Peter Bergson | August 7, 2012, 11:54 pm
  2. Thanks for this comment and for sharing your insight, Peter. In my informal observations as well as lived experience it’s absolutely true that small school starters and leaders do tend to lack a business background that is so important to sustainability. Much like the brilliant artist who has trouble marketing and selling their work, most teachers have no training in management, marketing, or many of the other skills necessary to run a business efficiently and effectively. Yet, the “catch 22″ is that in a school this small, (Garden Road had fewer than 40 students) there are no funds to hire the kind of professional business support that is required. And the teacher/artist tries to do it all, learning as they go, in an attempt to simply provide the kind of education that every child deserves.

    It’s true that there are plenty of private schools charging upwards of $40,000/yr and maybe that is a fair price. My understanding was that the folks at Garedn Road didn’t want to be “that kind of school.” It wasn’t their mission to serve the elite and privileged. They kept tuition low (I want to say around $10,000) and it was still unaffordable to many. Their innovative creation of a CSE model (again, click on the link in the first paragraph of my post to learn a little more about the model) was a largely successful attempt to introduce a system of managed “bartering” that allowed parents to reduce tuition by providing some of the services that otherwise would have been real out-of-pocket expenses for the school – much as you suggest.

    The conference workshop in many ways was offered as an invitation for participants to help envision ways in which a CSE model could be tweaked to become even more sustainable. I wish you could have been there, Peter. You would have contributed a lot to the dialogue, I’m sure.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | August 8, 2012, 2:00 am
  3. Thank you both for your insightful comments, and thank you Donna, Terese, and the staff at Garden Road school for your sacrifices and the amazing work you’ve all done over the past 10 years. As a parent and as a resident in Westchester, NY (the county where Garden Road School is located) I’m deeply saddened by the news of the school closing. For what it’s worth, I’m also inspired to step up my involvement in community initiatives in general.

    As someone not directly involved in education, it’s sometimes difficult to understand A) just how badly our support is needed, and B) what we can do beyond raising our hands for the book sale to make a valuable contribution toward the continued success of our schools. Do you have any advice for parents and other community members who want to contribute, but don’t know how or where to start?

    Posted by Niki Hammond | August 10, 2012, 1:13 pm
    • Hi Niki,

      I really appreciate your last question and the open-ended invitation to provide some guidance here. The first thoughts that come to mind regarding what you can do to contribute to the success of small independent schools include:
      -Talk up to everyone and everyone the need for diverse educational options for kids. Make clear that supporting alternatives is not intended as a jab to public school educators or mission. Rather every additional option only serves to strengthen the palette of choices out there for parents and increase the likelihood that an individual child’s unique needs could be met. Just being out there providing a counter-narrative to the common cry for higher stakes, tougher standards and testing, all coming down from the state is really helpful.
      -If you have leadership or organizational skills, consider serving on the Board of a small independent school near you. Often, as Peter noted above, the educators involved lack these skills, and the available Board members tend to be parents of kids at the school often with a mixed skill-set and complicated agendas, themselves.
      -Talk with a local independent school leader about their needs to see if you might have some skill or resource to offer. Virtually all these types of schools are 501c3 entities and can receive tax-deductable contributions. Sometimes they’re just wishing something/someone would drop into their lap as a volunteer: bookkeeper? lawyer? tax expert? grant writer? handyman? The needs will vary widely from school to school and moment to moment.
      While I’d encourage you to talk directly with Donna, since Garden Road is/was your neighbor and the subject of this post, if you’d like to get involved helping another small school in north Puget Sound (mine) feel free to get in touch! e-mail: info@salmonberryschool.org Thanks for the good will and the intentions to help and support.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | August 13, 2012, 4:45 pm
  4. For would be community supported schools I believe this is one of the most important threads I have discovered on the internet. I hope people will continue to provide suggestions and comments.

    I am currently the board chair of a community supported school in Washington state, we are in our third year. We have taken a different approach to our financial sustainability model. First we lowered tuition to a price all our parents could pay by taking the average of tuition paid without financial aid. We are located in a small rural community that would not sustain $10,000+ tuition, our tuition is less than half of that. With that we eliminated financial aid, the result being parents who could proudly pay for their full tuition although this did not cover the $13,000 per child cost of education. At the same time we also instituted a program called the POWER fund that now has 100% parent participation in fundraising to help keep tuition low.

    Even with this model we are still required to create 70% of our operating budget from fundraising alone. An important piece here is that you MUST get volunteers at a high level who have skills and expertise to deliver the strategy and the tools that work just like the way the top social and political causes raise money. I myself am not an educator, nor do I have children, but I believe that only independent community schools can serve as examples to show the way forward for everyone.

    It’s important to me that these experts be volunteers because to make this work it takes an effort that a small school could never afford and a committed volunteer graphic designer, marketing guru, development director will be on the boat with you and see it through. They are out there, I’m proof, don’t be afraid to ask, seek out the people not the companies. I’ve been doing this for The Phoenix Rising School for 3 years because our founder asked me to and up to that point I didn’t know her.

    A cornerstone of our fundraising strategy had to be a monthly giving program where we could ask donors to give small amounts per month. Small enough amounts that people in the community who were not direct beneficiaries could support easily if they believed in what we were doing. This approach is a must for us because our budget could not be supported on events that take up so much bandwidth and in spite of their success raise only a fraction of our budget.

    We are putting a ton of effort in and changing our community, We are not there yet, to reach 100% sustainability we need to raise a consistent $500,000 per year. I’m hoping this thread can help more schools like ours, please continue to post further suggestions. If any school out there wants more clarity about our school or our strategic goals please contact our admin team at info@thephoenixrisingschool.com and they answer them or can put you in touch with me.

    Thank you.

    Posted by Jeevan Anandaskaran | November 14, 2013, 12:45 pm

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