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.