School off the grid

Abandoning the local primary school was not part of our plan. But after watching our son spend a school year buffeted between his home room and various pullouts intended to bolster his speech, fine motor, reading, math and social skills, we — and he — had had enough.

To be clear, our public school team was well-meaning, but the more supports they arranged for our son, the more fragmented his days and his learning became. This for a kid who does not transition well. At all.

Several professionals, both inside and outside the school system, urged us to take a new tack. They suggested we request an instructional assistant, someone who would sit with our son and help him focus and rebuild his confidence for learning. At least for a few months. Maybe for a school year. We did some research, made our request, worked to build consensus and, roughly a year ago, were shot down.

“We want him to be an independent learner,” insisted the special services director.

Oh? Well, I want a pony. And world peace while we’re at it here, tossing pennies in the well.

That is when we knew for certain that a change of scenery was in order. We checked out a few options and enrolled our son in an independent K-8 day school about 20 miles from home. Set on a bucolic five acres, grassy fields and wetlands, flowers and trees, it had mixed-grade classrooms and student art covering every available surface. It offered no special services per se, but each student — whether ahead of the curve or behind it — was set up with the equivalent of an individualized education plan (IEP). After years of trying to “help” our son in a traditional venue, the school seemed like a much-needed break. I told friends and family, “We’re putting him out to pasture.”

But inside I worried, imagining things could go one of two ways: he might chill so far out that he’d drop farther behind; or the change of scenery might jump start his desire to learn.

In September our son joined a pack of 16 first and second graders and ever since has since been with them all day long, for math and reading and lunch and art and music and PE and Spanish and everything else. (Except standardized testing. Crazy school doesn’t spend weeks prepping for, giving and recovering from testing its early learners. Imagine that.)

Flash forward to the end of the school year. Our son loves his new school. He has made academic progress like never before. He spells. He reads. He does math. He creates beautiful art projects. He sings. He tells me things are “humongous,” and when I misunderstand, he tells me how it “actually” is. He plays on a soccer team with his classmates, adores his friends and greets their parents when he sees them. All this with zero — zero — pullouts. (I do not emphasize this to devalue what our public school educators were trying to accomplish. My point is, whether we’re talking shoes or education, one size does not fit all.)

Wednesday evening the school hosted a celebration marking the end of its monthlong homespun version of the winter Olympics. Divided into mixed-aged teams, students in the first-eighth grades had been competing in events like speed skating (on cardboard skates), cross-country skiing (with four team members strapped to one pair of long wooden skis) and running races. Points were being tallied and, at the end of the long night, the medalists would be announced.

x-c team

Did I mention it was a long night? Potluck supper, various sporting events and general outdoor mayhem preceded a gathering in the gym for an “ice” dancing performance, songs and an awards ceremony. This after a day of school and, for our son, church choir practice. Sitting with friends just out of earshot from me, he was holding it together but was clearly drained and not paying much attention to anything. The bronze and silver medalists were announced, the crowd cheered, and the students on those teams ran to the front of the room to have medals placed around their necks and photos taken.

Then the gold-medal team was announced. Our son’s team! He showed no reaction, lost in thought.

Before I could get his attention, his teammates leaped up in excitement, and the two middle-schoolers on his team ran straight for our son, pulling him to his feet and to the front of the gym, where the entire room celebrated their winning the gold.

That’s right. Middle schoolers. Unprompted. Looked out for a little guy. Our little guy.

I am a world-class worrier, and exiting the public education superhighway has caused me more than my share of fears. Will we regret his missing out on speech therapy? Will his missing standardized tests now put him at a test-taking disadvantage later? Is this new school too artsy-fartsy, too far off the grid to be effective?

Today I answer myself with an unequivocal no. Those questions focus on the wrong topics. When I think of the progress our son and his classmates have made this school year, and I consider our new community — this crazy, diverse group of parents, teachers and students that cheers on and supports everyone’s kids, that grows middle schoolers who make sure to include the little schoolers — I want this to be the focus of everyone’s education: to give students the opportunity to celebrate learning, to teach children, and adults, to celebrate each other.


26 thoughts on “School off the grid

  1. Great Job, Gooch! I’m so happy he’s back on the right track (even if it is with 3 others strapped to some wooden skis). 😉

  2. Oh, Sarah, this brought tears to my eyes several times! I’m so unspeakably proud of D for all his momentous accomplishments this year, and so whole-heartedly proud of you and Jon for changing his school experience to a positive one, as I know first hand (and as a fellow world-class worrier) the trepidation that surrounds making a choice of that magnitude without any guarentees. You guys are rockstars, sister. Love you all!

  3. What a journey! Thanks for sharing your journey as it may give ideas to many that don’t realize there are other options. Even though we are a public school family, we realize that we are there because it works for us. It doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, it may not always work for us and we just take it one year at a time.

  4. Hi Sarah, I was a student at your son’s school back in the day and I wanted to say that reading this was so touching! Reading the line about the middle schoolers looking out for your little guy made me tear up, because OF COURSE they would! When I was a middle schooler we LOVED the little ones! Gardner fosters such a beautiful community of multi-age learners that should really exist in more schools. Thank you for sharing your family’s experience!

    1. Rose, thank you for reading and for your comment! I would love to hear how your experiences at Gardner affected your life path.

      1. I started Gardner in 4th grade after homeschooling. Even at the time, I remember feeling supported in the transition into a classroom environment. I had Jackie Taylor for the next three years, and she was/is AMAZING! The close knit community at Gardner really helped me through losing a close family member. In fact, my best friend today was one of the girls in my fourth grade class!
        Through the focus on the Multiple Intelligences I was able to explore my strengths and learn how to advocate for myself in the areas that I found more challenging. I feel like this really set me up to succeed throughout the rest of my education. I am just about to start my Masters in Elementary Education. I believe that my passion for teaching comes in part from the excellent role models that I had a Gardner!

      2. What a lovely tribute to your time at Gardner (and Jackie!), Rose. Thank you for sharing this. All best to you in your graduate program. It’s exciting to know Gardner students like you will be going on to share the Gardner influence with their future students.

  5. Thank you for bringing back such great memories of my boys years at The Gardner School. When we enrolled at Gardner our oldest son was in grade five but reading at a first grade level and this Tuesday he will be defending his doctoral dissertation! Granted he is a motivated learner, but his wonderful years of learning at The Gardner School gave him the skills needed to achieve so much. I wish continued success and joy for your son on his educational journey! (Hi Rose…from Andy’s mom).

  6. Wow, Sarah! Just to see this glimpse of where D is now is such an amazing blessing! It is wonderful to see him succeeding academically in so many areas, and even more so to have a place where he is “part of a family.” That is truly what we all need to be the best we can be. It feels SO wonderful as a mom to see your child in such a great school and doing so well. Sounds like you have found the perfect place for him to thrive. 🙂 A HUGE congratulations to you all!

  7. This school is amazing. Our niece teaches there and I just wish everyone in education knew her and would be able to see how she handles her classes. She is a gift to the education world. The teachers really care about the students and make life so interesting. The children educated at Gardner will always have a curiosity about the world and feel that they can “do it”.

  8. I am so happy to read an educational success story! Congratulations on finding a place that works so well for your son.

    Your brave unwillingness to accept the school system’s idea of what was best for him reminds me of the attitude of Kristine Barnett in her book about helping her autistic son, Nurturing Genius. I loved the book, and maybe you would, too, since you and Kristine seem to have such similar perspectives!

  9. We are contemplating Gardner for our Grandchildren. Your story and the comments have really given us food for thought. How lucky we are to have Gardner so close by.

    1. Pat, I wish you the best with your decision. We are so pleased we made the move to Gardner when we did. Now that we’re into summer vacation, I can see even more clearly how much our son has evolved. I give a lot of credit to the Gardner staff and environment.

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