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Learning best

A primer of local private education models

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While one-size-fits-all may work for bathrobes and and Halloween costumes, as parents we know that it doesn't always work with education. Some children work best doing hands-on projects, others learn best when they have chosen the topic to study.  While some thrive in an environment that stresses group work, others need a quieter, solitary space to think and work through concepts.

Luckily, our region has a number of options for those looking to break out of the typical public school model. Some of those schools focus on traditional academics, others on a more holistic development of the child.

Sudbury offers a nontraditional learning experience

Perhaps the model that looks most glaringly different from a traditional school model is the Sudbury model. Jeff Collins, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley Sudbury School located in Kingston, points to three elements of the school that are unique: they don't have traditional classes designed by teachers, the students aren't segregated by age, and the students themselves are part of the democratic management of the school.

The democratic nature of the school is something that Heather Bunch of Kingston, whose son attends Hudson Valley Sudbury School, appreciates. She says our society tends to be “adultist,” sending messages to children that they don't matter. The democratic nature of Sudbury, Bunch says, where children are treated as equals, makes the school “an environment that respects young people fully.”

Students design their own projects and pursue their own interests, something Collins says gives them confidence. Seeing a project through from start to finish, continuing to try even in the face of failure develops persistence. It creates students who are “less fearful.”

Collins stresses that this is the real focus of the Sudbury model: developing a student's qualities and characteristics, rather than emphasizing academic skills. Students who do wish to pursue a Regents diploma, though, are welcome to study for and take the required tests.

While some students begin their schooling in the Sudbury model, several others come to it as adolescents or teens. These students, Collins says, need some time to “deprogram” after attending a traditional public school. In particular, he says older incoming students tend to distrust adults, which doesn't work in a democratic environment.

Parents, too, may need to shift their expectations of what schooling looks like. Collins points out that it can be tough for parents, since they do not get reports or grades. Instead, they must be prepared to support their child's “process of discovery,” which can be long, and can differ for each student.

Bunch stresses, though, that there are rules and structures in place in the Sudbury model. It's not, she says “a wild Lord of the Flies.” Rather, there are systems in place, such as the judicial committee, where students and faculty who have been found to behave in a way that could hurt the community are heard and receive a consequence from others in the school, to keep everyone accountable and responsible.

Kids learn best with hands-on activities is the Montessori approach

Like Waldorf, Montessori schools also base their model on an educational philosophy that has been around for generations. Founder Maria Montessori's educational philosophy is driven by the idea that children have an innate desire and ability to learn about their surroundings, and that they learn best with hands-on activities.

According to Hawk Meadow Montessori School's co-director Erin Castle, the Montessori model is child-centered and directed. It is an individualized model that includes, she says, “freedom within structure.” Rather than a teacher dictating which activity a class will complete in which order, Montessori allows each individual student to choose from a number of activities presented to them in an accessible way. There may be a number of math manipulatives available, or “practical life” activities, such as stringing beads for younger students or peeling vegetables for older students. These activities are set on a low shelf for younger children so they are within reach, a part of the child centered environment of a Montessori school, which includes child-sized furniture and materials.

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This doesn't mean that children only develop the skills in which they are most interested. A child who prefers art and language, for instance, will not have an education devoid of math and science learning, according to Castle. Instead, in the Montessori model, the teacher will use his or her knowledge of the students interests to engage the student. The teacher may ask the student to draw out a math problem, for instance, or use manipulatives that appeal to the child. Castle says there is a lot of choice in how teachers present the materials in a Montessori classroom.

Still, students are allowed and encouraged to delve deeper into their particular interests, and are not bound by limited access because of their age since Montessori schools have mixed age classrooms. Castle says this allows them to follow their inner desires and interests, and says because they have a hand in their education, the students are excited about learning.

The Waldorf approach parallels a child's developmental stage

Like the Sudbury model, the Waldorf model also emphasizes the development of the whole child, not simply the academic side. Wendy Weinrich, Director of Mountaintop Waldorf School in Saugerties, says the Waldorf philosophy focuses on the head, heart and hands, instructing the children, for instance, in “purposeful work” with their hands, such as knitting, playing an instrument, and creating art. She says this is beneficial for children who have the tendency to become overly focused on one interest, at the expense of everything else. Waldorf schools can “fill out” those students, simply by virtue of the fact that they are required to participate in music, theater and art.

Unlike in public schools, there is no push for early reading. In fact, Weinrich says students in Waldorf schools learn writing before reading in first grade, where they are introduced to pictorial letters. In the younger grades in particular, outdoor play is valued over rote learning.

Kathryn Meyer of Saugerties, whose two daughters attend Waldorf schools, says she appreciates this approach. She says, for instance, “the Kindergarten is more akin to the way I remember my own Kindergarten experience from the '70s. Mine was about building with blocks, playing in the sandbox and through all of that, learning how to get along with other children and to begin the foundation of learning to be myself in this world apart from my parents. Waldorf Kindergartens offer this.”

This is not to say that Waldorf schools do not have an academic curriculum. In fact, they have a structured curriculum that teaches topics which parallel the children's own developmental stage. Weinrich says that, for instance, in fourth grade children are grappling with big imaginations, and so Waldorf schools use this time to teach epic stories, such as Norse myths. During adolescence, students learn about the Renaissance.

Weinrich says the curriculum and philosophy are based on sound pedagogical theory, and have been around for over 100 years, dispelling the notion she says she sometimes hears, that Waldorf schools are “old hippie” schools. Meyer agrees, and adds “Waldorf education is about slowing down and working with educational concepts that have been part of the curriculum since the school of thought began in 1919. They have withstood the test of time.”

Friends school combines analytical thinking with hands on learning outside classroom

Of all the private education models available in our region, the Friends school model may look most similar to a typical school on first glance. It has traditional classes and grade levels. However, the way in which those classes are run makes them distinctly different.

Classes at Oakwood Friends School, for instance, focus on not just the facts being learned, but also the process of learning. Students are encouraged to analyze and study topics in depth, discussing and debating ideas with their peers. Anna Bertucci, Associate Head; Head of the Upper School, and overseer of curriculum, says “Friends schools teach students to resolve conflicts, to respect competing ideas, and to listen carefully to one another which makes for a great learning environment.”

Bertucci says the classes themselves are smaller than in a typical public school classroom, with an average class size of 12, and teachers take an interest in their students' opinions and ideas. According to her, “some of our students who joined our upper school after years of attending public schools said that one aspect they found most surprising was the degree to which our faculty interact with them, listened to their ideas, and expected them to participate in class discussions and activities. 'I really had my guard up but soon found the adults here are not scary; they really care about me,' one student who joined us as a sophomore told me. 'There is no back row here,' said another. 'Everybody knows me and we are all expected to contribute to the class in some way.'”

Learning in a Friends school isn't always bound by classroom walls, either. Students perform service learning projects, and learn about environmental stewardship. They haul compost, and build raised beds for the garden on campus. Bertucci says Oakwood Friends is also about to install a solar array to provide electricity for the campus, and they look forward to incorporating it into their curriculum.

Dawn Green is a freelance writer who lives in Saugerties with her two sons.