The Tiny School Movement- Part 1

It has taken me 20+ years to realize my dream of working with kids in public education – here are some lessons learned and a recipe for how you might be able to do it a little sooner…

First, let me describe my school….

55 kids, mostly (95%) did not thrive in traditional high school, or their parents knew they would crash and burn in high school due to past school difficulties. One principal/teacher (me), one teacher, one instructional assistant. We use a library, four classrooms, a gym and a an old weight room (turned wood shop) from an old high school in town.

We use Place Based Education – a blend of Service Learning, Project Based Learning, and using our community as our textbook. My mentor Greg Smith from Lewis and Clark has been invaluable in helping me to shape my ideas and to be successful in this endeavor.

School is year round, M-TH 8-2:30. Two reasons for year round – first is that kids who struggle in school do much better academically without long breaks. Second is we wanted to be able to teach our kids how to grow their own food, not only as a life skill but also as a hobby and/or a business.

We have a number of community volunteers in our school – a college art teacher teaching a college art class, my teaching partner’s dad who opens our wood shop three to four days a week, a professional photographer, OSU Extension staff, game players, a professional musician, etc.

As we are an alternative high school we have very high standards for behaviour. Three strikes and you are toast – not forever, but for six months. Our kids are not disposable, but they do need to act like polite and civil people in order to for us to have a learning environment that works, and also for them to be able to go out into the public and do their service projects.

We run a school garden, will soon run a small public library, provide after school programming to our neighborhood elementary school, run a science museum open to the public, are starting to provide community education one night a month, do oral history interviews of local people, Do the SMART Reading Program with local elementary kids, and much more.

We tie in curriculum to student interests and community service projects for the most part. If a student loves the outdoors, they may do an invasive species study of our town and surrounding areas, enlisting the help of a biologist. If you are not afraid of Common Core and State Standards, it becomes second nature to construct projects with students that address the standards. If you are afraid of the standards, you need to read them, know them, and LOVE THEM to the point where you own them and they no longer own you. I am not saying that I am ready to take a bullet for Common Core, but it is what our state agreed to tell us to teach, and they make the rules, and we are supposed to follow those. Somewhere along the line it feels to me like educators thought that they had to become even more rigid under Common Core – horsepuckey. In order to do what is best for kids – authentic learning in a caring environment, get off of your behind and master the standards, and then, as we tell our kids, you own the game, the game no longer owns you. Do not, as we say in the military, hide behind a shield of shame (Quartermaster Corps) which are the standards.

Math is taught as a discrete subject, always weaving in at least one other subject. Right now we are teaching math through System Dynamics and Modeling. Huh? Come again? Imagine you asked yourself what causes you stress in your life – and drew a picture of your stress level as a bathtub, and your stressors are the faucet filling it up. Your stress reducers are the drain. Each factor involved has a “weight” to it compared to the others (hello, algebra!). There are going to be feedback loops (hello, exponents and goemetry!). There are going to be events (hello, probability!). Things are going to be changing over time, (hello, calculus!). Life is much too important to waste away the hours teaching math from a textbook that has no application to the lives of people learning it right now. When students show and break down what is causing them stress in their lives, they have “Aha” moments, both in the health and in the “I learned some really sophisticated math today” realms.

My role: I teach full time, and administrate full time. I do my best to shut out the world when I am teaching, but from time to time need to respond to crises or opportunity for the best outcomes for my kids. My days usually start before 5 a.m., and typically end around 5 p.m., unless we have district meetings or events at the school. It is a labor of love – I get out of bed every day pumped to work with my staff and students. I do everything from resolve squabbles amongst adults in the building, interface with the district office, talk to parents, set up projects with volunteers and instructors, stop by the hardware store and thrift stores on the way home to pick up materials for student projects, help kids learn to construct things in the wood shop, teach math, take kids out to the garden, etc. I get a few one to two minute breaks per day (literally) for the restroom. My contract is for 225 days a year, but I will probably put in 240-245. Oh well! I have been a high school teacher, AD, VP, Elementary Principal, alt ed teacher for one semester, started up another alt ed school about 8 years ago, and spent 7 or so years at the district office running federal programs, our ed foundation, partnerships, and writing grants and setting up and supporting Place Based Education Projects. I do not spew out this list to impress, but rather to share with you that I have had some experiences that lend me the confidence and “how does this work with all of the other parts” knowledge that come in really handy when running a school.

I get my cookies from working with underdogs – it is why I have stayed in my community (high poverty and low self-esteem – it is a local pastime to remind ourselves how bad we think we are) and work with the kids I work with. If you are looking to start your own tiny school, you need to KNOW what students you are going to recruit, or encourage, to attend. You need to BELIEVE with every fiber of your soul that they are good and worthy creatures, and that they deserve nothing but the best. Finally, you need to ask yourself – is running a Tiny School Worth Doing? If the answer is Yes – I hope I can help with upcoming blog posts. If the answer is anything but yes, get thee back to your classroom and take the dollops that are plopped onto your tray and smile!


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