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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Schools that Rock ~ Innovators Blaze Creative Paths

Creative educational initiatives offer more flexible programs of study than traditional institutions. First introduced into the United States in the latter part of the 20th century, today there are thousands of such facilities operating according to their own lights. Yet many share certain distinguishing characteristics including emphasis on close student-teacher relationships, diverse experiential learning and development of student decision-making skills aided by peer and parental support. All aim to prepare and equip students for future success both inside and outside the classroom.


Children at Wisconsin's Montessori School of Waukesha learn to baste; spoon beans or rice from bowls; cut paper, draw, paint or paste cutouts; and sew or embroider using a three-finger grip. It strengthens the muscles they will need later to practice writing skills.
At age 3, kids at the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, in Maryland, are gaining early math and motor skills, plus an appreciation for healthy foods, in unique and innovative ways. "The children roll out a long mat containing 1,000 beads that they use to learn to count by twos, fours and 10s," says Jenny Smolen, development coordinator and grant writer for the school. "When it's time for multiplication and division, they're prepared."

The school is located in a food desert -- fresh, unprocessed food isn't readily available - so the kids plant seeds to grow in pots until it's time to transplant them to the garden. "Before the seed-to-table program, the kids didn't know what fresh tasted like. Now they go home and ask for vegetables for dinner," says Smolen.

The school also has six chickens that supply fresh eggs, and two beehives produced 100 pounds of honey last year that was sold to raise funds. The school is free of charge to Baltimore city students chosen by lottery. Currently, 330 students from diverse backgrounds ages 3 through 13 attend, with 1,000 names on the waiting list.


Waldorf School alumna Jocelyn Miller, an account manager at Matter Communications, drives 45 minutes from Newburyport, Massachusetts, to take her three children to the Cape Ann Waldorf School, in Beverly. "On bad weather days, I wonder why I make the drive, but the smiles when we arrive are worth it," she says. There, her children spend time outdoors regardless of the weather. Indoors, they draw illustrations to bolster lessons on history and geography.

Second-graders work in three-hour blocks of time, rather than the traditional 45 minutes. Third-grade students recently spent three weeks studying Greek mythology. Older students play in an orchestra and learn German and Spanish. They also knit; the craft builds manual dexterity and helps children learn to plan, correct mistakes, be creative, visualize the finished product and mindfully create something useful or decorative.

Middle school and high school students at the Waldorf School of Garden City, in New York, universally participate in seasonal sports -- baseball, softball, basketball and soccer. The emphasis on the values of teamwork and sportsmanship complement development of skills. The school's policy is, "You don't have to be a superstar to get playing time," noting that the quality of athletic teams is consistently strong.

The school also brings some green into the city with a horticultural program that fully cultivates a quarter-acre field. Its steady harvest of fruits, vegetables, herbs and grains includes lettuce, beans, spinach, broccoli, kale, corn, oregano, thyme, rosemary, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. A new greenhouse keeps produce growing through winter months.

Students at Conservatory Prep High School, in Davie, Florida, were tasked with finding a way to walk on water in order to explore principles of flotation and buoyancy. After researching and experimenting with each of a series of materials, they analyzed what went wrong, worked to fix it and then tried again. "We did the testing at our onsite pool," says Wendy Weiner, Ed.D., the school's founder and principal and a Waldorf alumna. "We saw some pretty funny results, but they eventually invented a pair of shoes that worked. Of course, they were pretty big shoes."


Homeschooling provides another option. Parents don't need to know all about a subject with organizations like Bridgeway Academy's homeschool curricula at hand. This Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, institution provides easy access to tools and support for families nationwide. "We're a kindergarten-to-12th-grade provider," says Jessica Parnell, academy president. "Teachers in a school setting have to teach standardized subjects, in certain ways, to the whole class. We use customized learning to inspire and excite children individually. We help parents discover their child's learning style, personality and ideal learning environment."
Teachers, students and parents at Weinacker's Montessori School, in Mobile, Alabama, apply daily, weekly, monthly and yearly logs of goals and work plans to track progress. All of this can be adjusted as kids discover new topics they want to learn more about.
Materials provided include instructor guides, user-friendly websites and interactive games and other activities. "It gives kids the freedom to explore, learn and discover," Parnell adds. "This is how you grow a lifelong learner."


Un-schooling, another pioneering approach, is a method of homeschooling in which children pursue areas that interest them, eat foods they enjoy, rest when needed, choose friends of all ages or none at all and engage their world in unique, powerful and self-directed ways. Suzanne Strisower, a life and career coach in Oroville, California, has written a common-core, standards-based curriculum for un-schoolers. "It's a yearlong program for ages 15 and up designed to enable a student to realize his career path and life's purpose," she says.

Online Tutorials

"There's an explosion in online learning, too," observes Bob Bowdon, executive director of nonprofit Choice Media, an education news service at, produced in New York City. School kids in some states are able to opt out of a class at school if they feel the teaching style is holding them back, instead tapping online teachers available in a virtual school setting.

Louisiana's Department of Education's Jump Start program partners high schools and local companies to offer students one-day-a-week internships apprenticing in trades. "It's real-world, on-the-job training," says Bowdon.

Thanks to such innovative approaches to school curricula and technology, parents and children have more options than ever before for learning. Instead of memorizing information until the next test and then forgetting it, more learning is customized and hands-on, because children that learn by doing, remember.

Connect with Sandra Murphy at [email protected]

Standout Schools Help ~ Inner City Kids Shine

New York City students participating in The Young Women's Leadership of East Harlem School are motivated to think about where, not if, they will attend college. The first three all-girl graduating classes boasted 100 percent college enrollment with the help of the Young Women's Leadership College Bound Initiative, which funds a full-time college counselor at several of the city's public high schools. The majority of the students are the first in their families to attend college.

Harlem Village Academy Charter School, in Manhattan, ranks highest among all public, non-selective high schools in New York City in terms of college enrollment. Because many children enter it as fifth-graders with a first grade reading ability, they typically receive extracurricular, phonics-based reading instruction, attend a homework club and have access to outside tutors. Performance generally improves throughout middle school, and 90 percent of the students stay in the Harlem Village Academies (HVA) network through high school. The class of 2012 had a 100 percent graduation rate compared with a 60 percent average for the city's high schools. Nationally, only 8 percent of low-income students graduate from college, but 88 percent of all HVA high school graduates starting with its first senior class in 2011 have remain enrolled in college classes.

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