Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support   

Succeeding Outside the Mainstream


According to the old expression, there isn’t a guidebook when it comes to being a parent. Most of us are looking to do the right thing and, in all fairness, most of us do a great job. Part of the parenting process is the inability not to agonize over every significant decision, while still considering everything important. We’ll lose sleep worrying about dietary components, clothing fabrics, which TV shows, video games and musical groups are appropriate (a subject we will be covering in early 2015’s Colorado Brides and Colorado Babies magazine), and how much attention we should be lavishing upon our children. And then there are options in education.A

It used to be that we would send our child off to public school when they reached the appropriate age, unless we had funds available for private school. Maybe religion would factor in but, for the most part, there were two very clear options. Before that, kindergarten and pre-school. Easy. Things really aren’t like that anymore. Home-schooling isn’t viewed as an alienating, freaky option for over-protective parents nowadays. Montessori schools have been rising fast and are now seen as a viable alternative, and then there’s the minimally invasive teaching theories of Sugata Mitra that are being embraced by schools both public and private. We’ll study all of them and more in a bid to make the decision process easier when looking to place your child.

Mountain Shadows Montessori, Boulder

Montessori schooling can initially appear radical and a little scary for parents used to very structured education. Developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori, the schools emphasize independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical and social development. Classrooms can be mixed age, usually ranging between two-and-a-half to six years old, and there is freedom of movement within the classroom. For those of us who grew up with a teacher telling us to sit down, shut up and listen, the Montessori model can be more than a little disconcerting. However, it’s the most popular form of non-traditional education in the United States and, naturally, it has been largely embraced in Colorado.

“They need to find a program that resonates with them as parents for their children.”

Ann Kasunich
Mountain Shadows Montessori School

“There are also many different flavors,” says Ann Kasunich, head of Mountain Shadows Montessori School. “That’s the kind of thing that parents really need to look out for. They need to find a program that resonates with them as parents for their children. There is definitely a strong interest in Montessori here in Boulder County, but you’ll see concentrations all over the country. It’s more commonly known for three-six year olds, but there’s Montessori elementary, which we have here. There are even Montessori high schools outside of the area.”

There are buzz words that you’ll hear while exploring education around here – words like “freedom of expression,” “minimally invasive,” “self-discovery,” and, of course, “gifted.” It’s interesting that, as we delved into the many differences in the school’s philosophies, we found just as many similarities. For example, Kasunich told us of Mountain Shadows that, “I watched two primary children this week spend two hours this week on a math problem. The reason the children can choose to follow their natural rhythms and focus on a lesson for the amount of time that works for them is that what we’re doing is allowing the children to grow into a deep state of concentration. If you run or you paint or you play music, there’s a state of mind that you go into. We’re giving our children the time and space to go into that state of mind throughout their entire morning. The children are experiencing a very relaxed state of mind – there’s a little dopamine that’s released when we’re concentrating. There’s also a little serotomin with regards to the brain chemistry which results in a relaxed, joyful state for learning. You won’t see a high frenetic energy. It’s very different to the traditional method.”

Mountain Shadows Montessori, Boulder

True enough, but allowing the children that time and space shares some traits with the techniques of Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University in England, who is credited with developing the “minimally invasive” teaching techniques, where students are left to learn unsupervised. While working in India, Mitra devised an experiment where he put a hole in the wall separating his school’s premises from an adjoining slum. The children that lived in that slum learned to use a computer pretty much by themselves. Mitra summarized that children left alone can learn to not only operate a computer, but also teach themselves new languages, improve science and math scores, and improve social interaction skills.

You would be forgiven for thinking that these immovative approaches might only be available in private school, but that’s actually not true at all. Just look at what New Vista High School in Boulder has to say: “We develop our children’s greatest abilities and make possible the discovery and pursuit of their dreams which, when fulfilled, will benefit us all. We provide a comprehensive and innovative approach to education and graduate successful, curious, lifelong learners who confidently confront the great challenges of their time. The mission of the Boulder Valley School District is to create challenging, meaningful and engaging learning opportunities so that all children thrive and are prepared for successful, civically engaged lives.”

Sounds similar, huh?

Mackintosh Academy, Boulder

JJ Morrow is the head of the Mackintosh private school in Boulder. “First and foremost, we’re a progressive school, meaning whether you’re thinking with a capital P or a lower p, we’re a school that’s designed for children,” he told Yellow Scene. “It sounds very simple but it’s a very important statement. All the different facets of the school are all very progressive. Another piece that’s important, besides being designed for children, is the ability to change and adapt for the needs of the kids for their future, which means that we’re preparing children for their uncertain future and we’re well past the notion that we’re living in revolutionary times. Information is readily available. It’s not the defining aspect of school anymore.

“…academic achievement is important, being motivated is important, but you need to take care of your inner core, who you are, and how you interact with other people.”

JJ Morrow
Mackintosh Academy

“Nobody, for example, is going to ask you if you’ve memorized all 50 states or if you know how to do long division using the American algorithm. What people are looking for are qualities that I think good educators have known about for a long time and are finally waking up to the fact that we can do these things in schools. We’re looking for qualities in children that are topics like knowing how to communicate, having strong character, persistence, being adaptable, having a strong sense of empathy, self-control – so these are all qualities that children will need to be armed for their future and I think our school is poised because our three pillars are being for gifted children, having ID framework which has large components of unleashing creativity, building character embedded in them and having deep thinking skills. Our third pillar is having social and functional thinking. All three of them work together because we want to our children to develop their inner core of who they are so that they can go out armed with this idea of ‘What is my place in society? Who am I and how can I make a difference?’ I think our school’s poised to focus on the fact that academic achievement is important, being motivated is important, but you need to take care of your inner core, who you are, and how you interact with other people.”

That is wonderful, but Nancy Monson’s Running River school in Lafayette takes a slightly different approach. “Running River is based on trying to understand all the different needs of children – intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual,” she says. “We have a curriculum that addresses all those needs and keeps them balanced. One really good way to look at it is balancing inner development with outer development. Most schools are focussed on outer development, meaning skills. What’s achievable, what you can grade and can quantify. Inner development is about the development of the feelings aspect of children, so they know how they feel and who they are. They’re comfortable in their own skins, and they develop the tools to express that. We teach meditation, and we talk about things that are going on. When kids to get a chance to express their feelings in a safe environment, it helps them relax, it helps them feel that its ok to be who they are. We teach yoga, and we also get the kids connected to nature. Right now, I’m sitting up in the mountains with the kids and they’re playing. The whole school goes hiking every Friday. We have an excellent academic curriculum, and the basis is educating kids through what’s meaningful, interesting, and in a way that they can relate to.”

Running River School, Lafayette

Yes, the kids are doing yoga at school. And it doesn’t stop there. “We do mixed age classrooms so that kids can be in a larger range of learning,” Monson says. “We individualize the learning so that kids can progress at their own rate. It’s ok to be where you are – you’re not being compared or graded against somebody else. That makes kids feel safe and relaxed and, of course, if you feel relaxed you’re going to learn a lot better as well. We want to make it experiential, meaningful, hands-on and as engaging as possible. Our kids get so excited about stuff that they go home and tell their parents that they want to visit places that we’re studying about. That’s what learning should be like.”

Monson isn’t alone. The good people at Friend’s School in Boulder say, “Friends’ School was founded by a small group of dedicated parents who envisioned a school where the whole child is educated and revered for who he or she is. Today, Friends’ School remains true to this vision and offers a comprehensive, independent, secular program for children in Preschool through Fifth Grade. Small, collaborative classrooms, exceptional teachers, and a connected parent community enable students to learn respect for themselves, others, and our world. The Friends’ Friends’ School was founded by a small group of dedicated parents who envisioned a school where the whole child is educated and revered for who he or she is. Today, Friends’ School remains true to this vision and offers a comprehensive, independent, secular program for children in Preschool through Fifth Grade. Small, collaborative classrooms, exceptional teachers, and a connected parent community enable students to learn respect for themselves, others, and our world.”

Dawson School, Lafayette

When it comes to classroom structure, there are also many similarities, with a desire to keep the numbers low a popular theme. “In our school, we follow the responsive classroom model,” says Morrow. “First of all, we have small classrooms. We have between seven and 15 children, and if the number creeps above 10 or 11, we have two teachers in the room. So the personal attention is huge. But we follow a responsive classroom approach, meaning that there are class meetings in the morning where the kids greet each other, they learn how to share information, take turns, and they get to talk about what their days and weeks are going to look like. It’s a democratic approach to children feeling like they have a say and a part. Being an ID school, we have entered a trans-disciplinary approach, which is a thematic study. If the younger kids are studying plants and how we affect plants, they hear and see and do everything related to plants throughout the day, whether they’re in PE, art, language arts or math. We’re unique also in that we have three recesses a day, which gets our kids outside. We have a beautiful, 26-acre campus so our kids are out a lot. If our kids need to be moving faster or slower, w put them where their mind needs to be. Also unique to our school – we have a Spanish teacher who has Spanish with the kids three or four times each week.”

“Ages really vary in grades, so when they’re in a mixed age classroom, it’s more likely that they’ll find kids at their own level, whether that’s emotionally or academically,” adds Monson. “In a second or third grade classroom, there are kids just learning how to read, and kids reading at a seventh grade level. They see how different everybody is in different subject areas, and they see that everybody has their gifts and everybody struggles with something. It makes it much more ok to just be who you are. Kids learn that they can be friends with kids who are two years younger or older than them. That is something that the kids who have left the school talk about – that they go out in the world and they’re comfortable with people of all ages. The older kids are sitting down and helping the young kids, mentoring them. They’re learning how to be of service and not just to think of themselves. Being with people your same age and focussed on grades is very limiting. You learn how to love them for who they are as a person. You hardly ever hear the word “love” connected to education, but it really should be the heart of education. Loving a child is knowing who they are on the inside, and developing their skills and their passions so that they can be who they are.”

“Standardized tests give you a certain kind of data but they don’t necessarily give you all the data you need.”

Elizabeth Hubert
Bixby School

And that really is the key – allowing your child to learn and grow in a nurturing environment that works for them. Elizabeth Hubert, elementary academic director at Bixby School in Boulder, told us that, “Bixby, in its founding and its ongoing mission, stresses a non-competitive, ungraded learning environment. The reason for that is we want each child to learn to the best of their potential. We don’t want the test results to become the point of learning. Standardized tests give you a certain kind of data but they don’t necessarily give you all the data you need. At Bixby we have a portfolio of student work, looking at students across areas like critical thinking, risk taking, academic scores, responsibility for self and others – things like that. The academic learning is very important, but so is the social learning and the capacity for problem solving.”

Homeschooling, or home education, is perhaps the most controversial option, and yet, prior to the introduction of compulsory attendance laws, most teaching and learning was done within the family and community environments. Nowadays, we view homeschooling as a means for parents to take a more active role in their child’s schooling, or to remove the child from environments that they view as harmful or, at the very least, less than constructive. Homeschooling is also viewed as a viable option for people who live in rural areas, off the beaten path. In this region, that might mean somewhere up in the mountains where the school buses don’t journey.

Online school the Connections Academy makes it a lot easier. Offered in free public online schools, the Connections program helps each student their potential by combining strong parental involvement, expertise and accountability, and a flexible learning environment. “By attending a K–12 online school, students learn outside the traditional classroom and beyond a homeschool program,” they say. “They typically learn from home, but also from libraries, community centers, and occasionally from the road. Assisting the student in day-to-day activities is an adult Learning Coach, who is typically a parent, but also could be another family member or responsible adult caregiver. Teachers work together from centralized offices and hubs, under the supervision of a principal or other administrator, providing coordinated support and accountability.”

Of course, homeschooling and using online resources like this has its up and down sides. You can be sure, for example, that the class sizes will be small and the environment will be comfortable. But will the the Learning Coach be fully equipped to deal as the child progresses? After all, as many people told us during the research for this piece, there are more gifted children in Boulder per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

“We are the only independent school for gifted children that has a primary years and middle years program for ID,” says Morrow of Mackintosh. “We’re the only show in town. What’s exciting about that is that the Boulder and Denver area has some of the highest rate of gifted and creative children in the entire country. It’s the kind of thing that built into the DNA of the Boulder area in particular. We’re creating the next generation of pioneers. Our school is drawing in a lot of that intellectual and social capital. That’s really cool for us. We’re also connected to the Colorado Association of Gifted and Talented (CAGT), which is one of the most powerful and stable organizations for the gifted in the entire country. Boulder’s unique in that it has some of the most premier gifted writers, thinkers, activists in the entire country. We’re helping to serve the community.”

Dawson School, Lafayette

“…academically prepared and we do that through small classrooms and individual attention, but we also want to help students find their passion.”

George Moore
Dawson School

George Moore of the Dawson School in Lafayette is equally committed to helping children reach their potential. “Academic excellence and individual attention as part of the college prepatory program is our corner stone, but we do quite a bit more than that,” says Moore. “That’s the tip of the iceberg. We’re focussed quite a bit these days on our vision statement, which focusses on our graduates achieving their individual potential, favoring life and meeting the challenges of the world. I think we’re trying to broaden our focus. Yes, we want our kids to be academically prepared and we do that through small classrooms and individual attention, but we also want to help students find their passion. We do a lot with hands-on education and global awareness. I think we do a great job of blending what you might think of traditional academics with sort of more contemporary skills that are important in kid’s lives and kid’s development.”

Unlike some of the other schools that we spoke to, Moore says that Dawson offers a variety of different classroom styles and approaches. “I don’t think you could say that we have one type of classroom or one type of learning style,” he says. “What we’re doing right now as a school is working to blend the best of the traditional education with the best of what the latest research and practice in contemporary education has to offer. Whether that’s technology, using our campus more as a class room, we’re looking ways to allows kids to follow their passions, develop their skills, and really have an impact on the world now and not wait until they’re in college or later. The idea of blending and transforming the school from perhaps something more traditional to a blend of the traditional with the contemporary as effectively as possible.”

Maybe that’s how parents should be looking at this – which school offers a blend of the new with the tried-and-tested that I am comfortable with. There are certainly enough options out there and the good news is, they’re not necessarily all as different as you might think.

While Monson says that, “Our middle kids are starting to pick things that they want to research and study. Right now, each child has picked something that they really want to study, and they’re trying to figure out how to tell the class about it. We don’t do grading and we don’t do testing, so as the kids get older, they are engaged in that process of expressing fully what they know. We teach life skills too. Our kids do really well when they go on to high school – we’ve tracked them. The kids built a chicken coop, and they’re completely in charge – they do all the feeding and cleaning. They learn how to cook, how to compost, how to sew. When they leave, they’re really comfortable going into the world,”

The people at the Thorne Nature Experience in Boulder say, “Thorne has connected more than 250,000 children, teens, and adults to nature and become a nationally recognized leader in the field of environmental education. Today, Thorne’s Summer Camp, In-School Program, and Field Trips reach more than 12,000 Boulder County and Front Range youth each year.”

While the people at the Boulder Journey School say that, “We believe that when respectful attention is given to children’s words, actions and productions, their natural capabilities, compassion and empathy are strengthened in relation to self and others, and learning is optimal. Our community flourishes under these conditions. Self-efficacy develops in tandem with responsibility to community. Curiosity is the driving force behind the investigations children initiate. Each child’s learning experience is extended and deepened by teachers. Respect for all emerging theories allows him to “try on” both varying approaches to his explorations, and explanations for his observations,”

Mackintosh Academy, Boulder

“Individualized or differentiated education is a big “buzz word” in our educational system today.”

Broomfield Academy

The people at the Broomfield Academy say, “[Our mission] is to provide an individualized education helping children be exceptional, accelerated and creative. Individualized or differentiated education is a big “buzz word” in our educational system today. In most school settings, individual student learning plans (ISLP’s) are typically created only for students formally identified as gifted, in need of specialized services or to address a specific disability. At Broomfield Academy, teachers create individualized learning plans for each and every child. This is done to assure that there is a plan in place to develop every aspect of a child’s learning needs. In our classrooms, there are generally several student groupings or levels of work for each subject, even in a class as small as 10 students. During a typical day, students may work on an independent project or on small-group lessons, while at other times they may be engaged in a whole-class discussion related to a particular lesson for that day (e.g. history, science). Following their ISLP, each student may also have other individualized content or topical options including individual reading and research projects. Teachers work with each student using a variety of methods to demonstrate learning through projects such as oral presentations, poems, essays, dioramas, or poster boards.”

There’s the private education of Boulder Country Day School (“Distinguished by small class sizes, outstanding faculty, rigorous curriculum and a focus on community, our preschool, elementary and IB middle school teachers strive to create a well-rounded educational environment that balances traditional subjects with the arts, world languages, athletics and project-based learning,”) and the Catholic approach of the Holy Family High School (“Our Mission Statement accurately reflects life within our community; ‘Based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, Holy Family High School seeks to provide a Catholic learning environment that stresses academic excellence, fosters mutual respect, demands responsibility, and encourages self-growth.’ We invite you to come and experience what it means to be a part of the Holy Family ‘family’.)

For those who want to go a musical route, there’s the Flatirons Strings Academy in Boulder (“The faculty at Flatirons Strings Academy teaches music to stimulate curiosity, and continually challenge the students to express themselves through an art form, allowing them to become well-rounded musicians. We believe that music is beneficial to everyone, especially young children. The dedication and discipline learned from proper musical training can be applied to daily life,) and the Kutandara Center, Boulder (“[The school] lays musical foundations for a lifetime of musical enjoyment. Teaching community oriented group music classes and lessons for all ages, Kutandara Center uses African styles as a vehicle for everyone to experience the joy of music.)

But here’s what we’ve learned while doing this – don’t be afraid. Put the time in, visit the schools, speak to the heads and teachers, and get a feel for the different places. Nobody knows your child better than you, so nobody is better placed to make the final decision. But, after talking to numerous education professionals, we’re convinced that it’s tough to go wrong. We happen to be blessed with a multitude of great schools here in Boulder County, and they all share a desire to help your child grow, to nurture them. So get comfortable with one of them and make the leap.

A Chat with Dave Aragon
{Head of UC First Generation Study Abroad}

Dave Aragon heads the UC First Generation Study Abroad Program, which helps students travel around the globe to study. We spoke to him to find out more.D

Yellow Scene: Tell us about the study abroad program.

Dave Aragon: Students get to study all over the globe as part of their experience. The challenge is that it’s often the students who have means, the students whose families are better able to support them with the financial costs, the students whose parents and grandparents all went to college. The Go! Scholarship initiative is a new initiative to expand opportunities for study abroad to students who might be first generation, college-going students, students who have come from low-income backgrounds, students who might not think that they could afford to do Study Abroad without this particular initiative. So we know that a lower proportion of our students of color, our US minority students, are getting opportunities to study abroad, partly because they’re not aware of the resources that are available for them to do so. So this is allowing us to do this kind of activity. In this first year, we have 25 students taking advantage of the opportunity. They have a commitment of a $4000 scholarship to do Study Abroad over a semester sometime during their undergraduate career. They are also agreeing to be a part of a seminar series that is helping them get better acquainted with the process of doing Study Abroad, selecting a country, selecting a college, something that matches their chosen academic major but also matches their interest of where on the globe they might like to go for a semester. Additionally they’re learning from other students who have participated in Study Abroad, and they’re learning about the financial resources that are available – additional scholarships, even how federal grant aid can support them to participate in Study Abroad.

YS: What are the benefits?

DA: Students getting exposure to other countries, to other forms of government, other economic systems, is a tremendously eye opening experience. It’s helpful for students to have those experiences and then come back to the United States and recognize all of the resources that are available to them that they might not be taking full advantage of. That’s one set of benefits. Having a broadened perspective of different cultures, societies, different nations, additionally is going to serve them in recognizing that our world is becoming smaller, that business is becoming more global, and that their future careers are likely going to involve, to a greater and greater extent, international activity. This is great preparation for their future.

YS: First generation, meaning that their family hasn’t been in the country long?

DA: First generation meaning that they are the first generation in their families to pursue a higher education. They may be from families who have been in the United States for generations but haven’t been college educated. It’s one thing to go to college and earn your four year degree. It’s another thing to get the maximum benefit from your university education and participate in outstanding opportunities like a global experience that study abroad brings.

YS: How would you like to see the program grow/expand?

DA: We’d like to see the program exist beyond the start-up funds that we have out into place for it. In other words, if we have 25 students selected each year as incoming freshmen, it won’t be long before we have 100 students participating in the program. It’s not clear yet how long we can sustain funding with existing resources. We imagine that this would be an attractive scholarship program for some of our friends of the university who donate to provide special opportunities for students such as the Go! Scholars.

The other thing that we’re doing with this program is we’re leveraging a set of existing programs on campus that support first generation college-going students, under-represented students, students from diverse backgrounds, we have a program called the CU LEAD alliance. LEAD is an acronym standing for Leadership, Excellence, Achievement and Diversity. We have dozens of programs on campus, five of which have summer sessions before the student’s freshmen year starts. These are programs that help students be better prepared for their first year transition to the university by giving them a summer experience that includes academics, it includes study strategies, getting oriented to the campus, learning how to study effectively with peers in similar majors, and so these programs are nominating students who are on campus before their freshmen year starts. We’re trying to find inventive ways of helping this population of students get off to a great start at the university, and then get the most out of their education. Not just to go to classes and survive the institution and get their degrees, but to really thrive. To gain a vision for the next thing. Maybe it’s enrolling in a graduate program at the Masters level or preparing for a professional schools. Or setting their sights on becoming a research scholar and earning their PhD. We want to help students reach for the stars more.

We have students in the US whose parentage may be from Africa or Latin America, but they haven’t maybe visited those places because their families have been here for a long time. Study Abroad is providing some of these students an opportunity to further develop an appreciation for those aspects of their family heritage. Those students who go to their country of origin from which their family heritage had originated – that’s important and powerful.


Brett Calwood
Brett Callwood is an English journalist, copy writer, editor and author, currently living and working in Los Angeles. He is the music editor with the LA Weekly. He was previously a reporter at the Longmont Times-Call and Daily Camera, the music editor at the Detroit Metro Times and editor-in-chief at Yellow Scene magazine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Callwood

Leave a Reply