Tuesday, April 30, 2013


I'm sure to most of you, The Sandbox, a Passionate Learning Cooperative seems an impossible endeavor.

Offer a full-time alternative to public school to any family who needs it, for a minimal fee? 

It might be impossible. I don't have all the answers, or at least, any official ones.  The cooperative, when established, will grapple with all these questions and work towards real actions. All I know is that it is needed. Many of us here in Waldo County feel that way, but don't see how anyone can provide an alternative and make it available to those who need it. Those who can afford it opt for private school; those for whom it is feasible become homeschoolers. Does that mean that all others are happily ensconced in our public schools?

As my readers know by now, I think the pressures of high-stakes testing and the standardization of curriculum is squeezing the spirit out of our schools--and too often, out of our children. 

Sure, there are efforts to make our systems better; even huge, system-altering changes. But can public education really change when teachers are constrained to the topics and skills dictated to them by a national curriculum, with their successes and failures determined by high-stakes testing? When the financial support of our system depends on the generation of good scores on tests that measure the least important part of learning?

For the reasons why I am starting The Sandbox, you can see the first post on this blog; and I'm sure I will address it in future posts. For now, let's put aside the "why" and pay attention to the "how."

How will the Sandbox go about teaching our children?

The idea behind this initiative is to create a space where children's identities, strengths, talents and passions are the foundation of their learning.  Play, exploration, inquiry,  creation and reflection are activities that make learning meaningful. They also provide a context in which students will learn basic skills. We start with the child as an individual; we build learning from there.

We will look at other alternative schools. We will learn from what they've done, what they've discovered, mistakes that they've made and breakthroughs they've had.  We will reach into our own pasts, think of what worked and what didn't. We will talk continually among ourselves about how we are doing, how we can do better.

Will the co-op's parent/teachers be prepared for the job? 

Possibly not, at the start. We'll all learn together. It is difficult to escape from the idea that we need to tell children what they should learn. It's one thing to say, "get out of their way, and let them go where their learning leads them," but how does that look, in a room with fifteen or twenty kids of all ages, each with their own wishes and needs?

When I realized recently that a friend from the Portland area, an art teacher with extensive knowledge of the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, could possibly coach us and work with us to incorporate some of the principles of that method of early-childhood education, I also realized that there might be many people in our state who would do the same. We will reach out to them and ask for their help. 

There are also many, many individuals and groups nationwide dedicated to transforming education. We will not be "going it alone." Technology allows us to bring a world of ideas and suggestions, routines, practices, methods, into our work. Our mission is to educate children without standardization or high-stakes testing; our goals as a center for learning will appeal to many people who may be prevailed upon to help.

We will read, discuss, argue and experiment. Our lack of experience will bother us way more than it will bother our children

How on God's green earth are you going to pay for it?

We will build our organization on a foundation of frugality and fundraising. We will find ways to exist and excel with next to nothing.

1. Co-op membership.  The basic level of membership can have a monthly fee of around $25.  This level can have both work and fundraising requirements.  We probably need a core of 6-8 parents serving as teachers on a rotating basis, so it is critical to have a healthy number of family members at this level. Parents who work full-time or who are otherwise unable to help with the daily operation of the co-op will help in other ways: fundraising, procuring donations of supplies, organizing the week's food, helping transport students in the mornings and evenings. Flexibility is key; we will find ways for families to help.

What about the families who can't even afford the $25 monthly fee?

We will help them raise it.

The second level of membership is for families who will not be able to take part in the running of the school or fundraising projects. While the fee at this level will still be affordable, it will be substantially higher than the basic membership level.  I imagine that it will be a few hundred dollars a month.

Another possible source of income is to make services available to public school children.  After-school and weekend programs can be offered for a small fee to non-co-op members; public school families can also join the Co-op, and all of our programs will be made available to them.

2. Grantwriting. We will need a fair amount of cash up-front to establish the cooperative. It is in the plan to pursue non-profit status as our first item of priority. This will make foundation grants available to us.  The need for adequate educational technology is critical, as well as the furnishings, supplies and equipment that will keep the school running. Parents with experience or wanting to gain experience searching for appropriate foundations and writing grants will be encouraged and supported. 

3. Plain Old Fundraising. Yard sales. Bake sales. Craft fairs. Concerts. Auctions. Suppers. All ideas will be pursued, and it is a condition of co-op membership that we will all do the necessary work.

We should take full advantage of the educational aspects of fundraising. Our students will be encouraged to brainstorm fundraising projects, and some of the daily work of The Sandbox will involve those projects. Kids love doing work that is "in the real world." Students will plan, work cooperatively, follow them through to completion, then reflect on the projects, determining which were successful and how to improve the ones that weren't, experiment with ideas. Along the way, as with all their other activities at the Sandbox, they will be developing math and writing skills. The educational possibilities seem endless.

What about a space? Where will The Sandbox be located?

I don't know. Got any ideas?  Know of an outbuilding not being used? A mother-in-law apartment that is standing empty? A basement?  A garage that needs some work? An underused public building? Have a think, ask some friends and let me know!

How will a disparate group of families from as huge a geographical area as Waldo County stay in touch? 

How will we plan if we are rarely all in the building at the same time? If parent/teachers work on a rotating basis, how do we keep a flow and continuity to the children's work? 

We need to use the advantages of technology to its fullest. Cloud programs are available for scheduling, record-keeping, and even keeping track of student work. It is absolutely essential that every co-op member be connected to the Internet from home. If families can't afford it, we will fundraise.  Things that were unthinkable before, are possible now, because the Internet connects us. 

That is my first pass at the most obvious questions. I know there are more. Please comment here, email me, or give me a call.
Coming soon: How will The Sandbox be governed? Will students play a role in governing?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Journey Begins

What makes education really work for children?

What makes learning wondrous and exciting for your child?

Think big. Think wide. Imagine roads, paths, mountain treks,  Even spacewalks...but don’t put anything stupid like high-pressure testing or standards in the way.

While you work on that, let me tell you a little about The Sandbox: A Passionate Learning Cooperative.

The Sandbox is an idea that has grown from a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for nine years: how can the community provide high-quality education, despite the growing impact of high-stakes testing and standardization?

Not all communities can pull it off.  I think Waldo County can.

The Sandbox will be powered by the idea that alternatives to public school can be made available to those who need it, regardless of the ability to pay or the feasibility of homeschooling.  We believe that quality education consists of children involved in play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, and reflection.

The day will look different for every child, depending on age, interests, projects, or events. With curricula that is set by the passions and goals of the students, they will not miss out on unexpected, unplanned opportunities to learn, and be under no pressure other than their own curiosity, drive, and purpose.

The assessment of learning will lie in the accomplishment of their goals. A gallery opening; a video launched to the public; a book of poetry; a recital; the creation of a robot that works; a garden plan that turns into a real garden...all these things involve an authentic, built-in assessment that doesn’t disrupt the learning process, create competition, or emphasize more mundane aspects of the accomplishment.

For most people, that’s hard to do. We’ve all been trained to trust a numerical grade or a criticism that emphasizes weakness. Younger Sandbox learners will grow up knowing the value of their strengths. Gradually, older Sandbox learners will find that that the joy of leading their learning and the accomplishment of goals will create the genuine satisfaction that climbing the ladder of standards and preparing for tests cannot.

The Sandbox will be a parent-run cooperative dedicated to providing student-led education for the children of our community.  The Sandbox will require a small monthly membership fee and ample opportunities for raising funds...but other than that fee, probably amounting to $300-$400 a year, there will be no cost.

An endeavor such as this must be built on the assumption that day-to-day life will be on a shoestring. Grant-writing, fundraising, and the offering of services to the community for small fees, plus the fact that all the “teachers” will be parents and volunteers, helping theirs and others’ children, will make it possible.

Working parents or those otherwise unable to satisfy day-to-day work requirements of the co-op will assist in other ways: providing transportation of children before and after school, preparing lunches for the week, seeking donations of needed supplies, arranging for special learning experiences, or organizing fundraising campaigns can be among the contributions of members.

So often, families who most need to find an alternative to public school don’t have access to such alternatives.  Full-time working parents may believe that homeschooling is unfeasible, and it’s only those with a comfortable income who can consider private school. Is there a way we can use the power of our community to provide the best possible learning for your kids?

While the Sandbox will rely on its members to do the work of the cooperative, no family will be turned away for inability to pay. This alone makes the endeavor different from other alternatives to public school. The Sandbox will be open and available for similar hours to public school.

So how is it possible that this learning center will survive without charging tuition?

There are a few possibilities.

The monthly membership fee will give a small amount of operating cash.

Families who can’t devote time to the working of the school, or participate in fundraising, will be able to opt for a second category of membership. For perhaps a few hundred a month, these members will help add to the co-op’s budget;

The need for constant fundraising will involve everyone in the co-op community. Students will learn that any idea they have will be considered, and any project they take on will be supported. Think of the educational opportunities that the need for fundraising will provide!

The Sandbox may offer after-school enrichment activities for public school children; parents can offer weekend workshops and activities open to the whole community for a small fee.

Have more ideas? Then you are perfect for The Sandbox!

You’re probably thinking, “This ship will sink! This plane will never fly!” But we’ve set out our obstacles as part of the fabric of the endeavor. Solving these problems will be the daily work of the Sandbox.

There’s lots of work to do. We need to create a nonprofit organization. We need to find a board of directors and establish bylaws. We need to find a space that has minimal rent and adequate facilities.  We need to raise money.

Meanwhile, let’s go back to that image of wonderful learning we started to imagine at the beginning of this post. Do you think the Sandbox would work well to create this experience for your child? Is this the learning that your children deserve?

It is time to offer our children a path to success in an environment designed to inspire and motivate kids to keep on learning -- without the damage done by high-stakes testing and standardization. It is time to try innovative, community-based ways to address the challenges of a 21st century education. We can prepare students for success in life by delivering authentic learning experiences that matter to them.

It's not going to be JUST a school. It's also activism. By showing what is possible, we will work for better education for all.

For more information, contact Lisa Cooley or join us on Facebook.