What’s new in Austin’s alternative education community?

Photo by  Ian Schneider  on  Unsplash

Here’s a brief roundup of some of the latest developments in the local alt ed scene as the 20192020 school year gets underway. Kudos to all the educators who have been working hard all summer to better serve each member of their learning communities.


Apple Blossom Center for Discovery and Gantry Academy have joined forces in Leander to offer a number of options to serve students in the community. They are launching homeschool enrichment days (Wednesday afternoons and Friday all day) with activities including Sportsball athletics, cooking, art, music, STEAM, entrepreneurship, and more. Options range from $100 to $300 per month.

Ascent is the latest Acton Academy to launch in the Austin area. Founders Janita Lavani and Samantha Jansky are some of the most experienced Acton guides and curriculum creators anywhere. They spent the summer acquiring and beautifully renovating the campus at 5701 Cameron Road to create both the Spark Studio for ages 4–6 and the Elementary Studio for ages 7–11, where the school year begins right after Labor Day.

Clearview Sudbury School recently added a music room to its campus and a new staff member, Rose Hardesty, Clearview’s first to have graduated from a Sudbury school. This fall, Clearview will celebrate its 10th anniversary by bringing in Jim Rietmulder, the author of When Kids Rule the School and a nationally recognized expert on self-directed democratic schools, for a talk on Friday, November 15, at 6pm.

Huntington-Surrey School has moved to a new location in north-central Austin: 4700 Grover Avenue. The school has served high school students since 1971 and has now expanded its programs to work with exceptional 7th and 8th graders, either part-time or full-time.

Julia’s Garden Montessori is launching its elementary program, called Taller, based on the Scottish national Curriculum for Excellence. The school’s staff has grown this summer to include new administrative, wellness, and education specialist roles to meet the needs of all learners, from the toddler stage through 9 years of age. It is currently in the home stretch of the accreditation process with the International Council for Accrediting Relationship-based Education (ICARE).

Progress School has renovated and moved its classrooms into a larger building on the same campus to better accommodate its growing enrollment. Learners will be grouped into three rather than two multi-age classes. Progress is currently working with ICARE toward accreditation as a relationship-based education school.

New alternative education mobile app beta testing in Austin

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We’re excited to help spread the word about a unique opportunity for Austin families to help beta test Journey of Heroes, a wonderful new app for learners of all ages. Founder Tory Gattis and the Journey of Heroes team join us on the blog to explain what it’s all about, how it works, and how you and your family can get started using it and sharing your feedback to help make JoH an even more useful resource.

A new mobile app to help families discover and co-create learning adventures for kids is launching with Austin as its very first beta test city, and we’d love to get your input on how we can make the app better fit your family’s needs. The app is called “Journey of Heroes,” based on Joseph Campbell’s classic “Hero’s Journey”. We believe that students should see themselves as the protagonists of their own life stories (see graphic), especially when it comes to their lifelong education. The app is designed as a platform to help learners discover their passions and develop their own unique talents while acquiring knowledge and valuable skills, especially 21st-century skills like collaborative problem solving, creative design thinking, and entrepreneurship. And we want to enable this in a fun environment with learning adventures instead of classes, heroes instead of students, and guides instead of teachers.

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The app was inspired by Tinder and Bumble, except that instead of swiping through potential dating matches, we wanted parents to be able to swipe through potential learning experiences for their children whenever they have a few minutes of downtime with their phone. We also wanted to make it as easy as possible for families to connect with other families seeking similar learning experiences for their children.

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As you can see in this screenshot, the app functions as a deck of cards, allowing parents to swipe through different existing adventures or potential ideas for new ones, looking for co-creators. Using the app, you can scroll through or search for different learning adventures available in your area, save and show interest in attending your favorites (which will give you notifications about them), post ideas for learning adventures you’d like to co-create with other families, or even offer your own learning adventures for other families to join.

The app was inspired by Workspace Education in Connecticut, where a colearning community of nearly a hundred families co-create learning adventures for their children in an amazing 32k sq.ft. building that includes makerspaces, science labs, classrooms, performance spaces, and just about every other kind of learning space you can imagine in an environment that feels like a high-tech company campus. (Learn more about colearning communities at www.IACLC.org.) 

The app should be available on both the Apple and Google Android app stores by the time you read this or possibly in the very near future depending on their approvals. If you don’t see it there yet, please don’t give up—check back often!

We’re really looking forward to collaborating closely with Austin’s alternative education community to shape the app before we release it to the world. This is your chance to affect the very earliest stages of what we hope will be a transformative platform in education. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions, feedback, or thoughts on new features; we’d love to hear from you at support@JourneyOfHeroes.app. Also, if you know a good source of Austin learning adventures that should be in our app, please let us know! 

Sincerest thanks for your time, consideration, and support,
Tory, Cade, Eloragh, and the rest of the Journey of Heroes app team

Citizen of the World: Nioucha Homayoonfar’s Memoir of Childhood in Iran


Contributing writer Shelley Sperry is back with an insightful and relevant interview with children’s nonfiction author Nioucha Homayoonfar. I hope the conversation inspires you to get your hands on a copy of this beautiful memoir and share it with the young people in your lives. It’s a great conversation starter on the reality and diversity of immigrant experiences.



A while back I had the pleasure of talking with Nioucha Homayoonfar, an Iranian-American author whose memoir of her girlhood in Iran during the 1980s revolution came out earlier this year.

Nioucha’s story mirrors that of so many young people whose lives traverse two different cultures and communities, and who are caught up in larger historical forces as they also try to navigate their own evolution from childhood to young adulthood. I’m tremendously grateful for the chance to talk with Nioucha about her life and her book. Stories like hers, written specifically for young readers, provide human context for the complex events our kids learn about in school and news soundbites. I can’t recommend this dramatic, tender, and often funny memoir more highly—for kids or adults.

Here’s a slightly shortened and edited version of our talk:

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

How did you decide to write a memoir for a young audience rather than adults?

That decision evolved organically. When I started writing, the voice of a young person just came out—not the voice of an older person looking back at her life. I really liked that voice, so I stuck with it. I hadn’t thought about the age group or my audience at first. I just knew the story I wanted to write. I did some research, and at the time I was starting to write, in 2008–2009, there really wasn’t anything like this available. Now I see it as a great opportunity because I feel young people should know more about what is happening in other countries, and what it’s like to live there.

The work you do in your day job deals with international relations too, so that perspective must be very important to you.

People have always told me I’m a citizen of the world. After 9/11, the circumstances were so tragic and horrifying, and there was a new thirst for stories from other countries and other cultures to help make sense of the world. 

And that’s true of children as well as adults. Many classrooms, including the school my own kids attend, have students from dozens of different countries, and it’s phenomenal. I see that my kids and their friends want to understand how people and events are connected. 

Why did you decide to write nonfiction, rather than turning your story into a novel?

I started out writing some short stories and personal essays. I think a nonfiction author is just who I am. If you want to hear the true side of a story, take Nioucha with you, my family says. She can’t lie or hide the truth. As a reader, I also gravitate toward authors who write from their own dramas and hardships. That feels genuine and pure, so that’s what I aspire to as well.

But having said that, once I had a book contract, I did decide to take some things out. I had to realize that I wanted to remove things that might be hurtful to people I love. 

You’re very hard on yourself though, and honest about your own anger and mistakes. Did you draw on diaries for the book?

As a child, I used to keep some diaries as “someone” to talk to, or a form of therapy. I lost them years ago, but they were written in Persian, so I hope whoever found them just tossed them away. I did write more diaries after we left Iran. I still have those in a box and have not opened them yet. Those were tough years, watching my parents struggle when we first moved to the United States. I just haven’t found the strength to revisit those, but I know that I will look at them eventually because I want to draw on them for another story.

That would be a valuable story for a lot of kids right now to read. 

Yes, the issue of immigration is so important right now. It doesn’t matter when you move from one culture to another, it’s still very hard. I find the thought of my parents’ move here with two children really terrifying, now that I have two kids of my own. I think about that a lot now. Migrating is one of the hardest things people can do. We went from stability before the Iranian Revolution to suddenly feeling like the rug was pulled from underneath us in a matter of moments. I carry that with me, realizing that life can turn upside down so quickly. The Syrians are living that right now.

How did you access your memories from so long ago? You talk in minute detail about food, clothes, and music—and then in the next sentence there’s a dramatic political event.

My memories are really intense from that period because of the heightened intensity of life. One day we could be enjoying a wonderful meal with family or coffee with friends, and the next moment we could be running to hide from bomb sirens. Or the religious police could come and arrest people in front of you. There was an element of danger just renting your movies or buying some music because you had to deal with the black market. All my memories from that time are still vivid and detailed. Even now that I live in the United States, I still sometimes panic when I hear a siren. The biggest trigger for me is fireworks. It’s a beautiful thing here, symbolizing family and picnics, and joy—I really have to calm myself down when I hear them, though. 

Do you have advice for parents who want to help their kids embrace the world and be citizens of the world like you?

What I do with my kids is bring them often to the local libraries and museums with exhibits about other countries and periods of time. Of course, I love National Geographic’s line of memoirs celebrating people from other countries, which is the series my book is part of. Nawuth Keat and Martha Kendall wrote Alive in the Killing Fields about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There is also so much available for kids on video. You can find series in French and Spanish and other languages on Netflix, with subtitles.

I grew up reading novels by writers from other countries, and that really takes you outside of yourself, so I think most of all I would encourage parents and kids to search their libraries for those stories.


For more information about Nioucha and her story, check out these links:
 


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Jumping rope to help others

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David Darcy founded and currently teaches at
School on the Rise in Southwest Austin. He is also a nationally recognized expert on Waldorf and homeschool education, frequent public speaker, musician, and nature enthusiast. He joins us on the blog to share a special service project his students are involved in and to invite others to join them in supporting a great cause.


Most students love animals, movement, and helping others. These will be combined this fall when the students at School on the Rise hold their annual Jump-a-thon to raise money for a good cause.

Heifer International was chosen as the recipient of our fundraising because their program is based on “the gift that keeps giving.” Heifer works with people in need all over the world, giving them animals that produce food or fiber that can be turned into a sustainable source of income. Family members are taught how to care for the animals, and the income is used for food or other basic needs and often allows parents to send their children to school. Furthermore, Heifer requires each receiving family to give offspring from their animals to others in their village, thus growing the wealth and knowledge of the community.

 At School on the Rise, each of our students will decide which animals they want to have Heifer donate to a hungry family. They then set goals of how many times they will jump rope during the week. By getting relatives, friends, and neighbors to sponsor them for a certain amount per hundred jumps, they turn a week of jumping rope into a donation to help others.

The Jump-a-thon started in 2012 when six students raised $1,285; their goal had been to raise $720. One student that year jumped 9.000 times in the Jump-a-thon week. Since then, the amount raised each year has grown as the number of students participating has grown. Chicks, honeybees, and goats are the animals most frequently given by our students, although some have given sheep, rabbits, or even a llama or water buffalo.

The Jump-a-thon involves goal-setting, as students set challenging but achievable goals; people skills, as they talk to potential sponsors; perseverance, as they work toward those last hundred jumps each day; and follow-through, as they go back to their sponsors to collect the donations.

Most of our students can jump one hundred times in less than a minute, so jumping 2,000 times a day is a very reasonable time commitment. But if their goal is 10,000 jumps for the week, and their legs are hurting Wednesday morning, they really have to work hard to meet that goal.

I would love to have students at other schools join us or do their own Jump-a-thon. So please contact me if you'd like to learn more.

David Darcy

Announcing the Alt Ed Job Board


Almost as soon as this website went live, back in 2011, I started receiving messages from educators looking for jobs in the kinds of schools and educational programs that were featured here. Many of these inquiries came from teachers or administrators working in traditional school systems who were nearing the burnout stage and looking for a workplace where they could re-engage their creative talents, reignite their love of the learning process, and feel better supported both professionally and personally. Others were people who had attended or worked in alternative education in other regions and were interested in moving to Austin specifically to be part of a larger ecosystem of like-minded educators.

I tried my best to connect these job seekers with members of Alt Ed Austin’s network of schools and other educational programs that might have openings, but this tended to be a hit-or-miss proposition. It was time consuming, too.

Soon I also began to get requests from schools to post job openings somehow on the website. But I didn’t really have a good place or mechanism for doing so, and I wasn’t sure it fit into Alt Ed Austin’s primary mission of serving families looking for educational options. Still, I kept informally passing along information about job openings to prospective job candidates, and vice versa.

Then I received a desperate plea from a parent whose child’s beloved teacher was moving across the country for family reasons. She wrote, “We love the school. We love the teacher who is leaving. Our child and his classmates have been thriving here. But our school director and community are having a heck of a hard time finding someone who could even come close to filling her shoes. Can you help?” This parent’s message convinced me that helping fill open positions in alternative education falls squarely within Alt Ed Austin’s mission. Of course families want to know that open spots will be filled in a timely manner by great educators who are the best fits for their learning communities.

Thus was born the Alt Ed Job Board. I’m proud and excited to say that it’s been in its pilot stage for a couple of months now and is officially here to stay. Please pass the word (and link!) to anyone you know who is looking for fulfilling work in education or who has a position to fill in a learner-centered school, enrichment program, summer camp, or other education-focused organization. And to those in the midst of a search: I hope you find the perfect match.

Teri

Middle school programming: How AHB Community School’s progressive model keeps middle years students engaged in the learning process

I asked AHB Community School Executive Director Sasha Cesare to explain the unique school’s approach to middle school education. In response, she submitted this guest post, written collaboratively by staff and other community members, including insights and images gathered from AHB teachers and real, live students.


What can middle school feel like? What should middle school feel like? Sadly, in our culture, it is often the accepted default that tweens and teenagers are “difficult,” and middle school is just basically a rotten time. “Everybody gets through it. You will too,” is often the response of even the most caring and connected parents.

But what if you don’t accept that? What if you expect something more for your child in their middle years? What if you continue to expect your child to be enthusiastic about and dedicated to school, and you expect school to continue to engage, nurture, and challenge your child?

What would that look like?

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“Every morning I am happy to come to school and have fun with my best friends!”
“Always fun, not boring. Always, just fun.”

These quotes are the words of middle school students at AHB Community School, a progressive K–8 school in Central Austin that has been providing a creative and collaborative educational alternative for Austin families since 2004. In those 15 years, we have learned a few things about how to keep middle school students involved, challenged, and happy, while preparing them for the target high schools of their choice. It is not the only good model for educating young adolescents, but it’s a model worthy of study.

The AHB Community School Middle Years Program (MYP) is a four-day-per-week (with optional fifth day) program designed for students aged 11 to 14, working together in what is known internally as the “Delta” class. The MYP, built on the best of international and national standards, emphasizes intellectual challenges, interdisciplinary understandings of the world around them, and a sense of belonging and service to one’s community.

Specifically, the AHB Middle Years Program is built around five key tenets:

  1. Inquiry-based, interdisciplinary projects

  2. A student-centered curriculum

  3. A developmentally appropriate social-emotional learning (SEL) environment

  4. A community-minded, service-oriented focus

  5. Strong academics

What does that look like in the classroom?

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Here’s a week in the life, as described by the MYP teachers:

Currently, the MYP students are studying world geography as their theme, and therefore, along with map work, we have math, reading, and writing work that all relates to our world studies. Each week, students have the opportunity to explore the part of the world on which we are focused through cooking, art, theater, poetry/literature, music, architecture, politics, and/or wildlife. We are learning about the building of the Panama Canal, the endangerment of the Amazon rainforest, and mining of precious metals in Africa by researching, presenting to, and teaching one another in small groups.

In math we did some algebraic arithmetic in the African language of Hausa, which is spoken by 40–50 million people. Students had to decipher what value each Hausa word meant in numerous equations using substitution. We then got into small groups and tackled a major algebraic and logic problem where we had to create a formula for how many fields were required to feed a community in Africa when concrete numbers were not known. The overall goals were to be able to manipulate variables even when the values are not known and be able to work with them in terms of each other. Each group did an amazing job and made huge conceptual headway in terms of learning how to think algebraically.

Later, we switched gears and did a Lorax Stock Market Game project that included reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, coming up with potential rules for the Once-ler to have created a sustainable business and environment, taking the Once-ler to trial and acting out the trial complete with judges, attorneys, jury, foreman, a bailiff, the Lorax, and the Once-ler. We also discussed the concept of environmentally responsible investing and how the students could diversify their own Stock Market Game portfolios to be more diversified, including incorporating more “green” organizations into their teams’ stock holdings.

In Language Arts we are learning how to write descriptive settings that use effective figurative language and how to develop an integral setting as a “character” that drives the characterization, plot, and mood of a fictional story. We are researching real-world geographic locations as inspiration for settings and creating different types of maps to illustrate settings for these original narratives.

Throughout each week, our students apply the concepts of theme to the learning objectives and are able to exercise significant choice in their projects.

—submitted by Kirsten Coleman & Alice Elder, the MYP co-teachers
Together, they have over 15 years of experience teaching at AHB Community School.

What do the AHB middle school students have to say about this model?

About the inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary projects:

“AHB has a great way of teaching kids about how to tackle problems.” 

“The Delta teachers make understanding tough subjects a more community-centered and in-depth experience by including captivating projects into the curriculum.”

“AHB makes learning as fun as can be by doing project-based learning, which is better than sitting around doing worksheets.”

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About the student-centered curriculum:

“Students are engaged because we have choices, responsibilities.”

“The teachers will teach you according to your intellectual level, not your age/grade.”

“The students get to have a major say in upcoming projects.”

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About the developmentally appropriate SEL environment:

“We do a lot of group projects that help you interact with your peers and get better relationships with them.” 

“There is both freedom and structure.”

“We have daily recess time and get to be outside.”

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About the community-minded, service-oriented focus:

“We do Hope Food Pantry every month.”

“We do projects that are aimed at helping our community.”

“We did science fair projects that were about solving world-wide problems.”

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About the academics:

“AHB is academically flexible but also pushes the students to the point of being ready for high school.”

“AHB is very good at preparing children for high school. It meets children at their level and tries to teach them in the best way possible for that kid. I have been here seven years and I have never experienced feeling unprepared for a certain task or assignment.”

“Some [students] are better at math, some at language arts, and we really accommodate that.”

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A Different Paradigm for the Middle Years

Every stage of childhood and the coinciding parenting phase has unique challenges, but the AHB Middle Years Program challenges the assumption that school bores “big kids.” We are convinced, and see daily evidence in our classrooms, that 12- and 13-year-olds can be just as smiling, curious, and energetic as our youngest learners. They simply need a classroom and teachers that grow with them, taking on the delicate dance of both nurturing and challenging the students as needed.

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