By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Teri Briggs with students
Who’s really faster — the tortoise or the hare?
Students answer this age-old question by lining up their school’s resident rabbit and tortoise inside an enclosure. After they yell “Go!” the rabbit darts into the bushes and trembles nervously while the tortoise strolls leisurely across the finish line to a round of applause.
Next, students join their individual “tribes” consisting of students from different grade levels in the K-6 school. Sitting cross-legged in circles, they share snacks and “get to know each other better as people,” explains a student. The program is designed to encourage self-esteem and cooperative problem-solving, and give children a “voice” in the classroom.
After snacks, students enter their multiage classrooms, sitting on the floor or on couches, working at their own pace in math and English in a noncompetitive setting. Some of the students — and even a teacher — wear tie-dye. Students have names like Skye, Canyon and Aurora.
Has this writer gone back in time to the 1960s?
No. Welcome to the Goleta Family School, an alternative school where there are no letter grades, students and parents go to school, learning is fun, and there’s a waiting list a mile long.
“This isn’t for families who want a traditional desk and row classroom,” explains Allison Moehlis, whose daughters Teagan and Kaia attend the school. “There aren’t any desks.”
Near Santa Barbara, the school has just three teachers (United Teaching Professionals/Goleta) and approximately 60 students. The “school within a school” is on a larger campus, but operates independently. Teachers teach according to state standards, but choose their own curriculum. Students enjoy art, music and field trips. Social curriculum — including mutual respect, attentive listening and appreciation — is woven into academics. Classrooms have multiple grades, but students are not taught by grade level, which is the norm in most combination classes. Instead, grouping is by ability and fluctuates.
“I like it a lot,” says fifth-grader Zenzele Yossem-Guy. “Nobody pressures me. If I don’t know long division, they don’t say, ‘You need to learn it by tomorrow.’ I can learn at my own pace.”
Fourth-grader Aurora Steketee likes the school because bullies are not a problem, unlike another school she attended. She attributes this to the “tribes” program, where all ages interact.
“Here, you can play with fifth-graders,” she explains. “At other schools, fifth-graders will say, ‘You can’t play with me because you’re in fourth grade.’”
Adrienne Demboski says enrolling her children was one of the best decisions she has made as a parent. Last year, her son attended a different campus, and he often wanted to skip school.
“He needed a different environment and a lot of flexibility,” she says. “This place has done an amazing job of tapping into his curiosity and his desire to learn through self-discovery and his own interests.”
A hippy school?
“It’s not,” says Teri Briggs, who teaches a 4-5-6 class. “At one point it probably was, but our parents are university professors, engineers and people with graduate degrees. They are idealistic and want to participate in their children’s education.”
Participation is a requirement; parents must be willing to volunteer at least two hours per week and serve on committees. They may assist in the classroom or teach entire lessons in their area of expertise, such as artwork with textiles or math.
“Most kids enjoy having parents in the classroom,” says Natasha Heinrich, who teaches a second- and third-grade class. “It helps foster a connection between school and home. Kids have a really strong sense of everyone working together to make things happen. It really is a family atmosphere.”
No problem, says Briggs, a 19-year veteran. At the year’s end, teachers write a report on every student’s development, explaining how they progressed through the school year academically and socially.
“This way, parents know where a child is at,” says Briggs. “It’s a lot of work. This takes time and provides a complete picture.”
The school reflects the direction most schools are moving in under Common Core, says Heinrich, and is similar to how schools operated before NCLB.
“Students aren’t just doing worksheets. They work in groups, learn confidence and become critical thinkers.”
By graduation, most students are where they should be academically — and enthusiastic about learning. Students tend to do well when they move to middle school, although it’s an adjustment.
“Overall, we have a pretty cool program,” says K-1 teacher Karen Field. “You can respond to students’ interests and needs in a more spontaneous way. You have a bit more freedom to be creative. I’m grateful to teach here.”