Alternative Schooling Is Leaving Mainstream America Behind
While other kids are singing along to The Wiggles in pre-school classrooms, Debra Guckenheimer is attending "Racial Justice Story Time" at the Oakland Public Library with her 4-year-old. Children file into the intimate library meeting room, cuddling in close to their parents, eyes wide and ears open as they suckle the last drops of apple juice from their juice boxes and listen to stories like A Rainbow of Friends and The Skin You Live In. The children sway back and forth with their parents singing, “I decide my gender. I decide my gender. I decide my gender and my pronouns too.” This is what alternative schooling looks like.
The woman running the show is Shayna Cureto, the founder and director of the Abundant Beginnings community education project, who believes that books can act as a catalyst for conversations around race and social justice issues. She tells me that she is always comforted by how easily children understand love, kindness and justice when we talk to them at their level about oppression.
Afterward, the mother, Guckenheimer, tells me, “As a sociologist, I see the importance of my kid understanding race and racism. Some people think race and racism are too complicated for kids to understand, but research shows that kids begin showing racial bias at very young ages." She loves the work of Abundant Beginnings for finding a way to explain racism in an age-appropriate way, and is one of many mothers who have decided to opt for an alternative education for their children that extends past what is being offered in the public school system.
As we paraded with our friends and chosen family during Trans March, my kiddo holding a sign that read 'I’m not a boy. I’m not a girl. I’m just a kid.'
These parents feel the school system is antiquated, built to mold our children into well-behaved cogs in a capitalist society. Over-crowded schools, under-compensated teachers and a continuous beating down on our children’s individuality have left many parents fleeing from the school system to essentially build the world they want to see for themselves and their children.
I am also one such parent.
“What school does your child go to?”
It wasn’t the first time that someone had asked this of me and it wouldn’t be the last. My kiddo and I looked at each other. “I don’t really do school” my 3-year-old said. While most of our friends had enrolled their kids in preschool programs, we had opted to spend as much time as possible together — learning together, exploring the world together, learning from one another.
We opted out of school and instead made our way to Drag Queen Story Hour, where we talked about gender expression. We marched and danced through the streets of San Francisco, a billowing pink, white and blue pride flag waving in the wind as we paraded with our friends and chosen family during Trans March, my kiddo holding a sign that read “I’m not a boy. I’m not a girl. I’m just a kid.”
We looked around and we discovered we weren’t the only ones that were wanting another type of education for our children. An education that valued and respected our children and our community. We discovered multiple organizations, movements, and regular events that catered to providing educational experiences for children to learn, grow, and become the change we hope to see in the world.
Cara Kelsey and Nancy Armstrong of the Bay Area organization Peace Outloud shared with me their motivation for starting their radical camps and after-school programs for kids 3 years old into their tweens, “We as parents couldn’t afford music and art classes and gymnastics camps for our kids," Armstrong tells me. "We wanted access to high-quality education not just for us but for those around us in our communities.”
Social justice is a key component of the sliding-scale programming offered at Peace Outloud, whose team strives to create a world liberated from oppression in all its shapes.
Armstrong explains, “Our team is composed of black, brown, poor, and queer people. Some of us have had the experience of having to choose between food or a music class for their child.”
Armstrong addresses the economic disparities creating great financial barriers in the Bay Area, telling me, “We would like Peace Out Loud to be a place where these inequalities traversing the Bay Area are discontinued, not perpetuated. We intend to bridge these inequalities through redistribution of wealth and resources, we believe this to be the way to create the conditions for loving and resilient communities, where liberation is a reality.”
Intersectional social justice is a key underpinning of many alternative schooling models. Abundant Beginnings' approach is rooted in queer and feminist theory, which we see put into practice at their Forest Freedom School. Their school program for 2- to 6-year-olds draws inspiration from Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and Black Land Liberation movements. The program’s outdoor laboratory allows students to connect with their senses, their body, and an awareness of their environment.
The origin of the forest-school movement is rooted in Sweden. The first Swedish forest school was founded in 1985 and today there are nearly 200. Part of the method centers of allowing nature to provide some of the help in children's development. They learn to crawl, jump, balance and climb on fallen trees and mossy rocks. This is what an ideal playground consists of in a Forest School. Importance is placed on the feeling of connection and unity that children experience as they listen to fairy tales under a tree and sharing a snack. And while every little beetle and pill bug can be a learning conversation for a curious child, Abundant Beginnings Forest School goes deeper.
This Forest Freedom School engages children in education that centers around social and environmental justice movements. In fact, they encourage them to notice and challenge oppressive systems. Forest Freedom School believes that it’s their responsibility and their opportunity as educators and families to engage in dialogue in a developmentally-appropriate way with their students about how our world is unfair and how we can use our power to create a better one.
Many of the radical programs that I have come across honor a connection to our planet, and see a link between environmental oppression and social justice.
When I was 14 years old, after my freshman year, I told my parents I was ‘rising out’ of high school.
Tony Deis co-founder of Trackers PDX shared with me his inspiration for starting Trackers, a program that includes a forest school, summer camps, and after-school programming for all ages, “I never really felt right about the conventional education system. I was a good student but the scope of conventional schooling felt limited. So when I was 14 years old, after my freshman year, I told my parents I was ‘rising out’ of high school.”
Deis explains that, inspired by the work of Henry David Thoreau, “I decided nature was going to be my classroom. I became obsessed with ‘wilderness living’ skills. I wanted nature to teach me directly with nothing in between. Not four walls of a classroom.”
At the time, he couldn't find answers, or alternative options, but “I firmly believed there was something deeper,” Deis says.
“When you gather, forage, and craft what you need to live from the land, you start to experience it as a member of your own village, and even family. You feel it intrinsically — it’s raw. Children naturally gravitate to such experiences.”
A small child lights a match as the teacher gives words of encouragement, and the twigs set ablaze with a small flame.
Any day at Trackers can look dramatically different to the one before. Kids might spend the day working in the learning garden harvesting beans, basil, herbs and tomatoes for their afternoon farmer's market, as they learn a deeper meaning of permaculture. Or the children might find themselves deep in the nature preserve across the road from their headquarters.
Amongst the trees the children gather small twigs and carefully operate their hand saws, cutting small branches and gathering them to build a fire with their teacher. A small child lights a match as the teacher gives words of encouragement, and the twigs set ablaze with a small flame. The child’s eyes are wide with wonder as the teacher and the child blow on the flame and watch it grow.
Jessica Arnold, a Berkeley parent whose son Angus, 7, has attended programs through Trackers, tells me that her friend describes Trackers as "Burning Man meets renaissance faire meets scouting." Arnold says of her son Angus’s experience at Trackers, “I love that he gets to combine his imagination and fantasy life with meaningful time in the outdoors. I think the focus on survival skills builds independence and confidence.”
The woods, it turns out, are crowded with parents seeking another way for their kids. Anna Sharratt, founder of Free Forest School launched the first Free Forest School in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in April of 2015. She was seeking a means to get her own kids into nature, in community with other kids and families, and, like many parents, was disappointed to find how inaccessible existing programs were due to expense.
Sharratt believes the model is replicable. “I moved a few times — first to Austin and then to my hometown of Minneapolis and I started a new Free Forest School group in each place, leaving volunteer leaders in charge of each group as I moved on," she says. In the time since, all three have grown quickly and now serve thousands of families. Sharratt says that more than 60 groups have launched in North America in the past two years.
Critics of alternative schooling have argued that the parents who "opt out" for their children in search of something better leave the public system in worse shape. Following a recent schools forum, a Brooklyn blogger, pen-name "Clarkson Flatbed," wrote on his blog, "From the git-go we parents who are seeking outsider education are poised to separate our children to some degree from their peers. We self-styled free-spirits, rebels and renegades think of ourselves as somehow different, deserving of special treatment." He argued that even those who believe they are creating utopic patches of integrated, diverse, racially aware children are making a complete systems overhaul more impossible and furthering segregation: "We could, ostensibly, just go to our local school and work with others. But we don't. We... don't."
To that, proponents of alternative schools, like Lynne Rigby, argues that the public schools model — and yes, the testing — is broken, writing in a blog post reproduced by the Washington Post, “Today’s public school atmosphere is all about accountability and not about the actual needs of the child. Not everything in education can be quantified; we are dealing with little humans who come into that classroom everyday with different backgrounds. Teacher pay is being affected by those factors, factors that they cannot control. That is nonsense.”
My little one started sight-reading at 2 years old and we learned the alphabet by identifying the letters on the subway trains and writing love notes to each other in the sand with sticks.
This was our school. The world was our classroom. We would conduct science experiments in the park and on UC Berkeley’s big wooded campus. We would curl up with a picnic lunch and read books like A is for Activist, A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy and Rad American Women while watching squirrels scurry up trees and finding pill bugs in the soil.
Long into the afternoon we would draw pictures with sidewalk chalk throughout the city and find trees to climb and logs to balance on.
When my child turned 5 years old, we wondered what we should do. Inspired by these powerful individuals stepping out of traditional education in an effort to radicalize education and honor and celebrate the way in which children innately explore the world, I decided to jump full-on into launching a cooperative community-based un-school program.
I sat down with my child and together we dreamed up the program that we wished to see in the world. A program that celebrates and honors the individual while building community and exploring the arts, nature and social justice. My child named the program WILD and so far the experience has absolutely lived up to its name.
It might not be the easiest path, but there is no substitute for seeing the exhausted smile on my 6-year-old’s face after a day of creating, building and exploring the world in a way that is honest and authentic to the person that she is.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.