In the banter about how to improve education, you don't hear much about homeschooling. Though it's on the rise nationally, with three support groups in Santa Fe (including the Santa Fe Homeschool Association, with over 200 families), home schooling is often dismissed as a fringe practice of the religious and the radical, an economic impossibility, a sure path to geekdom for the kids. Common wisdom holds that parents should help with homework and Halloween fairs, but schooling in the post-industrial age is a high-stakes, complex affair, best left to officials and pedagogues.
Not so in Ashland, Ore., a woodsy university town of 21,000. Well-known is its 9-month Shakespeare festival. Not so well-known, at least not yet, is its Willow Wind Community Learning Center, a school by and for homeschoolers—and a fascinating example of how families can take back their learning without staying home.
I visited Willow Wind earlier this year, as part of my ongoing research with the Academy for the Love of Learning. Run out of a two-story yellow farmhouse beside the oldest barn in the Rogue Valley, Willow Wind is backstaged by low mountains with trains coming 'round. Save a handsome sign and bright playground equipment, it seems more like a retired dairy farm than a school.
Director Debbie Schaeffer Pew toured me through the classrooms, neatly converted from bedrooms and parlors, with whiteboards tacked to fireplace hearths. Outside, the barn had been refurbished into a handsome meeting and performance space, and to accommodate its growing population—the center now has more than 200 K-8th-graders—a few portable buildings had been installed.
In every room we visited, the children seemed deeply engaged, so I asked Schaeffer Pew what sort of curriculum they were using. She spoke about themes and interdisciplinary units—good progressive stuff—but the secret to the high engagement turned out to be elsewhere:
"They're interested in their classes," she said, "because they chose the classes themselves."
Oregon has one of the nation's most liberal homeschooling laws, and one of its highest homeschooling populations. In 1995, when Schaeffer Pew and her family—homeschoolers themselves—moved to Ashland, they found an active group of homeschooling families experimenting with ways to offer occasional shared learning experiences for their kids. Since she'd been a classroom teacher, Schaeffer Pew volunteered to coordinate the effort. With support from the local school district, they set up a smattering of sign-up classes and workshops.
The classes were a hit, so popular that in 2005, the families and Schaeffer Pew decided to try out a full-time school. After some wrangling over design and negotiating with the district, they came up with Willow Wind, a public "parent-as-partner" learning center where children and their parents decide how many hours a week to attend (between 21 and 30), which courses they take, and even—through lively town hall meetings—which electives the center offers.
"They call us 'a college for kids,'" Schaeffer Pew said. "Children have real choice and autonomy here, and with their parents are in charge of their own learning. They get the message that their time is valuable, not to be wasted in classes they don't like or covering material they already know."
At the beginning of the year, every Willow Wind student and his or her parents meets with a staff member to set up a customized schedule, making real decisions about the child's school experience. The process is cumbersome, but it ensures parents and kids will be engaged, and also addresses the hot-button issue of teacher accountability: "If no one finds value in a teacher, no one signs up for that class," Schaeffer Pew explained. "And we find a different teacher."
As our conversation ended, a group of younger children came out of a classroom and scattered in various directions. No teacher was with them. Schaeffer Pew explained they were changing classes.
“It’s their education,” she said. “They know where they’re going.”
Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what “school” could someday be in Santa Fe. Biderman is a graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe teacher and administrator.