Profile: Willow Wind Community Learning Center

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § Leave a comment

From Ashland, Oregon, a school for and by homeschool families, where learning stays in the hands of its most important stakeholders: the children.

Place: Ashland, OR. Pop 21,000. Mostly White university town, known for a world class Shakespeare Festival.

History:  School officially opened in 2005, growing out of a home-schooler resource center that opened in the late 1990’s.

The Skinny: It’s all about student and family ownership for the 200 K-8th graders at Willow Wind. Started by homeschooling families who did not want to relinquish total control to the “experts,” students work with their families to tailor their own classes and set their own schedules. Much of the staff is part time, and there’s no special education, which keeps costs low.

What Matters: Children must own their learning.

More info: http://www.ashland.k12.or.us

NOTE: A different version of this narrative by Seth Biderman was first published in the Santa Fe Reporter as “The Home School” on July 4, 2012.

I visited the Willow Wind Community Learning Center on a snowy morning in January, 2012, on the recommendation of Aaron Stern from the Academy for the Love of Learning. At the time, Aaron was interested in the possibility of parents taking a more active role in creating new forms of learning, and he’d heard that Ashland had an “entire district” set up for and by home schoolers.

This wasn’t quite true. Though homeschooling is very popular in Oregon (part religious fundamentalists, part off-the-grid radicals), Willow Wind was actually just one school. Not that it looked like a school: Save a handsome sign and bright playground equipment by the parking lot, it seemed more like a retired dairy farm than a school, housed in a yellow two-story farmhouse beside the oldest barn in the Rogue Valley, and backstaged by low mountains with trains coming round.

Director Debbie Schaeffer Pew, a down-to-earth, sharply intelligent woman, toured me through the classrooms, neatly converted from bedrooms and parlors, with white boards tacked to fireplace hearths. Outside, the barn had been refurbished into a handsome meeting and performance space, and to accommodate their growing population—the center now has over 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.”

“Even the first graders?”

She nodded, and then to help me understand how—and why—a school lets six-year-olds decide their own classes, she gave some context. Turns out 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 will take, and even—through lively town hall meetings—which electives the center will offer.

“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.

“By themselves?”

“It’s their education,” she said. “They know where they’re going.”

Seth Biderman  | Based on January 2012 visit
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