The School of Your Dreams

When three families were unhappy with options for their kids' education, they each started their own school. Learn what it takes.
The School of Your Dreams

My son Zachary's first school was the kind of place I'd envisioned for him: a progressive Jewish school with dynamic teachers and open classrooms with hands-on materials. But it was no coincidence. My husband, Moshe, and I are among the five founding families.

All of us started throwing around the idea that turned into the Luria Academy of Brooklyn when Zachary, now 6, was a baby. As out-there as it seemed -- not one of us had a background in education or, for that matter, the spare time necessary to work on such an undertaking -- we felt compelled. Our informal brainstorming sessions soon turned into official meetings, with notes, data, and marked-up drafts of our mission statement. Six months later, in 2007, we opened with six kids and one teacher in a rented condo-turned-classroom. Now the pre-K to grade 6 enrollment is up to 100 students, and the school has moved to a space big enough for six classrooms. Unfortunately, because of Moshe's job, we had to move last year too, and Zachary no longer goes to Luria.

But I can attest that between navigating building-department red tape to get the space approved, fund-raising so that we could make payroll, or running to Costco for toilet paper, launching a school is a tremendous, never-ending job. That said, all over the country, parents are rallying to fulfill their vision for their kids' education -- and, in turn, changing their communities. These three examples will inspire you.

BULLIS CHARTER SCHOOL

Los Altos, California

Backstory In 2002, when Stacey Walter's oldest son, Alex, was in kindergarten, she learned that his school would be closing that June because of budget cuts. "Our family had chosen our semirural neighborhood in the hopes that the school would be our way of creating community," says the mom of three. Now Alex would be starting all over in a new school -- in a different town. Walter, who has a master's degree in education, quickly linked with other similarly disgruntled families who were all determined to come up with a solution. "We started out on a mission to replace our school but soon realized we could create an entirely new school, one that was better than the one we'd lost," she says. "Our goal was to become something more than a traditional one-size-fits-all public school. We wanted a place with an integrated curriculum that ensured children could apply what they'd learned in real-world environments and where there would be many opportunities (through electives like robotics and poetry) for students to pursue their individual passions." Of course, that was an endeavor that would take more than a few months. By the time September rolled around, they still weren't ready to open, so Alex ended up at another public school. However, a year later, Alex began second grade at the brand-new Bullis Charter School (BCS). Like public schools, charters receive funding from the state, and Bullis's start-up costs were covered by a state grant, local foundations, and private donors.

Mission The goal at BCS is to give students a global perspective. Kids start taking Mandarin in kindergarten, and there's a big focus on other cultures. Educators also strive to tailor the whole curriculum to the level of each student. "There are those who need more of a challenge or more help, and we find ways to deliver it," says Ken Moore, another founding parent and dad of Alexander, 15, a former Bullis student, and David, 13, who still attends now that the school goes through the eighth grade. To that end, BCS students, with the help of their teachers and parents, come up with academic and personal goals that go above and beyond state standards. For example, when Walter's daughter Kate, now 11, was in third grade, she decided that instead of simply learning to divide one-digit numbers, she was going to conquer more complex division problems (and she did). Also key to the Bullis philosophy is its well-rounded approach that links different classes. For instance, kids who are learning about ancient history would be exploring ancient technologies (think Roman cranes and aqueducts) in the science and engineering lab, while in homeroom they'd be required to choose a particular area of interest (Greek tools or Roman costumes, for example) and spend weeks putting together a museum exhibit. The project would culminate with Museum Night, during which they would provide guided tours of their exhibits to the community.

Then and Now BCS opened its doors in temporary buildings -- in the parking lot of one of their town's other schools. Today, the school is still on the same campus, but it now has portables to accommodate a student body that has grown to 455. While it might not fit anyone's idea of a quaint neighborhood school, "What's happening in the classrooms is far more important than what those classrooms look like," Walter says. The principal also refuses to teach to the tests and the student body is selected entirely by lottery, yet Bullis consistently places in the top 1 percent of all schools in the state and is its highest-performing charter school. No surprise then that Bullis has more than 500 kids on its waiting list.

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