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.
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.
Starting a School for Kids With Autism
THE VISTA SCHOOL
Backstory In 1996, Mike Jarman and his wife, Deirdre, began thinking about how they were going to educate their 2-year-old twins, Sean and Patrick, when the boys were diagnosed with autism. It was obvious that they were miles behind their typically developing peers, but back then, before awareness had been raised about the effectiveness of intense early intervention, the local protocol was to give each child just an hour a week of play therapy. "It quickly became clear to Deirdre and me that the boys' delays were severe, and that one hour was wholly inadequate," says Mike. The couple, who also have two other children, knew they had to do something on their own if their boys were ever going to reach their potential. They learned about a type of therapy used to treat children with autism called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which teaches skills by breaking them down into small components. It resonated with them, but it wasn't offered by their local public agencies. So the Jarmans hired their own therapists, and soon both kids were getting 40 hours of ABA-based treatments a week. The results were quick and dramatic. "After six months, Patrick, who at first wasn't even able to recognize his name, was doing everything you asked him to do," says Mike. "And Sean was talking for the first time," In less than four years, Sean was able to start first grade at a mainstream school. Patrick wasn't, and none of the local public schools seemed like the right fit, so the Jarmans began the process to start their own school that serves kids from ages 3 to 21. They rounded up local parents of kids with autism -- as well as a group of experts that included a child psychiatrist, an accountant who understood medical billing, a litigator, an educator, and an autism activist -- to help. That first year, unable to get their hands on the public funding needed to make their plan a reality, two board members each took out a second mortgage on their home, allowing the school (which at that time had just four students) to open. Since then, the state has provided them with the funding they needed to keep going.
Mission The Jarmans are striving to bring the best autism treatment to children who need it, even though the price tag is beyond the reach of their families. Parents currently don't pay for tuition. Since Vista is considered both a school and a licensed medical facility, tuition for the school portion of the program comes from local or federal funds, while the medical services (such as board-certified behavior analysts who work alongside the teachers and draw up a behavior plan for each child that helps him stay on task throughout the day) are paid for by Medicaid or the kids' private health insurance.
Then and Now In February 2002, Vista opened its doors in a small converted space in an office building. Today, the student body has grown to 81 kids who travel from neighboring counties, and the school occupies a four-building campus. So far, half a dozen Vista students have made such large gains that they've eventually been able to transfer to mainstream schools. "Given the fact that we only get the most seriously affected kids from the school districts -- the kids they don't think they can help -- graduations are always a huge celebration," says Mike.
Planning a Private School for Low-Income Families
THE OAKS ACADEMY
Backstory Joanna Taft and her husband, Bill, had lofty goals when they moved into the King Park section of Indianapolis with their 3-month-old daughter, Rebekah, in 1991. "Bill's field is urban revitalization, and he wanted to practice what he preached. So we bought in a bombed-out area. We wanted to help restore it and make it healthy again," says Joanna. Not an easy task: The neighborhood was one-third vacant at the time and had the highest crime rate in the city. Thirteen cars were stolen right after they settled in. "I was scared to leave my porch to deliver the neighborhood newsletter we wrote," she recalls. They ultimately became more comfortable there, but not enough to send Rebekah to the local public school when she was ready for kindergarten. It just seemed too run-down and dangerous. After trying a private school in the suburbs, they decided to homeschool her. It was then that Joanna began attending meetings in the basement of a local church; the meetings were organized by middle-class families who, like her own, had moved in with the intention of improving the area. Everyone thought a faith-based school might be the answer.
After another mother, Sue Pankratz, heard about a third-grader in the neighborhood who couldn't read, she proposed starting a school that would serve the children from local low-income households too. Joanna began researching different educational models. Soon she hit upon something that sounded just right: a challenging curriculum, in which kids read the classics and learn Latin. While kids wouldn't formally learn about religion, they would examine faith-inspired racial reconciliation and social justice.
Mission The Oaks Academy is a private school -- serving children in pre-K through eighth grade -- that seeks to level the playing field by teaching a rigorous curriculum steeped in the cultures of ancient Africa, Greece, and Rome to a student body that is 50 percent low-income and racially balanced. Part of what makes this possible is the high level of adult attention students receive both in and out of school. Classes are small and heavily staffed (one teacher for every nine students), and the single criterion for admission is that there must be one adult committed to that child's success. "We don't require an academic or a behavioral history," says Andrew Hart, the head of school and the father of two Oaks students. "We just need a committed adult who will support the child's growth and learning, be it a parent, a grandparent, or anyone involved in that child's life."
Then and Now In the fall of 1998, The Oaks Academy opened with 53 students from pre-K to fourth grade in an abandoned school that the founding families renovated. Since then, the student body has grown to 390 children, and in September 2012 a new campus was opened to serve another neglected neighborhood. Initially, it was a real challenge to come up with the money necessary to support a school in which 75 percent of the students require financial assistance (per-student cost is $8,650). Charitable contributions from individuals and businesses have provided valuable opportunities for more people to be involved in the school. "Time after time the community stepped up to provide what we needed at just the right moment," says Hart. "One week we were struggling to make payroll, and then someone from the neighborhood donated the exact amount we needed. And when we were trying to figure out how to build a playground, we got a call from someone who had a grant to put a park in the neighborhood -- but no space to do it."
Thanks to the school, the neighborhood has been revitalized. Once called Dodge City because residents were literally dodging bullets on a regular basis, the area is now among the most sought-after downtown neighborhoods in Indianapolis. "The city was able to attract a redevelopment grant for the neighborhood, and the school was one of the things that helped make that happen," Joanna says. "Many families are moving in to be near the school." Its good reputation is well deserved: Of the nine classes of eighth-graders who have graduated, almost 100 percent have gone on to college.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.