Maine Women Magazine recently chose to highlight School Around Us in their Education Issue! Below is the article written by Anna E Jordan.
A learning community built on trust
Back in 1970, Stacey and Marylyn Wentworth were part of a group of founding families who wanted to create a progressive educational community built on philosopher John Dewey’s principles of practical and experiential learning. Together they created the School Around Us in Arundel, with a focus on educating a person’s “intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials.” School Around Us valued “both achievements and road blocks, with a focus on both what went well and what didn’t go as planned.”
Forty-eight years later, educator Amy Wentworth—Stacey and Marylyn’s daughter—is still a member of the School Around Us learning community, along with two other teachers, an assistant, 27 students, their parents and a board of directors. The group knows that creating a community of holistic learners is hard work, even when that learning looks like play.
The school is run by the democratic process of consent—a format that is a step away from consensus. This allows the four adult committees that meet monthly—facilities, education, development and administration—to act independently. As the members of the community have changed, so have some decisions. For example, at one point in the school’s history, parents thought homework was a good idea, while the current parent group has decided against it.
“Parents coming in, a lot of us come from a traditional public school setting, so we’re learning and sort of unschooling ourselves in this process,” says Laura Laprise, the administrative assistant at School Around Us, whose two children attended the school. “It’s helpful that the teachers are there holding up holistic education and continually sharing that with us.”
Parents and students can find it difficult to put the school community before personal needs and concerns. The youngest children may not be developmentally ready to understand other people’s perspectives. Still, each child, from kindergarten through eighth grade, has an equal voice in the community.
Students use the same democratic consent model to decide their thematic and project-based studies, which they spend a few hours each day working on. Changing the course study to meet the needs of students is known as “emergent curriculum.” Sometimes those decisions look like a no-holds-barred student brainstorm. Other times, students are given leading questions or a category such as earth sciences around which to problem solve. When asked, “What’s important to you, what do you think are problems in the world?” student concerns regarding homelessness prompted a unit that included a chilly overnight without shelter.
“Teachers pretty much are given the autonomy to follow the kids’ interest and create classes that match the kids that are in the school,” says Wentworth. “The parents trust that we’re going to fulfill our ‘eight basic skills’ and bring in our philosophy of holistic education in whatever we do.”
The eight basic skills are posted in every room of the school: body knowledge, citizenship, communication, creative arts, environmental harmony, logical thinking, practical life skills and self-knowledge. Skills integration happens in the thematic studies the children help define, it happens in their play in and out of doors and it happens in the more traditional reading and math classes, which also have room to be shaped by student imagination and interest.
Further structure comes from each student’s annual academic, social and personal goals. At the end of each them, “shares” allow each student to present their learning and progress to the whole school community.
“It’s definitely hard for parents to build trust that play or processing is as important as learning to read,” says Wentworth. “So much research is coming out around the importance of play. Around the importance of giving kids time to deal with conflict on their own and get messy and that that develops the creative mind and helps problem solving. It’s nice that there’s research out there that’s backing up what we’ve been doing for so long.”
The school’s asymmetrical wooden building has areas for the younger group (K–2), the middle group (grades 3–5), and the older group (grades 6–8), but students are just as likely to flow from place to place and learn during extended “breaks” outdoors. Fluid scheduling allows students to get deeply involved in learning and play without imposing rigid transitions.
The 9–1 student-teacher ratio is key to the three teacher’s deep knowledge of each and every student. Teachers share their observations about student growth with parents regularly in narrative form without test or grades. “Even though Amy focuses on the younger group,” Laprise says, “she is just as in-tune with the children in the middle and the older groups and their needs and their own personal goals. And I really appreciate that.”
Each eighth-grader at School Around Us develops a year-long culminating project that includes a portfolio from each year of their schooling, answers to 10 reflective questions and a service piece that reflects who they are as a person and relates to their interests. Many students use their final project to leave a gift to the school—whether that’s solar panels purchased with a grant they applied for, a quiet room for students designed with the help of an architect, an herb garden or a now-mature, sweet-smelling rose bush and shade-giving apple tree.
While some School Around Us graduates go on to the New School (a progressive high school for which Marylyn Wentworth was also a founding member) others choose private school or homeschooling or opt for a public school for a new experience or to pursue athletics. “One thing that we work really hard on is to have the kids know themselves and know what their needs are,” says Wentworth. “Because of that work, kids make choices that are pretty good matches.”
Come and join us for live music, delicious food, and over 60 beautifully curated artisans on the Kennebunkport Village Green. From 9 AM - 4 PM Saturday and Sunday in beautiful Kennebunkport, Maine we'll be showcasing some of New England's most beautiful and original crafters. We take great pride in the success of this highly anticipated show. Please come out and join us, tell your friends, and be sure to say hello!
Join us to celebrate Marylyn Wentworth's retirement and amazing career! Marylyn was one of the original founders of School Around Us in 1970. Gather around the fire and open mic to share music, laughter, and stories all in Marylyn's honor. Suggested donation of $10.00 per person.
We are making a community quilt in her honor. If you would like to create a 10"x10" quilt square for this memory keepsake please bring it to the celebration or mail to The New School 38 York Street Kennebunk, ME 04043 by June 20th.
We recently received some vintage School Around Us promotional materials from a former student and teacher! While a lot has changed since 1970 when SAU first “...grew from the informal discussions of a group of parents who felt the need for a small school which was flexible, ungraded, creative and free to put into practice the exciting ideas now developing or in use in education…”, it is refreshing to see how we have remained true to our mission and goals. A brochure advertising openings for the 1970-71 school year states, “We hope the School Around Us will be a place of sharing, of openness and honesty, of excitement and fun, of compassion and love, and deep involvement with people and the life around us."
One of our School Around Us graduates, Payce, is now a senior at The New School and will be making his directorial debut this weekend. Two other former SAU students, Tigerlily and Penelope are also starring in this show. Please come support the TNS Theater Program!
Friday, May 11 @7:30pm and Saturday, May 12 @1pm. Tickets can be reserved by calling 985-3745 or purchased at the door. $10 for adults & $5 for children under 12.
Play season is upon us, one of our favorite times of the year! School Around Us students and teachers are immersed in a theater unit for 6 weeks every spring. Children actively gain skills in literacy, collaboration, confidence, self-esteem, creative expression, time management, communication, commitment, and so much more!
Please visit sauproductions.brownpapertickets.com for more details and to make your reservation for the School Around Us Production of Mother Goose is Eaten by Werewolves.
We have three performances planned April 12-14. Our venue for the shows this year is at The New School located at 38 York Street Route 1 in Kennebunk.
Mother Goose is Eaten by Werewolves is written by Steph DeFerie and produced by special arrangement with Playscripts, Inc.
Chris Sullivan comes to The School Around Us with 20 years of experience in education. He has enjoyed teaching several different grade levels from pre-school through college and currently serves as the Director of Costa Verde International School in Sayulita, Mexico- a multicultural, ecological school similar to SAU in educational philosophy and vision.
Chris connects with students meaningfully by implementing engaging and creative programs to best meet the needs of all learners. With a passion for hiking, cycling, kayaking and outdoor experiential learning, Chris is excited to join the School Around Us community this summer with his wife Meghan and two young sons, Ogden & Eller.
Please feel free to contact Chris directly to discuss and help shape our growing summer program. He is eager to learn how best to develop and enrich the program for your kids. His email address is: email@example.com
On Wednesday November 8 our community came together in solidarity with the homeless. A candlelight vigil was held to remember people without homes who have lost their lives this year and to send hopeful wishes and energy to those in our community who are struggling without enough food and shelter. Guests from the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland and the York County Shelter in Alfred spoke to the group of parents and students around the fire. Songs and stories were shared and the UN Declaration of Human Rights Article 25 was read to the group. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, necessary social services, the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Our group then sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give Us Peace) and placed candles in the school sandbox where they burned through the night.
After the vigil our three teachers, and any willing and able students, chose to sleep outdoors to experience one night without shelter. As part of an annual nationwide SLEEP OUT movement, initiated by the National Coalition for the Homeless, our group set forth to gain understanding through solidarity with homeless people. By giving up one night of comfort and privilege they hoped to raise awareness and compassion for unsheltered people. Even though the temperatures were expected to be in the 20s and very uncomfortable, a group of 10 students from ages 7-14 and their three teachers braved the weather to have this experience. The group bundled up, laid out large pieces of cardboard as insulation, slipped into their sleeping bags and endured the night with amazing resilience! Waking up in the morning to find ice on the outside of their sleeping bags was completely surprising.
As students reflected the next day they were obviously impacted by the experience. One student remarked that even though he was prepared and had many layers of clothing, hats and gloves, a sleeping bag and warm things, he was still cold. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to spend the night outdoors being less prepared. Students made stars from the cardboard pieces they slept on and used them to reflect in words and images about their experience. One person wrote “Everyone should have the right to have their basic needs met. Food, shelter, and healthcare should not be negotiable” Stars were hung from the ceiling of the school as a reminder of this impactful event.
As the rest of the students arrived Thursday morning they joined several giving back activities. Bubbling pots of soup were on the stove all day and later donated to the Preble Street Shelter. Fleece blankets were made as well as small house magnets to be sold to raise money for the homeless cause. Students also collected socks and gloves during this theme which were donated to both the Preble Street and York County Shelters.
Events such as this are powerful ways to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty and to bridge the gap between the haves and have nots. Our students have gained understanding, compassion, and empathy through the experience of learning about this topic. We hope the memory of this theme will stay with them as they grow into adulthood and become our future leaders and citizens.
Monday November 20 4:30-5:30 PM
Join us on Monday, November 20 from 4:30-5:30 and find out why the School Around Us is quickly becoming the Holistic school of choice for families from Portland to Limerick. Get a first hand look at our Marine Biology Unit (picked by our very own students) and their awesome creations! Ask questions about enrollment and our emergent curriculum.