The Birch School: A Conversation with Kate Fox

Q&A   12 February 2019
By Kate Fox, The Birch School

 

This wasn’t a path we ever anticipated taking. We never formally planned for any of this to happen. It’s just where our path took us.

Kate Fox
Co-Founder and Director

Q: What led you to designing a year-round learner-centered environment?

A: I’ve been working in informal out-of-school environments for most of my adult career. I have been the director of a summer nature day-camp for 19 years and I continue in that capacity today along with my leadership at The Birch School. Our camp program is very intentionally planned and organized—it’s definitely not childcare, it is a whole experience.

We run multiple two-week long sessions during the summer, and many years ago, it began resulting in parents coming to us saying, “You know, my kids are up and ready to go to camp before I have to come get them up myself. That never happens when they’re going to school. They’re really learning a lot without even realizing it and are talking to me about what they’re learning. I’m just so proud of how they’ve grown in the past two weeks. Why is this so different from school?”

After hearing that, we thought to ourselves, “What a good question. What are we doing here that is really different? Why are kids so freely engaging with what we’re offering? The kids are learning, growing, and happy. What would that look like in a school environment?”

We consciously started working with that question. We knew it wouldn’t look the same as a two-week summer camp, but what would it look like if we took what worked at the high level and applied it to 10 months of learning? My husband (and partner in this work) was finishing 10 years as an unsatisfied public high school history teacher. Throughout his career, we had been thinking, talking, envisioning, and exploring how school could look different. This seemed like the time to take action on our ideas. We began experimenting with homeschool programming, which eventually launched us into where we are today as The Birch School.

Q: Starting from this base of parent demand, how did the program grow to be The Birch School?

A: When we began experimenting with day-long homeschool programming and saw how enthusiastic parents were about those programs, I think that encouraged us to explore even further. We were consciously pulling in some of the key components of our camp program, which included a circle process (ensuring every child has the opportunity to voice their opinion in the community setting), a huge amount of choice, and a strong reverence for the environment and ecology.

We began talking to parents about having this type of learning as an option for their children on a more regular basis. When my son was pre-school age, we started a small pre-school program out of my home that eventually covered the children who participated up until the second grade. That was simply me responding to parents who were asking for a more robust program. We would get together with this mommy group where we would do some activities with all of our kids, and the parents kept saying, “We want more of this.”

By the time everyone reached that second-grade age, some of the families began to receive outside pressure from their own family members. This led to them questioning their choices as to whether an alternative pathway was right for their kids, even though they had great experiences up until that point. Some families decided to go a different direction and try traditional schooling, so we decided to take a break and regroup. The plan was to take one year off, but we actually took two. During that time, we searched for a building that wasn’t my house where we could set things up again. We found a new Unitarian church that was built to green certification and is a beautiful public space.

 

We decided early on that we would have part-timers here, but they had to be here for the full day. We wanted to be able to include them in the rhythm of the day where “this” activity follows “that” activity, but it’s not driven by the clock.

Kate Fox
Co-Founder and Director

Finding that space allowed us to launch and become The Birch School. We again started things off as a homeschool program, and after 18 months, we had many homeschool families participating who wanted to bring their kids to The Birch School five days a week.

At that point, we expanded our program to five days a week—with an eclectic staff. We had the same team of people who operated the summer camp now operating The Birch School. We had a mix of people, some with only out-of-school experience and others who had backgrounds working in schools. We weren’t coming from a formal educational background, so it took us about two years to find our footing—in that time, we stopped working with homeschoolers and focused on our full-time kids. We were very clear with our parents that this was a lab school, an experiment. They were completely supportive. Once we figured things out, we opened our program back up to part-timers, and that is the hybrid model we are using today.

This wasn’t a path we ever anticipated taking. We never formally planned for any of this to happen. It’s just where our path took us.

Q: What are the limitations to having part-time and full-time learners within the same learning environment?

A: When we first started having homeschool programming, we wanted to be responsive to the needs of our students. If a student could only attend for an hour, we would let them in. However, this caused issues. For example, if a bunch of kids had gotten a bunch of supplies out and were in the flow of their work, we would have to shut that down because in five minutes, the next class was going to start and a new group of kids who were only taking that class was going to be arriving.

We decided early on that we would have part-timers here, but they had to be here for the full day. We wanted to be able to include them in the rhythm of the day where “this” activity follows “that” activity, but it’s not driven by the clock. The kids know what’s coming next, but we have a lot of flexibility to expand that time if the activity the kids are engaged in is really productive and everyone is staying on-task. The flow is one of the things we built our environment around.

A lot of parents would request, “Can my kid come for that class and that class but not stay the whole day?” And, we’ve had to tell them “no.” Now, we’re in a situation where we run a two-day and three-day a week homeschooling program and once again have parents requesting if their kid can go to just one day. We’ve had to stay firm that this wouldn’t work and that’s really enabled us to build a stronger community. When kids only come in one day per week, they aren’t bought into the rhythm of our environment.

 

We have a saying here, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.”

Kate Fox
Co-Founder and Director

Another aspect we’ve had to figure out is that we serve a diverse group of children with a diverse range of learning abilities. We can’t serve everyone and that is difficult to admit sometimes. It’s our responsibility to recognize when a child is not flourishing in our environment, and we need to tell the parent we aren’t equipped to provide what their child needs to find success. Staying true to that allows us to keep doing the things we do well and not be spread too thin.

The social-emotional aspects of our community are deep and strong, so we really didn’t want to turn people away who were struggling with their child. But, we saw we needed to define what type of child is thriving in our environment. This has allowed us to build a strong program for our students.

Q: Community is a central theme to this conversation. You continuously adapted your programming based on external community requests. Then, you set up guideposts for your internal learning community to create a sustainable program. What would you say community means to you?

A: At The Birch School, community is a group of people who work together toward shared goals. Everyone might have different goals outside of The Birch School, but while we’re here, we’re all pursuing a similar set of goals together.

Our shared goals include learning together, being kind to one another, supporting each other when things get difficult, and building strong relationships to work through difficulties for the betterment of the individual and the collective whole. We also have a strong foundation in ecology, so there are a few ecological principles that inform what we do.

In ecology, we find that the strongest communities are the ones that are the most diverse, so we really embrace differences. It makes us stronger. Adaptation is another ecological principle we celebrate. As communities experience changes in their environment, they are constantly adapting. At The Birch School, our community is constantly changing based on how we grow. Children grow day-to-day. The life of a child is all about changing and growing. So, community is a place of belonging—where you are accepted on your good days and your bad days.

To foster this sense of belonging, the week before our official first day, we have a week of intake conferences with each family to go over what we’re planning to introduce throughout the year, what the needs of the learner might be, and how we can best support those needs. During the first week of school, we focus on building relationships with one another through team-building and problem-solving challenges. As a mixed-age learning community, we create diverse teams, so everyone can be introduced to everyone else.

At the beginning of each school year, everyone has the opportunity to speak about big-picture questions like “How do you want to be together?” Out of this exercise, we created a poster of some values that we share together. That poster stays up all year as a reminder to everyone of what we value, in our own words.

Q: When it comes to your work at The Birch School, what do you wish more people inquired about?

A: I wish people asked us more about how we serve the whole child. How can learning serve all of the needs of the kid and not just some of the needs? Happy and healthy is a big part of what we do.

We take a lot of time for lunch to make sure everyone is eating properly. We reserve a lot of time for recess so kids have plenty of time to move their bodies. We spend time talking about executive functioning with kids. We engage them in conversations about kindness and how to communicate with one another—how to build a strong community. In traditional circles, those types of things might not be considered “academic,” but those are the key components that allow students to rise to the places they can rise.

Without that community of support, they would be lost. They wouldn’t be able to take the risks they need to take. We have a saying here, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.” Making mistakes is hard. If you’re in a place where making mistakes is accepted and the people surrounding you are willing to give you a hand up and don’t hold grudges, I think that empowers kids to take on challenges with less fear and with more joy.

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