Is an independent school right for your children?
No one educational alternative is best for every child. “Parents should do their research, look at their own family values, their child, different schools and make the best choice,” says Paul Brahce, head of Wingra School.
Sandra S. Dahl, owner/director of Kids Express Learning Center, Inc., or KELC, agrees. “Children are individuals and learn in many different ways,” she says.
Madison-area parents have an array of public and private educational options to choose from, including schools that have carved out unique niches and honed targeted approaches to education. For instance, KELC, established fifteen years ago, lies on an eight-acre farmette and emphasizes nature in its curricula. It serves about 300 families, with children from six weeks of age to kindergarten attending during the academic year. Its Summer on the Farm program also welcomes children up to age ten.
Dahl was inspired to open the school while teaching at UW–Madison’s School of Education. “I taught evening courses to students interested in early childhood education, and the materials we used, the projects we developed and the research we explored created a deep desire in my soul to create a learning environment where children could express their ideas, explore their passions, and maintain their natural interest in exploring the world,” she says.
A group of parents and teachers started Wingra School in 1972, and it now has 142 students ages five to fourteen. Its K–8 classes have a twelve-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. “Our founders were very interested in and excited about a more holistic approach to education,” says Mary Campbell, education director. “They looked at the British primary system as a role model: a nurturing environment with an integrated curriculum where we try to process ideas, create and have a hands-on connection to learning,” she explains. “We invite children’s voices in our planning, our evaluations—every step of the process.”
The school has a real sense of community that goes beyond the classroom. “All the adults, including the parents, know every student,” says Brahce. “This adventure in learning is something we’re doing together. It’s a safe place to risk, and to learn and grow you need that.”
Wingra School doesn’t use traditional age groupings. “We divide into levels with mixed age groups working on shared enterprises that involve the oldest and youngest working together,” Brahce says.
Brahce sees human beings as natural learners. “Young children are scientists—they love to experiment—and part of a school’s job is to keep that connection to learning alive. One value of a progressive school is that we pay attention to that motivation and nurture it,” he says.
There’s a lot of pressure on schools today, and many people look at education as a competition, adds Campbell. “They think the way to excel is to have more time in desks with the teacher lecturing. But research says kids need more activity, more time outside, and time to breathe and digest information. Their academics are stronger that way. Our entire curriculum is based on what we understand about children’s growth, development, how their brains work and what helps them to thrive.”
Varied natural environments encourage children to learn, notes Dahl. “They learn from early on that simple, natural experiences are ‘enough,’ from watching a sheep shearing to planting, tending and harvesting a garden. These experiences excite children more than anything we could order from one of the commercial catalogues of learning materials that barrage us each year,” she says.
“Nature provides a clear, real message to children: The earth is a fascinating place to explore. Let’s take care of it and enjoy it for the rest of our lives,” she continues. “Let’s learn skills to help us become productive adults who can make a difference in the world. Obviously, we don’t say that to children; we just make it happen one day at a time.”
Building cognitive skills is critical to our world’s future, but building strong character is equally important, Dahl believes. “We all have to learn to get along with one another and appreciate the beautiful, rich world we’ve been blessed to enjoy. We have a responsibility to protect our environment and to learn skills that will allow us to be thinkers and doers in a positive manner.”
At KELC, teachers help children learn to care for the planet and everything on it. Character Education Activities teach children citizenship skills. “And our teachers enrich children’s lives by gently encouraging the literacy, math, science, social, physical and creative art skills that will eventually allow them to make the world a better place for future generations,” says Dahl.
Wingra School’s teachers look for ways to build bridges and links between different activities and areas of study. “We have integrated curricula so things make sense to young children,” says Brahce. “To them, the world isn’t divided into math and science. We don’t fit students to a predetermined structure; we begin with the student and build outward.”
In Wingra’s curricula, specific content isn’t as important as the process for gathering, evaluating and sharing information. “We also help students recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and find the support they need to pursue their strengths and build on them,” Campbell says.
“Overall, we want them to communicate well, ask questions, have strong writing and speaking skills, understand and apply
mathematics in different situations, understand the world around them through science, read and evaluate, and pursue their interests,” she continues.
Wingra School doesn't use formal grades or testing, or standardized tests. The school’s assessments are ongoing conversations with children to help them understand what they’ve learned from each lesson and how to plan their next steps based on their interests.
“We don’t believe students are standardized, Campbell asserts. “There isn’t just one body of knowledge students need to be exposed to; they need to be able to navigate the body of information out there. They do need to have a deep understanding of science, mathematics and all content areas, so they have the facility to find information and make informed decisions.”
A team of KELC teachers developed the portfolio assessment program KELC uses, and an outside professional evaluated the program and suggested adjustments the school has since implemented. “We use age-appropriate informal assessment instruments to help teachers make judgments about what kids bring to the learning table,” Dahl says. “Knowing what kids know and what they need to learn—and having good materials and techniques—all work together to create positive learning environments for children of all ability levels. It’s important to address these issues when children are young, because we are providing the foundation they’ll build on as they leave us.”
No matter what school your children attend, it is essential to be actively involved and interested in their educations. “Communicate with their teachers,” Brahce suggests. “If you establish that early on and teachers know you’re supportive, it’s easier to address any issues that arise.”
And being involved sends students a message, he notes. “It tells them school isn’t just a place you drop them off, but something that’s important for the whole family.”
— Judy Dahl