Bootstrapping A Child’s Education – California’s DIY School
By CAPTAIN JOHN KONRAD
On a mild summer morning Rob Wishon, a master carpenter with a sandy goatee and a knack for carving exotic wood into majestic pagodas, stood up from the picnic table at Morro Bay‘s Del Mar park, kissed his wife Kim and waved good bye to his children as he walked to his work truck but within moments he was distracted. Rising from the sand before him stood the solid steel legs of the park’s 28 foot playhouse and Rob couldn’t resist just one ride down the swirling green tube slide. A loud, elongated, “Whoooooo” echoed across the park followed by the cheers of twelve kids, each beaming with gleeful surprise and woots of laughter.
No one could blame him, not even the teachers, because the atmosphere of playful wonderment was infectious.
Schools nationwide are lengthening school hours, piling homework on burdened kids and cramming technology into classrooms with the goal of improving test scores as politicians intensify the debate with educators demanding measures be taken to close the knowledge gap between the United States, Asia and Europe. Change is slowly moving forward in school systems across the country but improvements in national test scores have mostle followed at a glacial pace.
Charter schools are the exception, beacons of success which attract many parents with the promise of low student-teacher ratios, alternative programs and proven results. Just a few miles from the slide which spurt Rob Wishon into a wave of sand is Pacheco Elementary School, a charter school in the college community of San Luis Obispo california specializing in a two way immersion program. The program, which is taught 50/50 in Spanish and English, is wildly successful making it difficult to find a parent willing to complain. The only visible stain on the school’s reputation is the waiting list which marks the names of dozens of disappointed families each year.
With the best charter schools at their limits, parents have only one option for assuring an exemplary education for their kids; private school. One such school is inspired by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian educator and philosopher who was invited to Oxford to discuss improvements to the British educational system in 1922. His talk, which focused on developing both the creative and analytical mind, led directly to the proliferation of his Waldorf Style education in Britain, a program of imaginative learning that’s since been coppied by over 1,000 independent schools Worldwide. Today over 160 Waldorf schools flourish in the United States including the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which touts the support, and educates the children, of eBay, Google, Yahoo and Apple executives. Another Waldorf school is the prestigious Rudolf Steiner school of New York which collects over $30,000 per year in tuition from some of the country’s top financiers.
“We know the program works and we don’t want to take any risks with our child’s education.” said one Waldorf parent who runs an venture capital firm that invests in early stage technology companies.
But with options for the majority of middle class families, those without the luck of lottery winners or the wealth of moguls have, so far, remaining slim a few entrepreneurial parents are willing to take the risk of bootstrapping their children’s education.
In the shadow of the towering slide and just a few hours drive south from the offices of silicon valley executives, parents gathered around Kim Wishon, the founder of Wishing Well Elementary, who may hold the secret answer to parents greatest worries.
“I’ve met with the board of directors and I’m excited to announce the school is expanding to three classrooms, hiring two additional teachers and tuition will only be raised 10% this year”. Said Wishon with a smile which brightened the warm folds of her flowered skirt and caused Mariah Soloy, mother of a first grade student at the school, to miss a stitch on the handmade dress she was knitting. The parents gathered at the park to discuss the future of their germinating school but, unlike the PTA meetings of local public schools, their talk focused on limiting technology, shortening school hours and coercing students to leave their desks and explore the campus gardens. Yet no one mentioned the reason for the school’s success.
Wishon’s secret is not contained in the countless pockets of the brightly colored skirts her teachers are encourage to wear nor written on one of hundreds of school paper, each corner snipped into curved edges which Rudolf Steiner believed soften the sharp lines of machine cut paper and thus the child’s entrance into life. No, the secret is in a myriad of details visible at the school, in the work of teachers and parents, in the feeling of wonderment that surrounds the school and in the risk each parent undertakes to brighten their child’s future.
When you walk into Wishing Well elementary, set in a once abandoned elementary school against the rugged cliffs and secluded woodlands of Los Osos California, it’s the details both large, wooden tables sliced from a single slab of giant redwood, and small, the hand sewn aprons made for each student, that catch your eye. Then the other senses join in the experience. A bulb of organic garlic from the garden tended by students, the soft touch of silks draped from a child’s shoulders and the crisp “chop, chop” of celery small hands cut against natural wood.
One parent recalls the origins of the school. “Three years ago Kim passed the word of a new school among the families who collected each monday at a local farmer’s market. A half dozen families showed up, some alumni of Waldorf schools and others just interested in the concept.” From that meeting the school was born as a small pre-school run in the backyard of her modest suburban home. The quarters were cramped. “We had to wake up early each morning, clean the house and prepare for school. Then the kids arrived and helped tend the garden, feed the chickens and tend to the bees” said Kim. When asked if any parents protested about giving kids chores which brought them close to the knife edges and bee stingers she said, “No, the parents had their own chores to do”.
While the headlines are flush with billionaire’s lavish donations to small schools, Wishing Well gets by with a modest tuition and dozens of helping hands. Each week parents are given their own homework with can include washing the school’s linen napkins, collecting organic vegetables for the lunch which students prepare or, for those in the construction trades, running new cables to the large electric stove set in the corner of one classroom.
Even small local support can be difficult to find. One recent fund raising campaign sent parents to local stores for donations to a silent auction and many local businesses freely donated gifts and services but others wanted a receipt. “Some businesses only donate if they can write off the expense. Are we close to getting our non-profit designation?” Asked parent Tricia Durham. Wishon shrugged.
That the school survives amid California’s strict licensing requirements, building code inspectors who have never seen a working oven in a kindergarden classroom and legal responsibilities to assure the care of children with special needs, is a source of pride among parents. That it survives among California’s educational bureaucracy without the support of any philanthropic donations is a testament to the culture of American startups and individuals willing to bootstrap their own needs.
And while the school is open to financial assistance, it’s not lacking in growth. Among the announcements was an expansion of the school’s own spanish immersion program which has sparked unexpected interest from the community and even a few queries from Pachenco parents.
The school currently enrolls children between the ages of 3 and 7 but is looking to expand to the 8th grade. And there is little doubt where future donations will be spent. “We want to expand and hire teachers but do our children need projectors, television sets and iPods? Do we even want these things?” asked one parent with sincerity. “Could we afford them if we did?” The universal answer among the half dozen parents in attendance was a clear no.
“It only takes a bit of money but a lot of energy to run a school like this.” said Wishon in the mildest tone of discouragement before opening the discussion on the school’s supply budget for the coming year. “Flutes have been a huge successes this year but they were a donation which we need to return. We think every child should have a solid wood flute but they cost $50 each. Can we ask the parents to pick up the cost?” The faces of parents smiled with nods of agreement in answer to the single largest non-tution expense proposed for the school year.
John Konrad is the author, along with journalist Tom Shroder, of Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, which chronicles the initial construction, crewmembers’ existence, and eventual disaster aboard the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. For the book, Konrad used his insight as an oil rig captain and his seven years of experience as an employee of Transocean, one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors and owner of the Deepwater Horizon.
In an interview with Failure Magazine, Konrad said, “I wrote the book because I wanted to find out what happened. The guys on the rig, the guys in Transocean’s offices, the government officials—no one had the full story. I wanted to get all the stories and piece them together.”
Konrad is also the founder of gCaptain, a maritime and offshore news blog. He is a graduate of SUNY Maritime College and he lives in Morro Bay, California.
This article originally appeared in the Logistics and Transportation section of Forbes magazine. To view the article at source, click here.