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Transforming School is About Options, Not “Getting it Right”

Meeting with any of the hundreds of corridor-ites who are interested in starting independent schools reveals one really important thread: people want options for education.

The core issue appears to be the assumption that public schools are magically one size fits all. Everyone at these meetings seems to agree that teachers are doing the best they can, but in the end, a system can only do what it was designed to do, either poorly or well.

We’d like to see some other systems designed, and we’d like to give students the option to choose the system that will work best for them.

The idea of independent schooling is not new in the corridor, in fact it’s seen as an important counterpoint to the work that public schools do.

The Sudbury Model:

On April 28th, a group of librarians, teachers, and parents got together to discuss the idea of opening a Sudbury style school in the corridor area. There are currently 35 Sudbury-like schools worldwide.

Sudbury schools are almost entirely student led. They hold at their core the belief that learning is natural, and democracy is central to functioning group. Sudbury students choose their own resources, courses of study, and engage the community with what they are interested in. Sudbury students even take an annual vote to retain and/or hire faculty.

Here’s a great FAQ from the first Sudbury school.

The leaders of the Iowa City group interested in Sudbury have indicated that they are filing for incorporation soon, and are hoping to be taking students in August of 2014. It is important to note that Sudbury is not a franchise, and each local group has little to no affiliation with any other Sudbury-like school.

The attractiveness of a school like this is in the democratic model. Many assumptions made by schools include the need to control student behavior and to plan curriculum without student consent, whereas Sudbury schools tend to allow students the freedom to engage and disengage at will.

Prairie Green School:

Prairie Green is already operating in the Iowa City area. It’s a “competent private instruction” school, which means that it’s students are technically home schooled.

Prairie Green is similar to Sudbury in that it offers an option to parents and students that heavily weights the interests and motivations of individual students. Pockets of this type of instruction exist in our public schools, but this heavily varies from classroom to classroom.

What really strikes me about Prairie Green is their dedication to environmental science. In the world of schooling options, we need more schools that are willing to have emphases on wicked problems that don’t have discrete single-session solutions.


Scattergood Friends School (& Farm) is a Quaker boarding school in Eastern Iowa that has been in operation since 1890. Scattergood is dedicated to a view of education that includes things that public schools consider beyond their ken.

Scattergood’s students are integrated into the operation of the school. They garden, they cook, they live there, and their learning is integrated into the grounds of the school.


Willowwind is a community focused private school in the Iowa City area. In their words:

We see evidence each day of smart, successful people who have missed the big picture, the big questions, and important answers.  Children at Willowwind grow in an environment that gives volume to even the meekest voice, compassion to the most assertive child and wisdom to all.  Children leave Willowwind not only understanding that there are big questions, but are equipped with the resources to seek important answers.  At Willowwind we believe that a strong early education which ensures a life-long love of learning is the most important educational investment a parent can make.

Dream Center:

The Dream Center is new Iowa City non-profit with the goal of providing educational services where needs arise. They have several umbrella programs that create individualized courses and meet individual needs:

  1. Fatherhood education and needs
  2. Youth leadership and development
  3. General Learning

The dream center doesn’t feel like a traditional school, but it fills a need a provides options for those that may need instruction and support in areas that are not normally considered a part of “school.”

Why Options?

The options provided to parents need to extend beyond the choice to open-enroll or not. Parents and students need to weigh how scheduling, grading, courses, specific staff members, access to materials, and freedom to engage with the community fit into the student experience at the school.

When I attended high school from 1998 to 2002, I received almost the exact same education that my parents did when they attended the same high school in the 60’s and 70’s. The jobs I do now didn’t exist in 1960 or in 2000, and the learning curve on these jobs has been steep.

It seems obvious that varied iterations on “school” are necessary, as evidenced by the obsolescence of a 1960’s system that has already been eclipsed by students who know nothing other than the information revolution.

I can’t even imagine what kind of contributions my children will give to humanity, and that’s exactly the point.

So, we need a workforce that has been diversely trained and excited to innovate, and we need an education system that’s willing to experiment with that, and that means options.

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