December 5, 2018

New private schools rewrite educational model

Photo | Liese Klein
Photo | Liese Klein
Co-founder Jennifer Staple Clark inside the K-1 classroom at Slate School, a new school in North Haven emphasizing nature-based learning.
Photo | Parker Cove School
An artist's rendering of Parker Cove School, a new independent high school on State Street in New Haven.

The sun had set and temperatures were dropping, but a group of about six children were still playing in the courtyard at the new Slate School in North Haven around 5 p.m. on a recent weekday. A teacher joined in as the kids romped and raced, stopping briefly to watch a group of deer gather in a field adjacent to the school.

"What do you see? How many — 1, 2, 3?" the teacher asked.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8," a boy replied.

"Did you see the one over there?"

"Nine!" the boy shouted with glee.

The deer-based counting practice was a quick glimpse into the Slate School method, which brings nature and outdoor activity into basic academic subjects. A first-grader at Slate who is interested in deer reads about the animals, studies deer biology and other science topics and uses math skills to count the animals. Students work at their own pace on projects that incorporate traditional subjects, rather than spend their days in structured sessions of math, reading, science and the arts.

Nature-based learning

The inaugural class of students entered Slate School this year, for a total enrollment of 16 kindergarten and first-graders. Next year the school will add a second-grade classroom and another group of kindergartners, building year by year to a sixth-grade class, for an eventual enrollment of 70.

The nature-centered approach extends to the Slate School campus, which includes six brand-new buildings designed with a focus on environmental standards and nontoxic materials. The school is the only structure of any kind in Connecticut right now to use circadian lighting, which adjusts itself every 90 minutes to reflect the body's rhythms and the availability of natural light. Ductwork is made of cloth to allow for regular cleaning and give the classrooms a less institutional look.

The school's innovative educational approach brings together environmental studies, traditional subjects and the arts as part of a student-directed learning program.

"We think of the environment as the master teacher," said Julie Montcastle, a former professional actress and public-school teacher who serves at Slate's head teacher. Instead of a rigid curriculum with a set schedule, "the day is completely guided by the interests of the children," she added. "I mainly plan the night before because we're always trying to be responsive to what the students are doing."

A new kind of high school

Flexibility and creativity are also at the center of the mission of Parker Cove School, a school set to open next fall at 938 State St. in New Haven. Grades 9-12 will be housed in a building formerly home at ground level to Vintanthromodern used clothing store, located on State Street's commercial corridor at the edge of East Rock.

"We believe that a learning environment constructed around adolescents' natural desire for connection, meaning and independence enables students not only to prepare for successful futures, but to lead healthy, happy, productive lives," said founder Elise Dardani.

"We have a four-year interdisciplinary and experiential learning curriculum that values intellectual originality and that emerges from student inquiry," Dardani said. Physical and emotional wellness are a priority at the school with instruction focusing equally on the intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual development of each student.

Parker Cove School, with a tuition of $42,200 a year, is currently recruiting for its first class of students in grades 9-12, with open houses starting this week.

Disrupting education

This new crop of schools fits in with the Silicon Valley-led trend to disrupt traditional industries. In fact, in addition to his innovation in autos and aerospace, star entrepreneur Elon Musk has started his own elementary school. Ad Astra school, located on the campus of SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif., has done away with grades and groups kids into teams focused on problem-solving and technology.

By contrast, other schools popular with many in the technology industry attempt to pull kids away from screens and get them back to socializing and physical activity. Slate School in North Haven deemphasizes computers, with devices available for teachers to present material — but no Chromebooks or other devices for students.

Jennifer Staple Clark started Slate School with her husband, Alexander Clark, founder of New Haven software company Technolutions, but the couple weren't looking for a tech-oriented school for their two children. Her K-12 education in Newtown public schools and her husband's in a Mississippi independent school led the couple to seek an educational environment that would stimulate their children's natural curiosity and love for learning.

"We were looking for this nature-based, curiosity-based learning and we were struggling to find it, Staple Clark said. "We realized there was really a need for it so that led us to try to create it."

Focus on financial aid

Part of the school's mission is to offer admission regardless of a family's finances and the founders have built a sizeable endowment from charitable contributions; tuition without financial aid or scholarships totaled $21,000 per pupil for 2018-19.

As a result of fundraising efforts, Slate School is the only private elementary school in the nation that offers both need-blind admissions and meets 100 percent of financial need for admitted students. "It's enabled us to have an incredible cohort of phenomenal students and families because finances have not been a barrier," Staple Clark said.

Looking ahead to the second year of operation, Slate administrators are encouraged by packed open houses and strong social media support for the school.

"We've really been so heartened by the incredible enthusiasm by so many people about Slate School," Staple Clark said. Teachers at other schools have started adopting some of Slate's methods in their classrooms, she added. "We would love to see the landscape of education change."

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