Bottom-up, or top-down?

Bottom-up Should we start this school with the early grades (preschool, say, or kindergarten) or the upper grades?

Lee, you and I have been talking these years as if it were wiser for us to start with a high school, and gradually add on a middle and grade school. I think we’ve liked that idea for the following reasons:

  1. You and I both work with, and love thinking about, the upper grades: it’s where our expertise (and our highest aspirations for education) lay.
  2. There is no second reason.

What I saw from the Corbett Charter School staff, though, is making me seriously ponder starting from the early grades, and building up. I’ll state the obvious reasons first:

  1. As kids grow, it’s easy to populate the higher grades.
  2. As kids grow, you have a population to engage in progressively more complex and exciting learning — understanding (and relationships) can build.

Those I knew before going to the conference. Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  1. An early grade-school education can be more intellectually vibrant than anything I experienced in high school — or, for that matter, college.

It’s hard for me to explain the richness and wonder of the Corbett presentation — suffice to say that they described a schooling for children full of philosophical pondering and vivid stories, of poetry and play-acting. (They said that they often hear parents express envy at their children’s schooling, and say that after putting their kids in bed for the night they go online to research the topics the kids are studying!)

I think I could be very satisfied in working in such a school.

And, crucially:

  1. Someone is already doing this sort of education — we don’t need to invent it ourselves.

As Steve Jobs said (paraphrasing a complex history of writers), “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

This isn’t to say that we can’t tweak this to be our own — we will necessarily have to do so.  (Corbett’s principal, the impressive Bob Dunton, boasted that the school was “entirely home-brewed” — that it couldn’t be scaled or replicated except insofar as the teachers themselves could be replicated! Wise, wise.)  But we have a model to work off of. (I’d like to lead a contingent of interested parties down to Portland in September, shortly after they begin their teaching year, to observe the school.)

And, supporting that:

  1. This may be simpler than we think.

Certainly starting the school will be harder than I can possibly imagine — as another school founder told me, “Starting a school will take everything you’re willing to give it — and more.” But the theory behind the school may be simpler than I’ve suspected.

At lunch after the Corbett presentation, one of the teachers told me that the teaching staff more or less only practices Imaginative Education. Teaching according to IE, she said, is so challenging and all-consuming (and, she added, deeply rewarding) that she was skeptical if anyone could mix it with any other daily lesson-planning theory.

There’s a final point which might be compelling here. Lee, you and I have kids. Starting this school with the earlier grades, and sooner, rather than later, would allow us (or, at least, Kristin and I) to enroll our kids in the school from the get-go.

All right — thoughts? (Tomorrow, I’ll write about a notion of the specific configuration of the staff that I gleaned from the Corbett folks, and on Friday I’ll write about how we might start small.)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA