In education, the traditional public school predominates, providing a one-size-fits-all approach with schools assigned based on geography. But the continued growth of private schools remains a market signal indicating many Oklahoma parents prefer greater choice. Two new schools opening in the Norman area in the fall provide the latest examples.
“I highly respect what the public school system is doing, because they are trying to solve a lot of complex problems all at the same time, so I’m thankful that it exists,” said Matina Hunnell, co-founder and head of school for Evergreen: an Acton Academy, which will open in Noble this fall. “But when you’re trying to do a one-size-fits-all, then you often are watering down what’s happening for education.”
“You have the public school and you have 26 kids in a class and they can only teach to either the lowest denomination or right to the middle, and if they teach to the middle you are going to have kids who are struggling to keep up and are left behind or you are going to have kids who are way advanced and then they are bored,” said Renee Roberts, director of the Lab School of Oklahoma, a new private school opening this fall in Norman. “But if you have a smaller class and you can individualize it, then each kid is going to be able to advance at their own level. If you’re able to do that and you have that variety, then no one is going to be bored, no one’s going to be left behind, and each kid is going to be able to reach their full potential.”
According to its website, the Lab School of Oklahoma will provide a “classical education approach while adding in as many hands-on opportunities as we possibly can.”
“We are a dedicated group of educators and professionals who have seen that traditional education is overcrowded, underfunded, and ultimately a disservice to the children it strives to serve,” the school site declares. “We want to provide an alternative to your family.”
Roberts noted Norman has several private schools, in addition to the traditional public school district, but said the Lab School will offer something others don’t.
“I just wanted to marry the two philosophies of the classical education and the hands-on approach,” Roberts said. “That’s something that hasn’t been done.”
So far, she said the public response has been encouraging.
“It’s been great,” Roberts said. “People have been really excited about it. I think it’s something that’s needed. I think it’s something people are looking for and haven’t had before.”
The school will serve pre-K through seventh grade students and hopes to add grades in future years. The school will offer small classes and a high level of student-teacher interaction.
Evergreen’s model is an even more dramatic departure from a traditional education setting. Acton Academies, which originated in Austin, Texas, describe their approach to learning as “disruptive education.” Evergreen’s website say it incorporates the “latest technology in a self-paced learning environment that is designed to foster responsibility, goal-setting, and teamwork.” The school will serve students from kindergarten to sixth grade, and students will engage in hands-on, self-directed learning, while teachers guide students via the Socratic method in which teachers respond to students’ questions with other questions.
Hunnell, who has been a music educator for 13 years, said the thought of starting a school was not on her to-do list until recently.
“I was not looking to open a school,” Hunnell said.
But when she had a chance to hear a speech by Laura Sandefer, co-founder of the original Acton Academy, it caused a change of heart.
“It just really spoke deeply to all of the things I had been wondering about education,” Hunnell said.
There are currently about 150 Acton Academies across the country and even in other nations. Hunnell was among the applicants accepted to open a new academy this year.
“They are looking for people that are passionate about education but have a nontraditional education background,” Hunnell said, “because if you’re steeped in the traditional way, it’s just really hard to think outside of the box like this.”
The academies are sometimes referred to as 21st century one-room school houses. Students in first through sixth grade are in a classroom together. Part of the day is spent on individualized work, and part spent doing group projects.
“The thing that just really drew me to this model was the critical thinking, the collaboration skills that they’re building, the goal-setting,” Hunnell said. “There’s just a lot of real-world skills that they get practice developing on a daily basis.”
And she sees the one-room classroom approach as a long-term benefit for students.
“The multi-age classroom is very realistic to the real world,” Hunnell said. “You’re never going to be in a work meeting with all people exactly your age, give or take a year.”
Officials at both schools believe the things that make their schools distinct from other educational settings are the things that most enhance their public appeal and long-term effectiveness.
“We’re not focused on dates. We’re not focused on grades. We’re not focused on tests,” Roberts said. “The key thing about our school is we’re focused on getting kids to fall in love with learning, and children learn by doing. If we can teach kids’ brains with learning by doing, then if they can fall in love with learning, then we will have accomplished our goals.”
“I don’t think we are the one-and-only answer, either,” Hunnell said, but added, “Obviously, I think it’s getting closer to it or I wouldn’t be starting this school.”