Did you happen to see our recent blog post about private schools in San Antonio? Still lost and confused and want some firsthand experience to guide you? Well, our own Lisha Spellman has made the choice to send her child to a very unique private school you may not have heard of, but should certainly investigate.
The Circle School
The Circle School of San Antonio has been around in various formats since 1965 (formerly The New Age School). Their philosophy of teaching peace and diversity extends throughout their entire operation and what a pleasantly unusual operation it is. More than just a place for children to go to learn for seven plus hours a day, The Circle School is a family co-operative. You can check this link for the best day care services. This means that each family is responsible for a part of daily operations of the school and growth and building of an entire community. The school offers programs for children from age three through eighth grade and integrates a wide array of teaching philosophies, including Montessori, into its curriculum. Students are encouraged to grow and develop their whole selves, so it’s not just reading, writing, and arithmetic; but also art, music, citizenship, and interpersonal relationships. Parents are heavily involved, not just in the classrooms or at fundraising events or end of year parties, but every day both in and outside of the school – both because they are asked to be and because they want to be. Here’s one parent’s quick rundown of some of the key points of this magical place. If you need an early learning dural for your children, it is best to admit them to a great day care center.
Circle School Pros
Low Tuition: Relative to many other child care operations or even private schools, the cost of tuition at The Circle School is relatively low. There are co-op fees that could add to the bill, but can easily be worked off with contributions (time or money) to the school, plus a wide array of opportunities to offset tuition with additional efforts (cleaning, shopping, preparing snacks, etc.)
Hours of Operation: Especially for working parents or parents who may not keep traditional nine to five schedules, the hours of operation tend to work out extremely well. While the school day does not formally begin until 8:30, the doors of the school open at 7:30 and before school care is free. The school day ends at 3:30 with a grace period for pickup until 4. An after-school program is available until 6 for a low rate of $8/day or $140/month. There is a full summer program available, plus care can be provided for a low fee during winter and spring breaks as well.
No Testing: So many parents complain about the standardized testing in public schools and that educators are forced to “teach to the test” rather than teach so that children learn and grow. This is not the case at The Circle School, which does not participate in standardized testing of any kind. The instructors are skilled at individualized assessments of students but recognize that many students have strengths and display comprehension in ways outside of filling in a ScanTron sheet.
Diversity: The school brings together children from different ages (often in the same classroom, but also the grade levels of the whole school interact frequently), different ethnicities, different social classes, and different backgrounds with open arms. Additionally, each day the school begins with a story told to the entire school and those stories pull together lessons and tales from across cultures. Students are encouraged to learn about their own histories and share their diversity with the whole community.
Small Class Sizes: The classes were designed to intentionally remain small so that students can have a more personal level of attention and education from their instructors. Never exceeding thirteen students per room, there is a ton of opportunity for personalized instruction and lessons. Students are encouraged to work in groups as well, allowing them to pull and learn from the strengths of their peers with whom they become very close.
Individual Growth: Student assessments are given in narrative format. Rather than an impersonal report card, these assessments are done via face-to-face meetings between parents and teachers throughout the year. These assessments cover everything from progress and struggles with particular “traditional” curriculum (think math, science, reading, etc.) to personal relationships, maturity, character development, enthusiasm, creativity, and more. If a student is particularly shy and reserved, but has a strong interest in one subject in particular like music, teachers will work with the parents to find ways to use those passions inside and out of the classroom to help expand the child’s development and bring them out of their shell. Each student’s needs are different and teachers are highly attuned to these and adjust accordingly.
Community: Working together with the school and children in mind forms a strong, close knit community of families. With the personal nature of the school’s design, plus the strong need and requirement for parent involvement, families form strong attachments to one another, to the faculty, and to the greater community at large. More than just exchanging pleasantries at drop-off and birthday parties, the sixty five plus families spend a lot of time together both inside and out of the school and provide a strong network of support and encouragement over the course of many years.
Circle School Cons
Structure: While days do always begin and end with a whole school gathering (Circle Time) and teachers are encouraged to form routines for their classrooms, the creative development that happens in the classroom doesn’t always fall into a neat time box. There is curriculum that is followed and there is a lot of more open time in which it is up to the teachers to read the needs of the students and sometimes plan on the fly. Are they the best at sending out formal lesson plans to parents a week in advance? No, but do the students grow and learn? Absolutely.
Leveling: For those who are used to a class assignment with clear levels progressing from K to 1st to 2nd, you might be thrown off. Instead, the school bases its class breakdown on the needs of the students, enrollment levels, and assessments of the teachers; a single classroom may include a mix of “grade” levels. For the upcoming school year there are plans to have a K-1 classroom and a 1st/2nd grade classroom. This mix of academic levels can be advantageous in many ways and a challenge in others. At different points in the school’s history the teachers would move up with each class so that students and instructor remained the same year after year. In the modern times, teachers stick with the same “grade” while students advance, but even so, students can still have the same teacher multiple years in a row.
Efficiency: As work at the school and for the school is often done by committee or by parents who likely work other jobs or who are not specially trained in a given field, at times decision making and planning can be a tedious process. But parents are involved. They’re on the front lines and somehow things always do find a way to get done, because the spirit of the community pulls them together.
Lunches: There is no cafeteria. Every day parents must pack a lunch for their children and this can be taxing day after day. The school uses it as a way to encourage healthy eating and lifestyle choices and teachers do monitor lunches, banning things like sugar, chips, and heavily processed foods. Each day the school does provide two snacks for students and they are very aware of allergies and dietary needs.
Hippie/Granola: Many times the school is referred to as a “hippie school” and many parents are afraid that it’s “too granola” for their own lifestyles. While it is true that many parents at the school do live a more “hippie” lifestyle – there are dreadlocks and tattoos, unvaccinated children, and peace chants, the school truly is more about diversity and welcomes families of all lifestyles. Plus, I have definitely seen a parent or two down a delicious Whataburger on school grounds from time to time, so how bad can it really be?
Technology: With limited funds and low tuition, something has to be sacrificed. There are computers in every classroom, but students are not given specific instruction time for computers and technology and the machines they do have are old and dragging. Could this be improved? Yes. In the meantime, parents are encouraged to give their children these lessons at home, and with modern technology invading pretty much every corner of our lives, it’s really not that hard.
Circle School: My Grand Assesment
What better place to send a growing, developing, child full of imagination, creativity, inspiration, and uninhibited potential than a school that recognizes all of these traits and nurtures them to their fullest? Is my child going to learn to read and write and do math and talk about history? Yes, but she is also going to be excited about it? At The Circle School she is. Where else do kindergarteners put on their own rock and roll shows and chatter on endlessly about volcanoes and peace in Tibet? Where else are students given the opportunity to learn African hand drumming, karate, and study the works of Maurice Sendak just for fun? It is a lot of work, but isn’t that true of all parenting? And to see the reward – a place where my child is maximizing the potential of her youth, where she is learning and engaging in the wider world is really the best gift I could give to her.
Full disclosure: I currently serve on the board of directors of this school (elected position).
image courtesy of The Circle School