For one bright, shining school year—fifth grade, to be precise—I experienced the joy of unbridled learning. I was part of a pilot education program in Memphis called Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, CLUE for short.
Even though I escaped my regular classroom to attend CLUE class for only a few hours each week, it made a lasting impression on me. More than any other factor in my life—including wonderful mentors in college and a family full of talented and dedicated educators—it shaped my attitudes and habits as a lifelong learner, my work as an advocate for authentic education, and, most of all, my parenting.
The special class wasn’t about absorbing facts and figures; it was about exercising our minds in all kinds of ways.
We practiced logic as well as creative pursuits. We learned to identify different forms of propaganda and to form and express our own opinions in a respectful way. Our multi-age class worked to solve interesting problems in pairs, small groups, and larger teams. We each worked (though it felt more like play) for months on an independent project of our own choosing. We took our time, and we went deep. Our teacher guided us with a light touch, granting us respect and autonomy as unique individuals to follow our curiosity and passions.
I don’t know how I got into the program; maybe it was a test (we did have low-key “achievement tests” back then), or maybe it was a teacher recommendation.
I recall thinking, after that mind-blowing first day of this creative class, that it wasn’t fair. Why didn’t all my classmates get to skip some of the boring, routine stuff to join the CLUE kids where the real action was?
Why couldn’t learning be like that every day, in every classroom?
I was still asking those questions almost 30 years later in Austin, Texas, when it was time to choose a school for my son. My husband and I had been active supporters of our neighborhood elementary school and loved the principal, faculty, and community. I had volunteered as a reading tutor and saw how hard the teachers and students worked.
But I also saw the odds they were up against and the rigidly imposed requirements that made teaching and learning more difficult, less natural, and way less fun than they should be.
I believed (and still do) in public education. Yet I was haunted by that creative learning program—by memories of how enriching and liberating school could be.
I also knew that my son, on the verge of kindergarten, would not fit easily into that school environment. He’s an artist and a diver, you see. He dives deeply into subjects and activities that intrigue him and comes up for air only when clearly necessary. He’s a kid who at age four would spend an entire day creating a life-size replica of the Starship Enterprise out of cardboard boxes. Or draw a maze so intricate that his Dad and I would need a magnifying glass to find our way through it. His self-directed learning style and intense interests would not be nurtured in the world of tedious worksheets, test prep, and the-bell-just-rang-so-we-all-must-move-on-to-the-next-thing.
We found a new charter school that promised more project-based learning, more time for the arts, more outdoor experiences, and less teaching to the test than the regular public schools, and it worked pretty well for kindergarten through second grade.
When the high-stakes testing began in third grade, things took a turn for the worse. Teacher and student stress levels rose, free choice and art time diminished, and the spark disappeared from my son’s eyes. Eventually and reluctantly, we withdrew from that school and began to explore alternatives.
To my delight, I discovered a whole new world of interesting, effective schools right in Austin, including some innovative programs within public schools. While no single approach is right for every student, each works beautifully for some.
From homeschooling co-ops to interest-based clubs for unschoolers, from Montessori and Waldorf to Sudbury and Self-Design, from the eclectic homegrown elementary school to the middle school fine arts academy to the liberal arts college–style high school, Austin offers more options, and more affordably, than I ever imagined—or most Austinites know.
Once my son had enrolled in an alternative “microschool” and he returned to his happy, engaged self, I was barraged with questions from friends and acquaintances. “How did you find out about that school?” “Why have I never heard of it?” “Are there any others you know about in my part of town that might be a good fit for my kid?”
I soon realized that because most of these programs were intentionally small and striving to keep tuition low, they had minimal budgets for marketing, depending mainly on word-of-mouth. Families who didn’t happen to be in hearing range were out of luck. They didn’t have a clue.
That’s why I created Alt Ed Austin, became an educational consultant, and helped found the nonprofit Education Transformation Alliance, a group of local educators who are collaborating to increase public awareness of alternative education and fund scholarships to make them accessible to more families. So when we as Austin parents look back on our educational choices for our kids, let no one say we were clueless!
Teri Sperry runs Alt Ed Austin, a consulting service dedicated to helping parents find the right educational fit for their kids. As a passionate advocate for education transformation, Teri spends much of her time researching and writing about education, consulting with parents about schooling options for their children, and working with educators to support and strengthen the local “alt ed” community.
Photo credit: Austin Tinkering School