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Students direct the learning at new school

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Twelve students from all over the valley are trying a different approach to education at Glacier Lake School where children decide what they want to learn. Founders Lisa Pavlock and Ben Kestner both said they hoped to reach at least ten students to open the school – also doubling as their home – on Rose Wood Lane near the mountains. 

“When we started this we didn’t know what the reaction would be,” Pavlock said. “Change can be hard, but people have been really supportive. Even if they don’t want to send their kids here, they have been supportive. Some have been a bit skeptical at first but still open to the idea.”

Kestner – once a public school principal in England – hopes to expand the school into a bigger building, possibly located on nearby property, after reaching 20 plus students. 

“It’s not a theory anymore; it’s a reality,” Kestner said of the years spent preparing to open the school. “We hope to add ten new kids each year.” 

The idea is that children discover what they are curious about and the school provides the tools for them to learn those things. Kestner said curiosity helps foster learning, although he doesn’t disagree with the public school approach.

“I want to get it across that I don’t disagree with Common Core. They are just a set of standards. I’m glad we have standards in life. This is just a different approach.”

In the morning, students currently ranging in ages from 4 to 12, walk in the door. They stop at a chart to check-in by writing down their name and the time, which is a routine kids utilize to develop time-telling skills.

“The students come in from all around,” he said. “Not all are from public schools. We have some that were home schooled. Everyone here has their own experiences.”

Lunches and coats are put away much like any school, but then, it gets a bit different. Instead of sitting in desks waiting for a lesson to begin, students scatter in whatever direction they choose.

“This week the kids are spending time getting to know each other,” Kestner said of the first week of school.

Many students were attracted by a giant bucket of Legos for about an hour before a few left to play outside. One student went upstairs to the school’s designated music area to try out the piano. Another student went outside with colored pencils to draw elements found in nature. 

“You have no idea what you want to learn until you think of it,” said Gabe Moxness, 12. “I’m still learning how to come up with it.”

Gabe spent the first few days of school playing the saxophone, learning the Pythagorean theorem but mostly climbing trees.

“I played all day. I climbed trees and played dodge ball just because I could. Climbing trees is problem solving in my mind. You have to see which branch to move to and find branches to hold your weight. I’d like to learn some more math, eventually.”

Cooking is also one of the things he plans to study. He wants to move to France – where his grandparents live — and become a chef.

“French cooking is   amazing,” he said. “I’d like to spend some time learning that.”

The students gathered in a downstairs room to attend the morning meeting where the day’s workshops were offered to interested students including a reading group, cookie fractions and computer programming. 

The school’s mascot was on the agenda. Possible choices included everything from a wolf, unicorn, bear, cat and large chicken. The choices were narrowed down to a mustang or a dragon or possibly a mixture of the two. Students decided to sketch out their final choice and have another vote. Conner Ferril, 12, thought a dragon best represented the school, but a final majority vote named the school the Glacier Lake Mustangs. 

Parent Brooklyn Kittelson studied the school’s approach to learning for a few years before deciding it was what she wanted for her daughter, Roan, but she couldn’t find a school. She was surprised to discover the Glacier Lake School after moving to the area from Missoula. 

“This is the only school in Montana with this philosophy,” she said. “I chose it because I wanted to give her a sense of independence and curiosity.”

Although general rules of safety and respect are in the school’s handbook, students also help make the rules. Kestner was proud of the students during the first school meeting where rules, procedures and supplies were developed with everyone from the youngest student to staff members having an equal vote.

“The kids didn’t propose to have candy all day,” he said. “They voted for coat hangers and no spitting. The vote was unanimous on the spitting but some voted against things just because they could.” 

Tuition is currently set at $5,100 per year.

“We’ve had an anonymous donor give scholarships, and we are looking for grants,” Pavlock said. “We want to make this accessible for all kids.”










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