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New school soon to finish first year

ST. IGNATIUS – It’s been almost a year since the Glacier Lake School opened with its unconventional child-led learning style, and on Saturday, they held an open house to celebrate, which was the perfect time to find out how the year went.

“It’s what we thought it would be,” co-founder Ben Kestner said. “We learned that it’s a system that works.”

Let’s back up a minute and explain how the school got started. Kestner was working in a school in England as a principal. He decided to sit in on one of the classrooms at his school as if he were a student. He didn’t find the experience enjoyable, so he set out to find a different way to go about educating children.

He ended up finding a “democratic approach to education,” which has been around for about 100 years. Kestner packed up his family and moved to Montana to start a similar school; his wife Lisa Pavlock, with an educational background, jumped on board as a co-founder.

The school is the first of its kind in the state, according to Kestner. 

“We believe young people have the right to decide individually how, what, where and with whom they learn,” he said, which means that the kids walk in the door in the morning and decide what they are going to learn. Kestner says many wonder if the method compares to a popular fiction book where kids are left to run wild.

“It’s not like ‘Lord of the Flies,’” he said. “There are rules and staff. The role of the staff is ultimately for safety and wellbeing. We are the guides on the side instead of the sage on the stage. We also offer courses the kids can sign up for if they are interested.”

At the beginning of the school year, Gabe Moxness, 13, wasn’t sure what he wanted to learn about, but he did eventually figure it out.

“I’m really into muscle cars and you need money to buy cars, so I decided to learn about personal finance,” he said.

Gabe also focused on science and math questions, and he can now describe in detail how a refrigerator works including the temperature needed to boil the coolant, which, he says, creates a steam that cycles through the system.

“This place is great,” he said. “I like making choices for myself.”

Cora Lapotka, 5, was the youngest kid at the school this year. She likes to inspire field trips, including the weekly swimming lessons the kids take. On Saturday, she wrote down another idea.

“I was putting this on the agenda so we can take a vote at our meeting to go there or not go there,” she said. “I think we should go to Wild Horse Island.”

Parents shared their views about the school, saying that it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Brooklyn Kittelson said her 8-year-old daughter is more excited about education.

“She is doing math for fun,” she said.

Jean-Jacques Myard explained that children learn even during play. 

“I think that this is the most efficient way of teaching and learning,” he said, adding that it wasn’t for everyone. Myard volunteers at the school like many parents. French is his first language, so he volunteered to teach interested students how to speak it. 

“We want to see this school succeed,” he said. 

Seven more students are signed up for next year, and Kestner is working on getting the school designated as a nonprofit so he can apply for more grants. He is also planning fundraisers to help families cover the $5,100 tuition.

“We want this school to be available for everyone,” he said.

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