Kids can do anything, or nothing at a school with few rules

Idaho Falls — Students at Willow Creek School chose to play a video game for their morning activity — a regular occurrence, said staff member and owner Cherryn Winghet.

“Kids can do anything they want at our school, with few exceptions,” she said. “They’re also allowed to do nothing if they choose to.”

The Idaho Falls private school is in its first year of K-12 enrollment. Equipped with an art studio, a nearby field that yields alfalfa and peas, and a small library upstairs, the school provides students with what Winghet considers the best tool for educational success — room to play.

“We simply provide the space for the kids,” she said. “They choose what they want to do with it, and we let them.”

Willow Creek School in Idaho Falls.
Willow Creek School in Idaho Falls.

Willow Creek is a scaled-down version of the Sudbury Valley School in Farmingham, Mass., which gained notoriety in the 1960s and the 1970s for developers’ free-range approach to education and their disregard for the structure and rules prevalent in most public and private schools.

“The philosophy of (our) school is that real learning occurs only when the student is ready or is asking,” said Willow Creek staffer Suzanne Nicholas. “So we offer no classes. We have no periods or specify what should be learned at what time.”

Both originally from Australia, Winghet and Nicholas said inspiration for Willow Creek occurred when they met randomly — in a grocery store in Idaho Falls.

“We started talking about education,” Winghet said, “and she (Nicholas) started talking about the Sudbury School model.”

Winghet, who was already operating her own private school, began reading voraciously about Sudbury soon after meeting Nicholas. As a result, Winghet said, she started questioning much of her own teaching methodology.

“I had been using the Montessori method of teaching for years,” Winghet said, “and I loved it.”

The Montessori approach to learning was developed by Italian physician and teacher, Maria Montessori, at the turn of the 20th Century. Like the Sudbury method, Montessori schools emphasize pupil independence, but with limitations on student autonomy.

Winghet soon decided to make Willow Creek a Sudbury-style school for the 2015-16 school year.

“We called a meeting and decided we were going to tell all the parents,” Winghet said.

Following the meeting, half the parents removed their children from the school, citing concern over the new, controversial method. Nicholas said the school had 20 students before the fission.

“Parents were shocked when we told them what we were doing,” Winghet said. “Half of them walked out of the room right then, and the other half just sort of sat there with their mouths open.”

Though enrollment has now dipped to eight students, Winghet’s enthusiasm for the Sudbury method is stronger than ever.

“The Sudbury model is radical,” she said. “But who says what’s radical is always a bad thing?”

At least one longtime East Idaho public educator agrees with Winghet.

“I would enroll my grandchild into a Sudbury school in a minute,” said Pam Holman, who has taught at West Side Elementary in District 91 for 31 years.

Holman, who also taught kindergarten during her career, attended an open house at Willow Creek School. She took aim at some of the techniques that she used while teaching in public schools.

“It broke my heart to teach some of those kindergarteners,” she said. “All those rules — teaching them to sit crisscross applesauce, to be quiet and to form a line, to enforce all that compliance at such a young age is rather harsh, I think.”

During the open house, Holman also sought clarification regarding why Willow Creek doesn’t except at least “some” state funds as a means of easing the tuition burden placed on parents and guardians wanting to send their child to a Sudbury-style school.

The reception of state funds, Winghet said, would jeopardize the school’s status as a purely private institution, free to set its own rules, including the way students are assessed.

“I’m all for students being tested,” Winghet said, adding that she feels many of today’s students are over tested. Accomplishments via student choice and success, Winghet said, provide the best kind of assessments for students, not tests taken with a pen and paper in a classroom.

“Isn’t that what drives them, anyway?” she said. “It’s really their ability to feel good about the things they’ve chosen to accomplish and then go accomplish them.”

During the open house, Willow Creek students also had a chance to discuss the recent methodological shift at their school.

“We have a lot of freedom now,” said eight-year-old Nevaeh Phillips, who attended Willow Creek during three of its Montessori years.

During school, Phillips said she enjoys gymnastics and parkour, an obstacle-course training technique that spiked in popularity throughout the United States in recent years. When inside the school house, however, Phillips said she prefers to spend her time playing the popular videogame Minecraft, which allows gamers to create virtual structures with building blocks.

“It’s interesting,” she said. “It entertains me.”

Though acknowledging the potential concerns stemming from video games in schools, Winghet defended her decision to keep a PlayStation and a couch in the schoolhouse.

“It’s a wonderful game,” Winghet said, reffering to Minecraft. “You can create all sorts of things with it. How can students not learn when they are doing that?”

Nevaeh Phillip’s mother, Dawn Phillips, said she has noticed changes in her daughter’s abilities since Willow Creek’s shifted to the new Sudbury model.

“Nevaeh always had a problem communicating,” Phillips said. “For example, she would always say things that were unrelated to the situation but were things that she thought would get her something. She’s now much more direct with me — and I’m much more direct with her because of that.”

Dawn Phillips also said her daughter takes more initiative to learn things on her own since the school adopted the new learning approach.

“She actually put a times-table chart on the fridge at home by herself, so she can reference it when she needs to,” Dawn Phillips said. “I didn’t tell her to do that.”

Self-motivation is the natural result for students attending a school that requires them to fill there own day with the activities, said Winghet.

“This is the hardest thing they’ll ever have to do,” she said, “because they have to figure out what they want to do — that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I love it when a student comes to me and says ‘I’m bored’ because I just smile and ask them what they are going to do about it.”

Deciding what they want to do on their own, Winghet added, pays off quite well in the end for students. Though Willow Creek is in its first year and can’t provide graduation data or refer to graduate testimonials, Winghet points to the thousands who have completed their education at Sudbury School in Mass., which touts an 80 percent college-enrollment rate.

“Students in traditional schools go into a classroom and they sit,” Winghet said. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. That’s not how learning takes place.”

Though Willow Creek receives no state funds, staffers still comply with applicable laws, such as minimum time requirements for students to be in school and other safety measures, Winghet said.

The school also keeps a “law book,” with a set of rules, the vast majority of which the students themselves created this year through a system of “democratic” discussions and voting. Safety rules dictate areas where students can go, and students are always under the supervision of at least one staff member, Winghet added, to ensure student safety.

Enrollment at Willow Creek is $4,500 annually for the first student, $3,500 for the second and $2,800 for any others. The school also has a website.