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  • Having fun is serious academics

    Ashland's John Muir School recognized as a top institution for learning, despite its unconventional style
  • With a focus on arts and nature education — and a fruitful mixing of ages — Ashland's John Muir School has grown since its founding in 2006 to 101 students spread over grades K-8. And even though the focus is on enjoyment of education, it has won the National Distinguished School, Title I award for academics.
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  • With a focus on arts and nature education — and a fruitful mixing of ages — Ashland's John Muir School has grown since its founding in 2006 to 101 students spread over grades K-8. And even though the focus is on enjoyment of education, it has won the National Distinguished School, Title I award for academics.
    Like western naturalist John Muir a century ago, the school is steeped in academics but intimately knows and learns from the surrounding wilds.
    "We follow all the state standards, testing and required curricula ... and it may look like we're playing, but we're able to embed traditional academics in that experiential learning," says one of the founding teachers, Camille Siders. She leads second- and third-grade math, science, reading, writing and art.
    As fourth- through eighth-graders twirl in African dance rhythms, Siders explains how Muir School is a "magnet school," meaning it attracts parents "who want their children to focus on the natural world and learn experientially."
    Children of all grades, she notes, spend hours a week tending to nature at Oredson-Todd Woods, on the south edge of Ashland — and building base camp and exploring nature on Fridays at mountainous EarthTeach Forest Park, 10 miles east of town.
    "It's an intentionally cross-graded community of families, students and high-quality instructors, created on a constructivist model, which gives kids the power to manipulate, hands-on, and participate in building their own learning space," says Tracy Petticord, a volunteer and mother of two children at the school over the past four years.
    The school faced a challenge last year from the district level, which sought to cut seventh and eighth grades, but the new superintendent, Jay Hummel, and families are "hugely supportive" of the present structure and attract parents who support the philosophy, says Muir Acting Principal Susan Hollandsworth.
    Students may look like they're having a lot of fun, but that shouldn't be viewed as light on academics, says Art Focus Program Coordinator Katherine Holden, who oversees watercolor, textile, cooking, collage and dance. However, she adds, Muir has a strong academic focus on traditional math, language, science and social studies, and landed in the top 100 among National Distinguished Schools.
    "This has been named a top model school by the Oregon Department of Education, and this proves the approach works," says another of the founding teachers, Marcia Ososke, who instructs at Muir's middle-school level and oversees capstone projects such as gymnastics, multimedia presentations, local theater and the Fuel Committee.
    "Our mission is to teach them how to think, not what to think," Ososke says. "At EarthTeach, they learn to be self-directed and independent — building the base camp, bridges, fire rings, benches, chopping wood — and they incorporate the changes in the natural world that they see into their math and science."
    The cross-grading approach teaches older students to watch out for and take care of younger ones — and the younger ones to look up to and form bonds with the older ones, says Hollandsworth.
    "It gives a sense of purpose to the young teens," she adds.
    After a round of African dance, seventh-grader Fiona Johnson observes, "You know everyone, little kids and older ones, mingle, do lots of outdoor stuff. We just went to Zen Center to practice Buddhism; we do lots of hikes and camping. I like it a lot."
    Students have adopted a portion of Oredson-Todd Woods for trail restoration, adding wood chips and removing invasive blackberries, notes seventh-grader Cole Daneman.
    "All students feel included and learn something special. Every student feels nurtured," he adds.
    The school is situated on the Ashland Middle School campus. Applicants are chosen by lottery.
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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