by Kirby Lindsay, posted 27 January 2014
At the entrance on Interlake Avenue, Fremont Community School (FCS) looks like a big, colorful, well-loved farmhouse, which is what it is. FCS operates its preschool/pre-k program on a property planted with fruit trees that provide shade for the students – just as they might have done for the Ukranian families that farmed here a few decades ago.
During school hours, find FCS by listening for the sounds of children exploring, imagining and engaging with their environment. The FCS program deliberately creates for children, ages 2-1/2 to 5, a bridge between home and school, to give them an open, considered transition. Throughout the morning four-hour school session, the students engage in plenty of self-directed play, as well as finding time to paint, hear stories, cook and sew, all accomplished in an easy rhythm that provides a sense of order but doesn’t ‘adultify’ their play.
An ‘Open’ School
Over the past winter, a construction crew remodeled parts of the farmhouse, while students and teachers ‘studied’ outside. “Our children do spend most of their day outside,” School Administrator Teresa Donovan observed.
This winter, “we sent out guidelines on layering,” Donovan explained, to make sure the children were safe, “and we provide the rain gear.” Established 25 years ago, FCS administration has learned a few things – including the value in providing students with reliable rain gear. The investment in insulated boots and Northern European gear to fully protect the children, from neck to toe, has paid off as the children can get satisfactorily muddy, without getting wet, and get clean with little fuss.
“The month we were actually outside,” Tara Katz, FCS Director and Head Teacher, explained, “nobody was sick.” The remodel took place during a period of fortuitously fair weather, and bad flu. Yet, at FCS, the flu didn’t infect the well-layered children, as they played heartily in the fresh air.
The farmhouse is surrounded by a generous-sized yard, scattered with dozens of interesting objects to explore and repurpose. An old, carefully tended boat sits buried in the dirt, its oars floating free for pretend voyages or digging moats in the dirt. A stack of large, light-weight ‘wooden’ blocks can be used to construct forts, houses or steps to dream upon. Large trucks, felled timber and open expanses provide dozens of ways to further frolic, or muse.
In addition, Oliver, a full-grown pig, and his chicken companions, wander freely through the dynamic space, and among the children, as they forage. “One of the things we love about the animals,” Katz explained, “they teach compassion.” Also, children who may arrive to their new school, feeling shy or reluctant, usually warm up quick when invited to gather eggs or feed the worm bin. One new student spent his first days in rapt fascination with the huge, donated fish tank, inside the playroom.
An ‘Open’ Outlook on the Future
FCS developed out of the Bjorn Lih School, and Katz joined it seven years ago just as the non-profit leased space in the Fremont Baptist Church. After a few years, the Baptist Church leadership committee asked the school to move, as the story went, to make room for a more faith-based program (although non-profit R.O.A.R. Of Washington moved in.) The school moved into a house Katz and her husband bought for it on Interlake Avenue, where it continued to grow, “very slowly and organically,” as Katz described it. When the larger farmhouse next door became available, the school moved again, and when the FCS Board got the opportunity to buy the house, they did.
Owning the facility has made it possible to make improvements and modifications for the long term. “I do not want to lose the feeling of a farm house,” Katz said about remodeling plans. For now, dreams for the future have focused on renovations of the yard, with clearer, A.D.A. accessible paths and more definition to certain play areas… plus, possibly, an outdoor cook area. Best of all, Katz noted, owning their own facility means no one can ever kick them out again.
An ‘Open’ Mind
Inspired by Waldorf principles, the FCS program instills a reverence for life, the environment and the natural rhythms of both. The curriculum is based in a daily, weekly and seasonal rhythm that students can depend upon, as well as the teachers who reliably guide them among their varied activities.
Daily, the children have certain activities interwoven with play times and meal times, and weekly the program shifts from English to Spanglish to Spanish, and back again. Seasonally, students also shift their focus along the circle of nature, with celebrations that mark the passages: the Harvest Festival, the November Lantern Walk, the Winter Garden celebration, the May Day festival, and finally the ‘Jumping The Log’ ritual that marks the move each student makes as they leave FCS to enter kindergarten.
The FCS students engage with the world, without electronic or technological interference. During play, a wheel fell off a cart, so a teacher got a hammer and the children learned about repairing, rather than replacing, their toys. Using old Christmas trees, the children built forts – until the trees lost their needles, and then they learned about pruning and yard waste. They’ve also made dolls from old wool sweater fragments – another of the practices that won Fremont Community School the ‘Best Green Business Award’ from the Wallingford Chamber of Commerce.
As Donovan observed, both figuratively and literally, “we plant seeds.” At FCS students learn to think ahead, bring things together and modify them. Perhaps most importantly, FCS encourages an inquisitiveness and love of learning that will serve its students well as they advance on.
For parents interested in learning more, FCS will have its final open house session on February 5th, at 6p, with enrollment for 2014/15 due February 7th. Parents seriously interested in learning about FCS can also tour the school during school hours, to see how the program plays out in real life – with real kids!
“Last year, we had so many applicants that we could have opened another school,” Donovan observed. To reserve a space at the open house, or simply find out more about Fremont Community School, contact Donovan at 206/547-4054 or email@example.com
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©2014 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.