Ep. 55: Cool Schools with Highlands Micro School

July 3, 2018

In today’s EdChoice Chat, we continue our Cool Schools series with an interview with the founder and director of the Highlands Micro School. Mike McShane and Anne Wintemute talk about the basics of what the school day looks like but also dig into underlying philosophies of education and child rearing that led Anne to start the school in the first place.

Mike McShane: Today on the podcast, we have Anne Wintemute from Highlands Micro School. Highlands described itself as a progressive, non-religious, independent elementary school in northwest Denver, Colorado. It’s a very small school, hence the term “micro.” At their capacity, they hope to serve a grand total of 24 students. Anne is the founder and director of the Highlands Micro School.

We have a very interesting conversation with you today not just about the buzzword-y things like “micro schools” or “progressive education” or any of those, but actually a deeper conversation about their philosophical orientation. How they view children, the responsibilities they should be able to have and how they should best be educated. So without further ado, my conversation with Anne Wintemute.

Okay, so when we see the term “micro school,” this is something that I think is popping up in lots of different, I read EdWeek articles, I see news stories and others. I would love, maybe we could start with what is a micro school?

Anne Wintemute: Well, micro schools in a similar form to how they’re represented today have been around since the beginning of education. They tend to be small groups of like-minded people with similar interests in terms of their perspective about what the role of education is in a child’s life. Originally they were small town schools. As schools began to consolidate over the years, they got bigger.

But a lot of small schools just like ours continue to exist. Today there is a growing trend towards moving back to those small schools where children were deeply known, spent many years with the same teachers, pursued things of particular interest to them, and really developed their personalities and character aspects right alongside with their academics.

Today, there’s more technology influence in micro schools. I think that there are two types going on right now: one that kind of pushes a little bit back towards that old-world model of schooling and one’s that’s crushing ahead into the future in terms of what platforms, technology can create to produce curriculum for students at their schools.

Mike McShane: So now your school, which of those two camps would you say it falls into?

Anne Wintemute: We are definitely a low-tech school compared to a lot of other micro schools. A bit more of the nostalgia. We see technology as having a role in terms of gathering information about the outside world, reproducing our understanding of information, be it through PowerPoint presentations or Claymation or obviously students are typing up work.

We use technology to supplement in areas where we may not have as much teacher expertise, for example coding is something that’s used, there’s something that we use technology here for. But in our K–1 space there is almost no computer use. That definitely differs from some of the other well-known micro schools like alt schools, where students come in with an iPad as an appendage, so to speak, to their educational experience.

Mike McShane: I was going to say, coding would be difficult to do without a computer. I imagine you could, but your wrist might get tired from that.

Anne Wintemute: That’s true! I meant more specifically in terms of the instruction on coding. We don’t have a coding teacher, so that’s not just something that exercised through the use of a computer tool. It’s learned and appreciated and whatnot through that tool.

Mike McShane: Cool. So how many students do y’all serve currently?

Anne Wintemute: We have 22 students. We are in our second year. We have a capacity at our location of about 24 students. As we grow we’ll be K–5. We’re currently, this coming year, we’ll be K through four.

Mike McShane: And are you adding one grade each year, is that your plan? What did you start with?

Anne Wintemute: That was our original intent. We started with kindergartners and first graders. I use those terms as equivalent to really a lower and an upper elementary school here. And then we anticipated our second year that we would add a new kindergarten class and then we would be K, one, two. But we had a fair amount of interest in expanding out the upper elementary class at that time, so we went ahead and did so ahead of schedule.

Mike McShane: That’s great. So I’m trying to visualize the student experience. Maybe we could start with the physical environment. What does your school look like? What does a child see when they walk in the door?

Anne Wintemute: Well first they’re going to, all around us they’re going to see residential homes. We’re in a residential neighborhood. We converted what was a rented duplex into what’s now a two-room schoolhouse. From the curb it looks very much like a residential property, except that it has a little bit of yellow schoolhouse flair with little cupola bell tower on the top and an American flag flying out front.

When they walk in, they’re going to see an atmosphere that is very much a blend between a classroom space and a home space. The ways in which kids store their shoes and jackets and backpacks are much more like home. There are couches, a scattering of, a variety of seating and table options. Library nook.

There’s a kitchenette: the kids prepare their food here much like they would at home or like adults would at an office. We don’t sell food. They bring it in, they heat it up, they chop up the salad if they need to. It’s very much a blend between what you would expect to see in a home and what you would expect to see in a school. It’s wall-less. The two classrooms are separated by a shared kitchen.

Mike McShane: So then from the actual learning process, what does a typical day look like for a student?

Anne Wintemute: A typical day has a great deal of choice. All of the kids have mapped out at the beginning of each week what they intend to accomplish over that week, and they’ll put that into what they would call a “Have to” folder. Plenty of the time is spent in group, working with each other in some structured activities. And then there are blocks left where the students are independently completing the work that they have in their “Have to” folders. Obviously, especially in elementary school, less so in some junior and high school environments, there’s a lot of skill building. Kids are learning foundational math principles before they’re exercising more applied principles.

Mike McShane: And is that more teacher-directed to get those? I appreciate children charting their own path and other opportunities that they might have, but perhaps some of those foundational skills that they need to know they might not necessarily want to know or might not go there on their own volition, so what role does the teacher play in guiding students towards the things that they need to know?

Anne Wintemute: I would argue somewhat with the premise.

Mike McShane: Oh please do.

Anne Wintemute: We have found that when kids are invested in the goals they have set for themselves they’re actually quite eager to accomplish tasks that in another environment where the goal has been set for them, they might not be particularly interested in.

Now with that said, young students are being guided in their access to information as much as they are in the actual skill. So things like reading can be a barrier to accessing a word problem. Coming up with strategies for retention on snap plaques. Those are about access to those word problems. So much of the direct instruction that’s being done is in this foundation of creating access for these kids to be able to sit down and take on unfamiliar problems to them.

Those skills, that learning how to learn skill, is a foundational premise here at the school. We’re less interested in teaching children how to do something or what to do than we are in them being able to sit down and understand what processes are necessary to accomplish their own goals.

Mike McShane: And so, as you describe your school I think some people might focus on the “micro” element of it, that’s it’s a very small school in this residential environment. But one of the things that stands out to me is it seems that you all have a different attitude about children than perhaps I might argue would be the dominant one in a lot of schools across the country. Even the anecdote that you told me about if kids needs to come in and chop up a salad. I would imagine that involves handing a small child a knife to cut things, which perhaps other people in schools …

Anne Wintemute: Oh god don’t look on our playground! You’ll see the saws and drills and all of the things out there.

Mike McShane: Great, so I think, I used to be a teacher myself, come from a family of teachers and in various schools that they’ve taught in, if you were to go in and say “Hey, okay just so you know, tomorrow we’re going to hand kids saws and drills,” or “We’re going to hand them knives to chop things,” there might be a great commotion about that.

So I would be interested, where does that philosophy come from, how does it manifest itself, how do you see children responding to that? I would love to know that whole philosophical orientation of your school.

Anne Wintemute: Yeah. So risk and the taking of it is innate in our human-ness. There is no learning, there is no exploration, there is no frontier if people are not willing to take risk. We insulate ourselves, children, from risk so much, and I think it is very much to their detriment.

We insulate them from taking academic risk. We do so by placing grades. The only risk is rather or not they achieve the grade: it was never an intellectual risk or an academic risk. We insulate them from physical risks by making playgrounds that are so lawsuit-proof that the opportunity to fall off the edge of something and realize that you’ve kind of got to pay attention to the surface that you’re on, those risks are taken away.

Our students always, anytime they’re outside they have access to the workbench. There are saws, screws, drills, vice grips, and there’s a dust pan next to it and an expectation that all of the saws are hung back up when they’re done and the surface is swept.

These kids don’t view the tools as dangerous. They view them as components to help them create and build the world around them. We spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year tool by tool, and this could be a kitchen knife or an eraser or a pencil sharpener: how do we use this tool? What does this tool mean to us? What kinds of things could break it? How does the tool give us access to other things? How do we clean up after it?

And the kids are so invested in their space. They feel respected, trusted, and they don’t want to violate that. They work very hard to make sure that that respect is going both ways and that there’s not something that’s going to affect it.

Mike McShane: So I imagine that might take a special kind of parent or a special kind of family to also buy into that mentality. I imagine, and again correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s a sort of attitude about child rearing that would need to be shared in the home environment. So how do you, do you have to work with parents to explain what y’all are doing? Do people select in who already view child rearing in that way? How do you liaise or work with parents to reinforce this belief in the innate abilities and capabilities of children?

Anne Wintemute: I would say that first there is some self-selection. These are parents who have, they’re looking at alternative school options. They critically assess the environments in which they would consider placing their child, and requested a tour with us.

When I tour the facility, first I meet with families in my office. We spend some time getting to know each other. I want to understand what they envision the role of education to be in their child’s life, and then after that we’ll do a tour of the physical space.

When we walk outside, the first thing I do is say “This playground,” we have a really beautiful, natural playground with a tremendous amount of risk in it, I say “This playground is built on our philosophy that physical risk is an important component in childhood development.”

We walk into the studio. They see the tools out. They see that the kids are using hot glue guns whenever they want to. And the truth is, we haven’t had injuries that you would expect to see on a playground and in a studio, creation space, that we have. The kids really are good at assessing the risks around them, making appropriate decisions, and maximizing the value that they get out of the access to those things without really experiencing any of the potential harms. But our biggest risk on our playground is splinters. That’s the one that we get all the time. It’s an all-wood playground, and we get a lot of splinters.

I think when they see the kids building these amazing forts and building swings out of the trees and seeing the joy on the kids’ faces, at the end of the day they would rather just not watch while the play is happening. Turn around, don’t look, but understand that the kids are really making some pretty good decisions for themselves.

Mike McShane: So how do y’all measure success? It seems that you want to accomplish a lot of things, both what we might consider traditional academic preparation but a whole lot of things about learning and growing. How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Anne Wintemute: That’s a question that we revisit all the time across the spectrum of things that we value. Some of the things I value, I’m the director here, I’m not only responsible for the student achievement, I’m responsible for the satisfaction of the employees who work here, for the facilities, for the continued enrollment and support from parents. So I evaluate success in a lot of ways.

One, the most obvious, is I should have happy teachers, happy students and happy parents. By and large, when all of those things are true the other measurements of success are also true. We’re not going to have happy families when we have students who we would suspect would be successful academically in a traditional environment not succeeding academically here. We wouldn’t be able to have a happy family if that were true.

We do do assessments throughout the year to get an idea of where our students are academically if they were in a traditional environment. We use some of the same tools that another school would use to evaluate the academic success. But in addition to that, we evaluate through the constant monitoring and conversations with the people who are intimately involved with the school.

Mike McShane: I love that idea of happy teachers, happy students, happy parents. I think oftentimes people ask me, I tend to work more in the policy realm and in the research realm, but folks as me, “What do you want out of schools?” Or, “What do you want?” My reaction is usually to say, “I want schools where teachers love to teach and children love to learn,” and it seems to me that if you’re satisfying those things … And I think adding the parental dimension an important one there, because perhaps teachers and students could love if they were just hanging out all day and enjoy it. But parents providing a check on all three I think is helpful.

So you mentioned teachers a couple times. I’m interested to know both on a practical level, you have 22 students. How many teachers do you have? Where do you find your teachers? Do you do special professional development with them so that they can thrive in this environment?

Anne Wintemute: Those are really good questions, because professional development is an area that is gravely lacking in this learner-centered model. But that’s not because people are not making an effort to create it, it’s just that these schools tend to be far and few between. So we have 22 students. We have three teachers in the classroom with them, and me on staff. We’ve got a separate music teacher, phys-ed teacher, but they’re not in the class on a day to day basis. And then we’ve also got our life skills blocks teacher. He was here from 3:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon. The kids have four, five adults that they’re interacting with on a daily basis here.

Finding teachers is significantly more challenging than I expected it to be. In the startup phase I was meeting with teachers all the time who were just, “Oh god, this is a dream job, I’d be so excited to take this on. I want to work in an environment where I’m respected, where I’m trusted to do my job, where I have the freedom to make adaptations based on the needs of the particular students.”

But it’s been interesting that through our interview processes it’s been very clear very early on each interview how much teaching in a traditional environment has boxed teachers in. When we have teachers come in and interview we tell them, “Remember this is a micro school. Remember that the world is your scope, that you can take these kids outside and run around the block with them if you want to. Don’t put any walls around what you come in and choose to do with these kids during this interview process.” And I tell you, nine out of ten out of them cannot come up with something that I wouldn’t expect to see in a traditional school, if that makes sense.

Mike McShane: No, totally.

Anne Wintemute: And these are teachers who have already self-selected for an environment where they really felt like they would be able to be unique in their planning.

Mike McShane: Wow, why do you think that is?

Anne Wintemute: I think that it’s not that dissimilar, teaching in an environment like this is not that dissimilar from being an entrepreneur. You have to be quick on your feet. You use the resources that are available to you. And nobody is standing behind you to pick up the pieces. You have to have ultimate faith in yourself, ultimate faith in the process, a great deal of respect between coworkers.

It is not a typical environment where someone is going to come in and say, “No, you’re not doing it right. Do it like this.” And I think the longer teachers have been in a traditional school, the more challenging it is for them to really break out of that environment and do something that’s truly different. It’s almost like damaged goods.

So we see that too when we have kids come, transfer in from other schools. We see it too. By the time we’ve got a kid come in in third grade, they’ve spent three years in another school, we can really see the effects of the absence of independence, the absence of expectations for contributions on things that are not evaluated. It’s very interesting.

Mike McShane: No absolutely. So now, as I said before I’m kind of a policy guy, so one of the things I’m interested in is are there public policies, either at the local level or at the state level or at the national level, that make your life more difficult? Do you feel like you have a pretty wide latitude to do what you want to do? Is there red tape that gets in your way, or got in your way when you were trying to start? How do you intersect with all of those varying ranges of policies?

Anne Wintemute: The policies have very little impact on us. The way in which the policies probably have the most impact is the anxiety, the knowledge of them produces anxiety in our parents and then those parents express that anxiety to us. If we continue to develop policy in a framework of, “Oh god, schools in America are failing,” then that anxiety of, “Oh no, we’re lagging behind as a country, what is this school doing to be different?” The anxieties produced by that we may feel and experience here. But as an independent school very little of the policy affects us, which is awesome.

Mike McShane: That’s great. And it’s interesting, the unfortunate irony when we talk about comparing American schools to schools around the world, I was struck, I was traveling in Europe not that long ago. I was in Austria, and was on a commuter train. Not a local subway, but a commuter train out in the hinterlands. I went on cruise down a Wachau Valley. Highly recommend it listeners, if you have the chance, to see it. It’s breathtaking. But one of the things was I was coming back about the time that school was letting out, and a whole bunch of children just got on at one station and went, they were talking to one another, they were reading books, they were doing whatever. They got off at the next station, I saw some people had parents that were waiting to pick them up there. They walked away.

And I’m always struck when I visit other countries, I try to visit schools. Many people, how much many other countries have a deeply different view about children than we do, and really see much more potential, have much more expectation for students, both in the freedom that they have to hang out and just be and you go to other places, kids are walking around everywhere and it’s okay. It’s fine.

Just the level with which they are trusted to manage their lives and figure out stuff for themselves from a very young age. Honestly, when I think about international comparisons or others, the thing that stresses me out is the degree to which we often restrict the autonomy of our children. I say give them more opportunities. Give them more responsibilities. They are absolutely capable of it. But that’s my own little diatribe.

Anne Wintemute: I agree completely, and I frame that in a different way. I often am asking myself, “Why do we think so little of our children?”

Mike McShane: Yeah, exactly.

Anne Wintemute: Why do we think that they’re incapable of running out to the pizza shop around the block and picking up our pizza? That’s something that I have my kids do. We must think so little of children and of our neighbors to fear letting our kids walk down the street. But I think it’s two-sided, or two-pronged. I think one is we don’t give our kids the credit for the immense capacity that they really do have. And two, we are terrified of seeing our kids struggle and fail.

Mike McShane: Totally.

Anne Wintemute: It pains us as parents. The degrees to which people will go in order to preserve their child from an iota of emotional or physical pain is ridiculous. I think that the combination of the two, the fact that we really cannot, we’ve proven we cannot appropriately assess the capacity of our children, and we’re terrified of seeing them get hurt.

Mike McShane: And especially getting hurt on such low stakes, right?

Anne Wintemute: Yes. That’s the whole point! The stakes are so low right now! Let them!

Mike McShane: Exactly, because if kids never fail at low stakes, when they eventually fail with high stakes, they’ll have no capability of being able to deal with that, right? I mean this is, yes. You see these unfortunately cheating scandals in colleges or whatever, and you’re just like, the kids don’t know how to cope with any of this sort of stuff because it was like yeah listen, if a child gets caught cheating on their fourth grade spelling test, there is a lesson to be learned. You can recognize that you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to do your own work, and do that, whatever.

But if you always deny them that ability to learn that, or any of these sorts of things of yeah, you know what? If you aren’t careful with tools on the playground, they will hurt you. And Lord willing it’s not something super difficult, but you want them to know those consequences when it’s cheap and before you have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Anne Wintemute: Yeah.

Mike McShane: So speaking of lessons learned, I would love to know from your perspective of running a school for the time period that you have, what are some lessons? If you could go back and give yourself some advice before you started this whole process, what are some lessons you have learned that you wish you had known when you got started?

Anne Wintemute: Gosh, that’s tough because I’m the kind of person that loves going into a space with no information and then creating information out of it. I liked the way that I didn’t have many of the answers when I started out. But I am often called on, emailed, by people who want to start schools around the country, and I’m really grateful to be able to give them a lot of sound information as they move forward.

Gosh, what would I tell myself?

Mike McShane: Or even what advice do you give those folks, if that’s an easier question to answer?

Anne Wintemute: The major one I say is, “Never compromise on what your philosophical sense for your school. Don’t even let someone push you against that. Decide before you open your doors where you stand on a handful of things: discipline, how do we talk to the students, how do we assess the students. And then hold firm on those, because there’s a great deal of pressure to bend to the norm, and if small school startups like us are doing that, we don’t deserve to exist.”

If we’re bending and becoming another apple in the apple basket, we shouldn’t be here. We’re no longer serving the kids.

But I think that if teacher-perneurs, people like me who are starting schools don’t spend some time really saying “What can I live with at my school? What do I have to have? What can I not have happening there?” And then marry those and commit to them. Don’t let anybody change your mind.

Most of the assistance that I provide tends to be far more practical. Things like figuring out zoning for your building, construction changes that you want to make, how to set up the budget properly. Really those practical things that you don’t want to mess up on because they’re a little harder to recover from later. For the most part, each of these small schools are going to be very much uniquely them, made in a creation of the dream of the founder. But there’s a lot of things that are going to be similar, like how do you manage enrollment, how do you process billing, what kind of compensation packages do you provide teachers, and those kinds of things. But I try to be helpful in those as much as possible and let the founder cover the rest.

Mike McShane: Great. Well look, and thank you so much for chatting with us today. This was a wonderful conversation, so this was Anne Wintemute, Highlands Micro School. Thank you so much taking the time.

Anne Wintemute: Thank you.

Mike McShane: How great was that, right? That was a really fun conversation to have because I think we were able to go a little bit beyond just talking about the nuts and bolts of how their school operates or what it looks like and really talk about the philosophical orientation that they have towards their students and developing children into young adults and eventually adults.

Oftentimes we might get lost in some of those details when we care about oh, this school does a double block of math, or this school does direct instruction, or others. It’s important to spend some time actually thinking about how do those schools view children and their role in shaping children’s lives?

Anne was a great sport in not just engaging in talking about the day-to-day activities of her school, but also talking about what they view their role in shaping children’s development and how they view that, which I certainly appreciate. That wasn’t necessarily what I asked her and said I was going to do when we first started talking, so she was a great sport, and I really appreciate that.

As always if you’re enjoying what you’re listening to, please subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. You can also always sign up for the EdChoice email list. Please do: you can go to our website, edchoice.org, and I think within a click or two a box will pop up. You can create a profile for yourself and you can get all of our cool content headed your way and you can shape it so you only get the stuff that you’re interested in and not others. We should be back in a couple of weeks with the next installment of Cool Schools. As always, thanks for taking the time for joining us, and for hearing about another really cool school.