Ep. 284: Cool Schools with Teresa Sanders

November 19, 2021

In this episode we hear from Safari Small School creator Dr. Teresa Sanders. She candidly tells us her reasons on why she started her own school and the goals she has for the education of her special needs students.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats, and particularly the series Cool Schools. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice and host of the Cool School’s podcast. Today on the podcast, I’ll be talking to Dr. Teresa Sanders, who runs the Safari Small Schools, a micro-school in Canton, Texas. It is a school that is specifically designed… It’s pre-K through 3 school specifically for students with special needs, many of whom have really struggled in traditional schools due to some behavioral issues that they might have had.

Dr. Sanders is a experienced special educator. She spent a lot of time teaching in traditional special education classes, and that informs the way that the school works now. And for listeners, as a bit of a preface, a lot of times on the podcast, folks, especially people who run schools, can be kind of guarded. They want to be careful about how they say particular things because they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. Dr. Sanders is not particularly encumbered in that way, and I am really, really grateful for her candor. Throughout the course of our conversation, she calls them like she sees them. And I know people that are listening, you might agree with what she has to say, you might disagree with what she has to say, but I found it incredibly refreshing that she just spoke her mind. She based everything she talked about and the experiences that she had, and the school that she has created was designed to try and answer some of the problems that she had experienced in the schools that she’d been in before.

So rather than simply sit around and complain about something and collect a paycheck and wait for her pension to vest, she decided to do something different, to start a school based on principles that she believed in, to build a really strong community environment, and to educate kids. So I won’t say anymore. I just want to say that as a preface to this conversation that I really, really enjoyed. I think you all will, too. So without further ado, this is my conversation with Dr. Teresa Sanders of the Safari Small Schools.

So perhaps the best place that we can start our conversation is just for you to give a bit of an overview of the school. If you bumped into someone on the street or you were in an elevator with them and you had 30 seconds or a minute to describe Safari Small Schools, how would you describe what you do?

Teresa Sanders: Okay, so Safari Small Schools is a micro-school, and it’s designed for the kids, for whatever reason, they’re not thriving in the traditional classroom. So whether it’s behavior, low academics, social, or emotional issues, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a small, concentrated learning environment to serve needs of kids who aren’t thriving in the traditional classroom.

Mike McShane: And so how did you get involved in this? Where did you get the idea for starting the school?

Teresa Sanders: Okay, so I’m a former public school teacher and I’ve been certified since 2006. And I love public education. I love the kids, I love the families, but I didn’t like the failure. I didn’t like the quality of public education. And being that I’ve seen what happens when there are education failures in the lives of human beings, there came a point that I couldn’t be a part of it anymore.

It didn’t take long in my first year of teaching to realize that school is not about teaching kids. I’m a special education teacher. That’s where my certification is, and I’m also a behavior teacher. And pretty much across the board, everywhere I’ve taught, nobody cared whether the behavior kids learned anything or not. I did, and my assistant in the classroom did, but the district didn’t. No district really that I’ve ever worked in has ever cared, truly cared, whether these kids learn or not. They say that they do, but they don’t. Three quarters of the materials we needed didn’t have, couldn’t get them, or we had materials that weren’t related to what we needed. Sometimes a lot of well-meaning people in special education, but truly it wasn’t about teaching the kids.

Mike McShane: Do you chalk that up to… Is that bureaucracy? Is that like an attitude that’s there? What drives that persistent failure that you observed?

Teresa Sanders: Okay, so the bureaucracy is definitely there, but the reason for the bureaucracy is what I couldn’t attest to in court. Personally, I believe it’s all intentional. I believe that the poor condition of public education in America is intentional. I don’t think that it is happenstance. I don’t think that, oh, you know, just a few bad decisions and here we are. This is at least six decades of lackluster performance, at least six decades.

And so my thought is if we are who we say we are, like we say that we care, we say that we want our students to excel, then why are schools in this condition? Why? Why do we have federal and state and local oversight of districts, yet this failure continues? Why? Why do we have a Betsy DeVos or Dr. Cardona? Why do we have that? Why do we have them and education continues to look the way it does? And that’s not to blame them for anything. I’m talking about those seats. Why do we have an education czar? And we’ve had one for decades. Why do we have this if nothing is getting better in education?

So you can’t tell me that we have all of this oversight in place, but yet failure continues. There is a reason for that. And I just don’t think it’s, “Well, you know, we can’t just pull it together.” No. No. We have the answers. The money is there. We have the knowledge, we have the science, we have the know-how, but no one implements it. So in my opinion, public education is like this taxpayer-funded ATM for very powerful people. That’s my personal opinion.

Mike McShane: Sure, so you decided to step out of that system and start something new. So could you maybe just talk about that process? So from where you first got the idea for the school to how it eventually was able to open.

Teresa Sanders: Okay, so it’s all pretty organic. I believe that everything is providential. I do. I believe that everything that we do, our steps, everything, is providential. After having seen for myself what education failure looks like… And I’m talking from elementary all the way up to students up to 25-years-old and older. I know what education failure looks like and I know what it does. Okay, so I also know that 25 kids in a class is not good. I also know that not everybody in the classroom is moving at the same pace. I know that not everyone in the classroom learns the same way. So if you have a classroom where you’re trying to do one size fits all, it’s not going to work. That’s not rocket science. It’s just not going to work.

And so what you have to do is you have to catch failure before it takes root. So when you have someone in kinder or first who hasn’t mastered what he or she needs to master by the time they’re ready to move on to second, to move them on to second without that foundation is setting them up for failure. Again, not rocket science.

But the priority of public education right now is scores and testing. Scores and testing equals money. If scores and testing did not result in money, scores and testing would not be an issue. But scores and testing and ranking equals money. So we’re shooting for that middle. If they’re not keeping up or if they’re not likely to pass that test, they’re not really the priority. It is the kids who are very likely to pass that test or are solidly going to pass that test, those are the kids that get the time and attention. And truth be told, your high flyers who are going to nail that test no matter what, they’re not getting much attention either. It is that C group, that middle, not too high, not too low group, they’re the ones that education is going after. And it’s not because we want them to learn, it’s because we want them to pass that test.

I, as a mother and as a human being, that’s not me. I cannot participate in choosing who’s going to get some education attention and who’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If I’m an educator, my job is to make sure that I give every kid that comes across my path everything that I’ve got.

Mike McShane: And so you have purposefully targeted some students with some real challenges, so what was the decision there to target that particular student population?

Teresa Sanders: You know, it’s kind of the way I’m built. I went into education knowing that I wanted to be a special education teacher, and I think I just fell into the behavior group, because behavior, I know… And I knew this then. Behavior really is a communication. It’s a symptom of something greater. Behavior is not the thing. The thing is whatever it is. The behavior is a result of the thing. So I have enough insight to know that if I have a kid who has a bunch of behavior, maybe what needs to be done is let’s see if we can’t meet some needs first, and then maybe I might be able to teach them. Well, that’s where my heart still is, and that’s the population that I choose to work with.

So I have now pre-K through third. And I have two new kids coming in Monday, but the kids I currently have now have all some type of behavior challenge that we’re dealing with. They’ve been exited from other programs because of that behavior. Well, they’re being successful with me because now their needs can be met. With only five kids in the room, it’s easy to redirect behavior. It’s easier to, “Okay, hey, what’s going on here?” It’s easier to teach them the social skills they need or the communication skills they need and the academic skills that they need, the functional skills they need. It’s easy to teach them.

Plus, I have working relationships with parents, so we’re all working together on the same thing and it works. So I’m not bound by bureaucracy. I don’t have any rules that say, “Well, you can’t say that, or you can’t say this.” When parents sign their kids up for my program, they are agreeing to the idea that I may say something to you, that if I see that this is a hindrance to the child’s forward progress, I’m going to say something. You don’t have to accept it or you don’t have to action it, but I am going to say something, and my parents are totally fine with that.

Mike McShane: So could you maybe walk through the timeline? So where did you get the idea for this school? When did you first start maybe putting pen to paper to design it, and then when did it open? What’s the arc of that story?

Teresa Sanders: 12 years had passed from the time that I sat down and put pen to paper to launch day of March the first of 2020. Right before COVID hit is when I officially opened, and then COVID hit. And so I stayed open because I wasn’t under the same rules as public schools. Although I didn’t have any students to enroll, I just stayed open that whole time. And then as of February of this year is when I enrolled my first student and then subsequently enrolled the others in the months since then until now.

So it took 11 years from the time that I wrote down what I envisioned. And that vision changed quite a bit, because I was thinking in my head a full size, but smaller school. When it came down to it, it had to be something that I could control. It had to be something that I could manage, because the only thing that I can count on being consistent is me. I can’t count on the mindset of other people. I can’t count on the mindset of bureaucrats. I can’t. The only thing that I can control and manage fully is me. And so for my population, five students is where my cutoff is, because I know I can serve five kids. If I serve six, seven or eight kids, I may have to hire somebody to help me. It puts a whole different spin on things, because I need to be able to depend on that person being here, knowing what I need to have done. Is that person doing it in my absence? I need to know that.

And we will eventually get to the point where I may have a second person here, but at this time it’s just me, because I know exactly what I’m doing, I know exactly what’s going on. I’ve planned this. I’ve considered the law. I’ve considered state standards, all of that, and all of that has been incorporated into what I’m doing. The goal here is for kids to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. And we do it and we excel at it, because now the kids’ needs are being met.

Mike McShane: So what does a typical day look like in school?

Teresa Sanders: Wow. Okay, so for us, a typical day, it’s flexibly structured. We are a Christian-based school. And so you don’t have to be a Christian to come to this school, but it is a Christian-based school. So we start off with prayer, and we do encourage some type of spiritual connection outside of school. If you don’t go to church, you don’t go to church. If you do go to church, that’s a good thing, too. So no one is made to, “Oh, you have to go to church,” or, “Oh, you have to do this.” You don’t. But our principles are biblically sound. So when we talk about character and all that, the basis of that is the Bible.

So we start our day off with that, being thankful. What are you grateful for? And then we just move into civics, a quick lesson on civics, the United States map, states, the president, Washington, DC. It’s just to give the kids an ongoing understanding of the United States and symbolism of the United States and that. And we stumbled into that. Well, the kids love it, so we do that every day for about 10 minutes. And if you look on our Facebook page, you’ll see the kids and what they know about the United States map, what they can tell you about it, what they can tell you about Washington, DC. They can tell you all kinds of stuff. And then we just go into reading, writing, math, science, the whole thing. We spend about 20, 30 minutes per subject, and the kids get a break, a 10 minute break or so, after each content session to relax, to socialize.

I’m watching their social skills. I’m watching what they’re doing with one another. I’m listening to them. I’m listening to how they talk to one another, and I’m constantly correcting them. Is there a better way that you could have asked that? If you don’t want to play, what’s a polite way to say that? And I’m constantly teaching them how to socialize. So in my classroom, you may hear the kids say, “Hey, can I play with that truck with you?” And you may hear them say, “No, I prefer to play by myself right now.” Because I’m teaching the kids how to be… You don’t have to always share your time with someone, but it’s good to know how to politely say that.

And I also teach them how to invite someone to come and play with them and how to accept no if they politely say no: “No, thank you. I prefer to play by myself right now.” We work on all the social skills, all the functional skills. We work on all of that, because those are the things they’re going to need. When they outgrow me and get out into the real world, they’re going to need to know how to do that.

Mike McShane: How did you find these students and their families to participate in the school?

Teresa Sanders: You know what, they found me. I’m in a small town in East Texas, in Canton, Texas, and we’re newcomers here and nobody really knows who I am, but I have a pretty strong following on social media and that’s pretty much where I advertise. And I started off with… You know, I talk about what I do in the community. And so the place where I take my dog to be groomed was where my first student came from, and the owner of the shop was just like, “Hey, this is what’s going on with my kid.” Well, one thing led to another, and he ended up enrolling. Well, since then, it’s been word of mouth.

And so now, social media pretty much does everything for me. People are learning who I am. I’m getting inquiries from people who don’t know where I am, like, “Hey, are you located here?” Or, “Hey, do you have one here? Hey, do you have one there?”, from different parts of the United States, which is kind of cool. And right now we’re just in Canton, but the goal is to open up Safari Small Schools anywhere where a teacher who wants to do the same thing that I did, wants to come out of the public system and run their own program.

And it would be a small program. And you know, well, how many kids? I don’t know. It would be how many kids you know that you can serve effectively just yourself. And it doesn’t have to be behavior. Like my thing is emotional, social-emotional stuff, but maybe there’s a teacher who’s into the arts or sports or STEM or agriculture or whatever, who wants to run their own program, and that would be the foundation of their program. And they could serve young kids like I do, or sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders or 11th and 12th graders or whomever they want to serve. There would be something for somebody everywhere. That’s the goal.

Mike McShane: Well, podcast listeners, in 10 or 20 years time, you will be able to listen back to this podcast to know this is where it all got started. We’ll see these all across the country. This is where the beginning. Well, I have a question. So your students are up to third grade, so where do you expect them to go after this? Are they going to go back into a traditional public school system, private school, homeschool? Do you have some idea of what that trajectory is?

Teresa Sanders: Yeah, so right now on my heart is I really would like to have something in place locally for the kids, when they leave me, that I can turn them over to a program that would serve them, whether it’s a Safari Small Schools, which is what I want it to be, but also maybe a private school here or a co-op or something where I can turn these kids over and they’re going to get the attention they need. Of course, it’s up to their parents where the kids are going to go from here. That’s up to their parents. My wish for them is that they go to a place that is going to meet their needs along the same lines that I was able to meet their needs, so that would not include public schools. Under no circumstances will any public school that I’ve ever experienced provide the level of care and support that I’ve been able to provide, just sheerly because of my size. And that’s just it is what it is.

Mike McShane: So now you mentioned I think a really interesting idea here, working with parents to create a community, and you talk about being able to honestly share things with them. As you said, “Listen, you may not take the action that I recommend, but I can share with you.” I think there are probably people that are listening who work in schools who are teachers or maybe administrators who are interested in trying to build stronger communities in their classrooms and their schools. Would you have any advice about how to build a strong community?

Teresa Sanders: Oh, gosh. Parents have to be respected as partners. When we talk about building strong communities, parents have to be respected as partners. And so in the public system, my experience has been all parents are not respected as partners, and education leadership often wants to dictate what that partnership looks like. And so if you can’t accept parents for what they’re able to offer and from where they are sitting at the moment, then be honest with yourself. The reality is, is that not all parents are wanted in the school setting, and when they are welcomed in the school setting, it’s usually with, “This is what I want you to do while you’re here,” as opposed to what the parents might be good at or what the parents might want to do.

Again, everything is based upon the needs of the school. It would be great if we could really truly invite parents in and respect them and honor them as part of the education process. We say that we do, but in reality we know that we don’t. I’ve heard the statement, “I wish that they would just go away and let me do my job.” Their kid is your job. So maybe they’re pushy or maybe they have a lot of questions or maybe they’re unhappy and they’re saying it. Maybe they’re acting completely inappropriately, I don’t know. But to say, “I wish they would just let me do my job,” you don’t honor them as part of the process. Not everybody comes in with the level of agency necessary to satisfy every teacher working with kids. They don’t. So you have to determine I’ve got to work with these people where they are. And the reality is, is that in education, we don’t. And anyone who says, “Well, sure we do,” no, you don’t. No, you don’t. You don’t.

And so that’s just me. I’m the straight shooter, and the reality is, is many, many, many, many parents are kicked out of and left out of the equation, especially parents who know how the system works, parents with any type of knowledge and information of what their kids’ rights are. Schools very often don’t want to deal with those, because those are the parents that will hold schools accountable. Schools don’t want that.

Mike McShane: Yeah, that’s really interesting, because you hear some discussion… Obviously, so I work for an organization that promotes school choice. There are programs around the country for students who want to leave the public school system. And one of the common things you hear, particularly with students with special needs is, “Well, if you leave the public system, you lose all of the rights.” You know, your free appropriate public education, IDEA, all of the things that come along with it. And it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that those rights are rather hollow, that they don’t actually ensure that you’re going to get what you need, and taking a step outside of the public system isn’t necessarily, or perhaps shouldn’t be, as scary as some parents might think. Am I getting that right?

Teresa Sanders: Yes, you are correct. And first of all, because you leave the public school system does not eliminate your ability to get services from the school district. A lot of people don’t know that. You can leave the public schools and still receive services through the district. The reality is, is that the services through the district are nothing to sing about. They’re just not. And let me clarify. There are some public schools and districts who are towing the line, doing what they’re supposed to do, but there are many, many, many, many who are not. Statistically, there are more that are not than there are. So that’s a statistical truth.

So to the schools and the educators and the communities who are out there going hard for those kids and families every day, thank you. You guys are doing awesome, and I’m sorry that you guys are hidden under the layers of dirty laundry. But the reality is there is more failure than there is success, and it should not be. It is statistically unacceptable degree of failure.

And so when you look at is your child achieving now? Is your child happy with school? Is your child reading, writing? Is his or her academic needs, are they being met? If the answer is no or sort of or kind of, what are you walking away from? If you walk away from public education, what are you walking away from? Because if your child receives special education services, statistically that child is not being served in America’s public schools. I challenge any listener, if you have a child receiving special education services, the next time you show up at school, ask for data, documentation that shows that your child is being served. 95% of you will not get anything from a teacher.

And then I challenge you, check the academics. Can your child read and comprehend? Can your child spell or write? Can your child calculate simple or grade or age-appropriate math operations? If the answer is no, then you’re not getting anything. Your child’s not getting anything. A lot of times we don’t sit and gauge what our children actually know. So for a lot of parents, it took COVID to show them kids don’t know much, and that’s sad. And that’s partially on parents, too, because you have to be front and center. Even when the school puts up a wall, it does not matter. You play like Spiderman and you scale that wall. You don’t sit there and stare at that wall. Go rent a bulldozer and knock that wall down. You have to, because lots of schools are going to push back, but that’s just when you push harder.

Mike McShane: We’ve touched on it in a couple different places, but I’m a policy guy, and so I’m interested in how your school sits within the broader kind of education policy. Do local or state or federal laws, do they make your life easier? Do they make your life more difficult? The regulations that are placed on you and what you can and can’t do, how do you operate within that, and are things headwinds or tailwinds in the work that you’re trying to do?

Teresa Sanders: In Texas, the rules and regulations work very well for me because I fall under homeschool rules. Texas is very homeschool-friendly. The bar for homeschooling in Texas is not very high. If I’m recalling correctly, the mandatory subjects are civics, reading, writing, and math. I teach them all and then some. I stretch farther than what the state says I have to do. And I push a lot harder and farther than the state standards as well because I can. But there is not a lot of red tape hooked to homeschooling in Texas, which makes what I do very easy.

As far as spreading out, in Texas I don’t foresee there being a whole bunch of walls trying to stop what I’m doing. In other states, there may be hurdles that need to be crossed based on whatever their state rules and regulations are. I wish outcomes were the determining factor, because outcomes should be part of, “Okay, so let’s see what’s happening here,” but that’s not really the case. And that’s why public schools are allowed to continue the way they are, even though their outcomes are garbage.

But I’m able to really do well with what I’m doing, because it’s completely private and it’s under homeschool rules. I don’t take any government assistance of any type. I don’t. People have said, “Oh, the government will give you money to feed the kids.” No, thank you. I don’t want any government involvement. I’m not a 501(c)(3). I don’t want that, because with that comes that string attached to where they have something to say about what I do. I keep great records. The parents know exactly what I know. I keep records on parties, I keep records on attendance. I keep records on achievement and work samples and when assessing, and parents are part of the assessment process. So the parents know exactly what I know as far as what a child can do, and that way there is no trusting me that I’m teaching your kid. You know for your yourself that I’m teaching your kid.

And then if your child has to go back to public education, you’ll have a checklist of the Texas essential knowledge and skills. They call them TEKS here. You’ll have a checklist of all the TEKS that your child mastered and a work sample to prove it, so you can go to the public school and say, “The last year or two, my student attended here. This is what my child can do,” just in case a school district tried to hassle a parent about, “Well, they’ve not been in school the last year,” or, “I’m not sure what this kid knows.” Leaving me, a parent will have something to show that this child has been educated.

Mike McShane: So if folks want to find out more about the work that you’re doing, where can they find that?

Teresa Sanders: So my website is safarismallschools.com. I also have a very vibrant presence on Facebook, so definitely check out Safari Small Schools on Facebook. You can see my students. You can see videos of what they’re doing, the costumes, the dolls, all the things that we do. It’s kind of wacky sometimes, but we make school fun. We do. And on Twitter, also @SafariSmall, you can see what we’re doing there as well. And also on Instagram as well, Safari Small Schools on Instagram. You can email me at Dr. Sanders at Safari Small Schools… Plural.. dot com. And my phone number is also on the website.

Mike McShane: Well, Dr. Teresa Sanders of Safari Small Schools, thank you so much for joining us today on Cool Schools.

Teresa Sanders: You’re welcome, and thank you for thinking that my school is cool. That’s nice, I like that. Thank you so much.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Wow, that was great, wasn’t it? Certainly lots of stuff to talk about, lots of stuff to think about. An incredible amount of passion. I don’t know if the proper adjective for that conversation was bracing, but it was certainly provocative, interesting. And I found really a lot of what Dr. Sanders said resonated with me. I wish her nothing but the best in her endeavors. It will be interesting to see how her school is able to operate and whether she’s able to grow in the ways that she hopes her school is able to in the future.

But to be perfectly honest with you, I think, as I mentioned in the conversation, there are lots and lots of families that are frustrated with the special education services that are offered in traditional public schools. We see it in our polling. We see it in survey work that we’ve done, anecdotal conversations. I mean, it’s just something that we hear and see over and over again, that for so many, so many families have across the country, special education services are just not working. And so I’m just incredibly thankful that folks are trying to do something about that, that are trying to start schools that are doing something new and different, that are trying to bring out the absolute best in every child that’s in their care. And it’s very difficult to do anything but root for them and hope that it works out.

Well, as always, this is the point in the conversation where I say if you’d like to hear about other cool schools, you can go back to our archive through EdChoice’s website, or I think you can actually go in your podcast app, or you can go onto SoundCloud. Just search EdChoice on there and you can see all the old episodes that we have throughout the four seasons of this podcast. If you know of other schools… We’re doing this season all throughout the fall here, so if you know of a cool school in your area, your kids go to a cool school, your nieces or nephews go to a cool school, your grandkids go to a cool school, please let me know. Shoot me an email, send me something on social media, on Twitter. I’m at MQ_McShane.

And please subscribe to this podcast. Cool Schools is just one of the many series that’s part of EdChoice Chats. We have our monthly public opinion tracker breakdown, where you’ll be right on the cutting edge of surveys, getting your finger on the pulse of the American community and their views on education. Jason Bedrick does a great podcast where he interviews interesting people. Our state teams break down school choice politics and the goings-on related to those around the country. And there’s just a lot of interesting stuff going on. Check out our website, too, www.edchoice.org. It’s been recently redone. It’s super user-friendly. There’s tons of interesting information on there. As well, you can sign up for our mailing list where stuff will get sent directly to you. Check it all out: podcasts, social media, website, everything. It was great talking to all of you. I really enjoyed the conversation with Dr. Sanders, and I look forward to talking to all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.