Turning Down $500,000

Why I had to Turn Away $500,000 in Federal Grants

Ten years into my journey of education entrepreneurship, I had to give back half a million dollars. You can skip to that part, or see how I got there…

“On the one hand, you have SelfDesign which allows children to follow their interests and passion. On the other hand, you have the California Department of Education that requires all children to learn the same things at the same time. I don’t think there is a match here.. Inherently the idea that you are going to allow students to select their curriculum based on what they are passionate about, it’s inherently contradictory to you have to learn these things and you have to learn them in this order.” – Roger Rice, Assistant Superintendent, Ventura County Office of Education, February 25, 2012, Ventura County Board of Education public hearing on the appeal for SelfDesign YES and LCCC charter schools.

Families Need more Choices

Why not just home learning? Peter Gray and Pat Farenga offer some alternatives to school including home learning, starting a Sudbury school, and community resource centers. (Notice they are NOT saying home schooling.) I have direct experience with starting a Sudbury school and home learning. Both of these options are sub-optimal for my family and that’s why I am passionate about starting a network of lifelong learning centers.

Sudbury is a Tough Sell

One morning, my daughter Sage asked me what she was going to do that day. I said, “Play with mommy.” She replied, “Boring!” And I said, “What! You are 2 1/2 years old – how can that be boring?”

So, after much research I decided to start a democratic school based on the Sudbury model so that Sage could play and learn with more kids.

At its essence, a Sudbury school is governed by the students because each student and staff member get one vote. Since students outnumber staff, the students have more votes. If a child at a Sudbury school approaches a staff member and says, “I’m bored”, the staff member is supposed to say, “great!” and let the child find his/her own way to an interesting activity.

Sudbury is a tough sell with parents. Many of them think or say, “Really? You want me to pay $8,000+ per year for my kid do hang out and play? He/she could do that at home.”

At Sudbury schools, there is conflict around playing video games – should kids really have complete control over how they invest their time? And there is conflict around parent roles – mainly it comes down to discomfort with having children really run their own school. A lot of time and energy was used in school meetings to create and enforce rules about everything at the school. The kids were harsher in their punishments than the adults.

My daughter wanted more structure, more kids, and caring educators to create cool projects. We moved back to California and I began looking for other options. Katuah Sudbury School continued for a few years, shifted into a Free Range school and then closed.

SelfDesign – Nurturing Natural Genius

After moving back to California with 1 and 5 year-old daughters, we began our home learning journey. I met Brent Cameron, founder of SelfDesign, and he asked me to help him grow his learning model beyond British Columbia. I told Brent that I wanted to create SelfDesign learning centers around the globe – and start with one for my children. We began by creating online learning programs for children and virtual learning circles for parents.

To meet my daughters’ desire for hands-on, experiential learning, I started and ran Raindancers, a private learning center that met two days a week in Ojai, CA. Ojai is a small place with a failing public schools system, lots of expensive private schools, and unfortunately few secular home learners.

Raindancers was a project-based learning center where the curriculum was emergent from the children’s interests. Even though I had families driving one hour from Thousand Oaks to attend, I couldn’t attract enough families from the Ojai community. Many parents wanted a 5-day a week program. Many parents wanted a set, pre-determined curriculum. And during the height of the economic recession many families couldn’t pay our low tuition.

I turned down $500,000 in Federal Grant Money

So, I moved on to trying to create SelfDesign charter schools in Ojai to provide families with more choices. The charter schools were our first foray into doing a “school” with a government entity outside of the British Columbia where SelfDesign runs an $8 million distance learning program as part of the Ministry of Education .

I received $500,000 from highly competitive federal start-up grants for the charter schools. Woo Hoo! The first grant applications I ever wrote!

The night before the public hearing for the charter schools with the Ventura County Office of Education, my then 10 year old daughter said to me, “Mom, I need this charter school. Please get them authorized!” I did my best and I had an amazing team of experienced educators and administrators by my side. But, we couldn’t get it done.

I had to turn away half a million dollars because the local school district and county office of education would not authorize these charter schools. Wouldn’t you think that the money would be harder to get than the permission to do it?

I found out that the charter school application process is rigged and we didn’t even have a chance despite SelfDesign’s numerous awards, accolades and track record.

So, the charter school petitions were not authorized because school board members saw that SelfDesign, which begins with children’s interests and passions and then designs a curriculum to meet standards was “inherently contradictory” with the California educational system which requires all students to learn the exact same thing at the exact same time in a specified, sequential order. And, of course, for every student that attended one of the charter schools, the school district would lose $5,000.

This experience was disheartening and exhausting. This is happening all over the country. And it is tragic.

Generations continue to be robbed of their imaginations, curiosity, love of learning, natural genius, and the ability to author their own lives by a school system that was not design for learning. It was designed for compliance.

I don’t hear lots of CEOs asking for obedient, compliant workers who blindly follow orders.

Learn more about me here.

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