February 20, 2018

Well, it’s hard to believe it’s been three and a half years since I updated Next Steps. Life continues to evolve, as does West Family Day Care. I am happy to say we are continuing on with the same regular staff of Jen, Liana, Anne, and Maria, with Alice continuing to volunteer and sub in her retirement, and Jonah available to sub in his young adulthood.

We love having the range of ages, both in staff and in children, and while we have simplified in some ways, we are again working with homeschoolers, two last year and one this year who will continue next year, and to have some kids after school when we can make schedules to complement families of would prefer a half day morning schedule. We have also been pleased to have hosted many teens in the last two years who have asked to spend time with us. This summer we hosted five different teen interns, and this school year we have one teen with us regularly and one occasionally.

We have also been unable to resist the charms of the toddler set, so have continued to care for one or two one-year-olds each year. Next year we will care for the ten month old baby of one of our former teachers, a rare time we’ll take an under one-year-old.

The modifications to the program to continue to work for our staff as we age. We now push mainly two strollers, rather than a stroller and a wagon to the park, which is easier on our older backs. We have been exiting and entering from the back door with the children, where there are fewer stairs, as it is harder for us to carry toddlers up and down the longer front stairs. Though we can do it in an emergency, this allows many young ones to walk and all of us to transition more smoothly before and after park time.

Life changes have also meant that closing for summer hasn’t been something we can afford to do, so we remain open year round, and expect to for the near future, at least.

Someday, we, like our closest colleagues, Macky and Michael, will be looking forward to retirement. For the moment, we are learning from them how to run a program into their sixties, to gradually reduce numbers of children and days open and hours worked, and to phase out children slowly so as not to disrupt the lives of families, and even to care for a grandchild.

For now, our teachers are well-seasoned, experienced, with our own children at home in various capacities, in elementary, middle, and high school, boarding school, college, and working. We’ve found a schedule that works for us and we are all quite happy doing things as we are here at WFDC, feeling lucky to support one another and our own families and the day care children and their families in living good and full lives, still our goal each and every day.

Welcome to our place. We hope you will contact us if you are curious about what we do. As our almost five said to me today, “Maria, you sure do get a lot of phone calls from people who want to learn more about the day care.” I was proud to agree with my young friend and to let her know that talking with those folks is a part of my job I very much enjoy.

October 7, 2014

We are now thinking of ways our day care might shift to allow the teachers to continue to do this work over time, as we age, and as our families and our ways of being shift. After this year, we are going to focus on caring for two to five year olds, primarily full days. We are aiming to close for the month of August 2016, and possibly to be closed for the full summer of 2017. We are no longer taking homeschoolers and once our current after school children no longer need us, we are not likely to take on more. We will have a few school age children with us for summer vacations, and will fill those spots in January or February, rather than throughout the spring and summer.

Simplifying is our goal. We are cleaning out books and toys and furniture, eliminating sources of conflict and stress, and working to our strengths. Each of our teachers is here on a schedule that works for her. As we age, we need more time to do the things we love outside of day care, whether gardening, reading, writing, walking, traveling, spending time with friends and family, or just day dreaming, as well as to do the things that keep our lives working, and resting some, too. We hope this balance will allow us to continue to provide the rich and happy child care environment we’ve aspired to all these years, even as its form continues to evolve.

October 11, 2013

Wow, a lot can happen in five years! When I started this blog in November 2008 I was thinking of starting a small independent school. Then I thought of working with homeschoolers in a family day care context. Then I worked on trying to start a charter school. Then I joined the staff of the Sudbury Valley School. Now I’m working on sanity:), trying to have a life that isn’t so loaded so that I can begin to breathe, keeping the day care alive for the future, figuring out how to shift things gracefully both personally and professionally so I can both live in the moment and have some sense of security about the future.

When I began this blog, my oldest son had just begun at Sudbury Valley, which rocked my world. I had just finished several years of volunteering and work with my children’s alternative public school, the Boston Association for the Education of Young Children, and the local Early Childhood Mental Health Study Group. I went off on my own in some ways, found new communities in others, attended AERO conferences and Gilchrist retreats and a Reggio Emilia session at Lesley, as well as several Documentation Studios at Wheelock.

For now, life is much more in the here and now, learning how to care for an infant and many toddlers after many years of a slightly older group, thinking ahead to life as my caregiving partners age, trying to stay open to living my personal life more nontraditionally than I had expected, letting go of my kids as they head off to college, spend half time with their dad, and generally become more and more independent, learning to be myself again, not only mom, teacher, caregiver, organizer, but just person.

The day care has incorporated older kids in many ways over the years, after school, during summers and February vacations, and as homeschoolers. A few years ago I lost the ability to provide transportation for after school kids, then my youngest child joined her two older brothers at Sudbury Valley. Gradually, we stopped providing after school upstairs, as we had during my kids’ many years of public schooling, and reduced the number of after school children we could serve. We have experimented with incorporating homeschoolers into our group. Three lasted quite awhile, including the last, who is now helping us as an intern one day a week, and has been asked if she would like to work as a helper in two other programs next summer for pay. She is amazing. Mostly, though, our work has downshifted to the very young and pretty young, with an infant, lots of toddlers and preschoolers, two school age after schoolers, and hopes that some of our alumni will return for school vacations.

Yesterday I visited with the kids and staff at Sudbury Valley, where I spent three days a week and many evenings and weekends last year. I still consider myself an advocate and active supporter of SVS, but my primary energy needs to go towards keeping the West Family Day Care, my family, and my self going. That is a whole lot for a single mom, which is another thing that’s changed since I started writing. I was separated, got divorced, and would like to say, have learned a whole lot from that experience, too, most of all, I think, that we never know what will be next and that the most surprising things can break us open and send us in new directions. I hope to keep that in mind, no matter what lies ahead.

For now, I’m grateful for the work and livelihood I find at WFDC each day, for the support we’ve earned from our community, for the kids and families and caregivers who make the place so lovely, and for my friends and family, who keep me focussed on what counts, love in many forms.

June 5, 2012

We are finishing our summer and fall enrollments, with returning school age children and a four and a five added to our summer mix of kids who’ve been here during the school year in the day care, as home schoolers, or after school, a large group of children leaving for kindergarten, one for a preschool and one for a homeschooling group, and several new children entering, ages one through three to add to our returning group of twos, threes, and fours. We will have a big shift, from a group of significantly older children to a group with many toddlers and twos, from a group with a few members who were new this year to a group with a large number of new children.

Also in the fall, it is likely I will be working three days a week at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, where my children go to school. This means I’ll work two days in the day care and the other caregivers will shift schedules to make it all work. We’ve added two new caregivers this spring, both experienced parents and lovely people who want to work with us in our program. Jen Devine has been a friend of mine for several years and has raised her son Loden, in part by being a dedicated volunteer while he was in school with my daughter Isabel at Somerville’s Choice Program, where we met. Lou Fiscarelli has been a father in the day care for five years, and has helped us, along with his wife, to learn more about homeschooling, as his older son was our first homeschooler and his younger son was our first day care child to continue with us through to age seven. Early in his career, Lou worked at the Albany Free School, which is a mixed age program in downtown Albany. It is likely that Jen will work with us two or three days a week in the fall and Lou will act as a backup caregiver. Both will be certified to work with up to six children on their own or to work with up to ten children under the supervision of a large group assistant, either Liana, Alice, or me.

While we thought we had filled our fall spaces months ago, we’ve had some changes in the last month which have left a four day opening and two after school spots. We’re hoping to fill the four day opening this week and don’t know what will happen to the after school spots. Please get in touch if you are interested.

Also this year, I spent a great deal of time working on the Somerville Progressive Charter School. I attended Founders’ Meetings, working group meetings, visited schools, helped produce the Prospectus and Charter Application, put my name on the application as a founder and a potential Board member, attended meetings with the DESE Charter School Office and the Public Hearing in Somerville. Sadly, this charter was denied in February. The group continues to work on an application to be filed this summer and fall and we are hopeful it will be accepted this time around.

My oldest son is graduating from Sudbury Valley this year. We’ve spent a lot of our year preparing for his transition to college and I’m proud to say he’ll attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a significant scholarship this fall. I’ve been proud to visit colleges, help with essays and applications and financial aid and to watch Ben do so much of this on his own. I’ll be amidst a crowd of proud families and friends at Sudbury Valley’s moving on ceremony next Thursday and we’ll celebrate with a party at our house next Saturday evening. He’ll do Freshman Orientation in July and head off to live in a dorm this fall. Hard to believe my baby is all grown up.

It’s telling perhaps that as my son moves on, I spread my wings as well, trying out the larger world of Sudbury Valley, with it’s students from four to twenty or so, all one hundred and sixty or so of them, with over ten staff members, a large school building, several acres of campus, and an international network of Sudbury Schools to get to know. I’m eager to find my place there, but not planning to leave my place here, as the West Family Day Care learns to live a bit more without me, takes in new children and caregivers, and transforms itself for the next stage of it’s life. I’m proud to have made a place based on my wish to be home with Ben, rather than to continue as a public school teacher when he was born, that will live on when he is off to college and will support not only my family, but another generation of young children and families and caregivers who’ll carry on now my children no longer need what we have to offer here.

September 5, 2011

Gosh, it’s been nearly a year since my last Next Steps update. A lot has happened, and a little. Personal life has been shifting. Day care life, too. Charter School Prospectus has been filed with the State and we hope to hear back this month about whether or not we are invited to apply for the final round. The after school kids planned, fundraised, and saw the building of a dream, a tree house in the back yard, which has made the backyard home. We’ve been nearly living outside since it’s opening in June. During the same year, I lost the ability to transport children in my van, learned to take the bus, to ask families to do more, shifted the fall schedule away from after school toward more full day care. The first home schooler we worked with is moving on. His brother and an older girl will be our home schoolers this year, while a former member of our day care group is home schooling and joining us in the summer. Summers we work with children of all ages, and that may be what I love best, but it doesn’t work in the larger world of year round programs, there is no license for it, other than family day care which incorporates home schoolers or after school care, and even in that form, it’s a foreign concept to most, to mix children from one to ten or so, adding in the older ones as helpers, then sitters, then caregivers, the whole thing one long conveyor belt, or melting pot, or tossed salad of life.

I thought this weekend about learning in mixed ages again. I walked in the woods with a friend in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, in the woods behind our place in Ashfield, where the rain and flooding nearby were devastating, in our woods, mostly something new. There were mushrooms everywhere, in so many colors, shapes, and sizes, I was entranced. I thought of my four, who is also entranced by fungi, and I thought, in all the world, she is the one most likely to lead me to a serious, playful investigation of this piece of the world. I, at forty five, have nearly given up hope for traditional school. My hope lies in the power of things we may have forgotten, or which lie nearly submerged in our society, in places like Sudbury Valley or West Family Day Care or Macky and Michael’s House or Sue’s house, or the woods, or the farmers’ market, in the local food movement, which is not at all submerged, but growing, or the alternative schooling movement, which again, is on the rise.  I want to believe in the power of those small, somewhat protected worlds, to regenerate the good, to carry on doing what is true to the heart, ignoring, as best we can, the lunacy of the larger world, doing right by the children and ourselves in small ways that make a difference in the long run.

So, this fall, I’ll work on our school some more. I’ll hope our place in Somerville, if we are granted permission to take that place, will be a little wild and woolly, will be a place where children and adults both get what they need and become who they are, where fungi and mushrooms are as important as whatever the MCAS is testing this year, where kids of many languages and cultures can come together with teachers of backgrounds nearly as diverse, and learn what is important to them, tested, as current law requires, but not taught only to the test. That is a dilemma I’ll continue to wrestle, as long as I remain connected to the larger world of public education, which at times holds me by a tenuous thread, at other times, like in our Friday night Founders Meetings, or our visits to innovative schools, wakes me up like almost nothing else.

Next steps, more conventionally, are to keep on with day care, keeping the after school  alive one more year, keeping the mixed ages for vacation times, keeping on in our small way with home schoolers, in our big way with the youngest ones, the ones to fives, keeping on with writing and photographing and wondering and talking and reflecting on what we do, keeping on with the search for how to connect what we do and love in our small world with what is happening around us, still as ghoulie as I was in high school, when the caption under my senior picture said I wished to make the world a better place. Don’t we all? Bottom line, if we could make a school or a day care that created people who did, that would be enough for me, so long as they kept at it as best they could.

November 8, 2010

It’s been nearly two years since I started this blog (November 11, 2008 was my initial entry, written by my then husband, who set up the blog for me to help coalesce ideas that were forming in my head and in the day care around transforming our family day care into a small school.) These have been eventful years and I couldn’t have predicted then where I would be now. That is lesson number one for that timespan. You never, ever know what is going to happen tomorrow.. You might have a plan, but life happens, and it’s a bit of a surprise how it plays out. Some years are more surprising than others.

At the time I started the blog, I was coming off a run of intense involvement with my children’s alternative public school and with the Boston Association for the Education of Young Children, where I had been a Board Member for three years. My oldest son was struggling in the traditional middle school program which the alternative program kids were expected to flow into from sixth grade. By the beginning of eighth grade we were thinking about other options, ostensibly for High School. My friend Macky told me about Sudbury Valley. Ben and I checked out the website, and about two weeks later, Ben was a student there. I was tossed into a six week or so episode of not sleeping, reading all the Sudbury Valley literature I could consume, at the rate of about a book a week, and really questioning how I could make something like Sudbury Valley in Somerville.

At the same time, we had begun to work with a homeschooler in the day care and liked the experiment very much and wanted to consider opening up our day care to more home schoolers. This year we have three homeschoolers, one who’s with us for the fourth year, another who has been with us since age two (his brother) and who turned five and continues with us rather than go to kindergarten, and another girl, nearly eleven, for whom the day care is a sort of Friday internship in early childhood education and child development. Each homeschooler takes what s/he needs from the program, and I love having each of them, but expanding to serve a larger group of home schoolers is no longer something we are actively trying to cultivate.  There are lots of other programs and individuals serving the needs of home schoolers. It seems many home schooling families do not want or need a group care experience like ours for their children. You never know. We’re open to including more home schoolers so long as what we offer meets their needs. What we don’t plan to do it to shift our program dramatically with the goal of recruiting home schoolers.

At this point, I still have some urge to be part of a larger progressive school outside of the West Family Day Care, but I don’t have the urge to change my workday or workplace. So, I have been participating in a group working to start a progressive charter school, and I have been keeping a little bit of touch with things at my daughter’s alternative school My second son joined his brother at Sudbury Valley last May, having struggled through most of seventh grade at the middle school program his brother left nearly two years before. The School Committee voted in June to merge the alternative and traditional programs within the school, and I found myself back at school meetings, trying to figure out what made sense to me. When the decision was made, a group gathered to explore the idea of forming a Charter. While I had only two years ago gone to the School Committee as Co-chair of the alternative public program advocating for a leader in order to strengthen the program and thuse to avoid sending so many of our kids to the Charter which was draining our district of funds, the decision to merge the alternative and traditional programs left me feeling uncertain enough about the future of the school and my role and my daughter’s place in it, that the Charter group appealed. Besides, my experience with Sudbury Valley and the reading and writing and thinking I had done in my exploration of the new school idea and then the blog and my abdication of BAEYC and the more organized aspects of the early education and care scene all had me wondering if my views of what kids and teachers need could happen within the public school system. I still wonder. It’s hard for me to feel sure that either the Charter  we want to create or the merged public school can fulfill a vision of education that will feel true to my heart, as both will be measured by standardized tests and will be accountable to the state, for whom Standards are the ultimate authority and benchmark. But, I want all kids to have access to education that does right by them. I want all teachers to work in a place which respects their knowledge of children. I want kids to play again. I want teachers to observe the children and to trust them and support them to grow up to be individuals, not cogs in a wheel.

Which is all laid out in a small book called Education for Human Greatness, which I had the privilege to help publish when a small group coalesced after my first AERO conference. I’ve been a marginal participant, and should do more to support the vision of Lynn Stoddard, author of the book and advocate extraordinaire, elderly gentleman hopeful that we in the group of investors will take up the challenge of spreading the word far and wide, saving this generation and those to come from the almighty test and state and national standards, which seem to crush spirits rather than raise them up..

We’ll see.. tall order and I am, two years after starting the blog, divorced, single mom, paying the bills by working nearly fifty hours a week, and stretched for money and time..hard to know what the future holds. I haven’t given up. For now, though, it’s keeping slots full in day care and after school and summer care, doing well by our kids and staff and families, looking after my kids and home, and keeping (making?) myself sane and healthy and happy so I can keep on keepin on, at least till the mortgage is paid off, which, if I’m lucky, will be when I’m about seventy three years old!! Long time from now to then to live a whole ‘nother life. What do you think it will be?!?

June 18, 2010

It’s been over a year and a half since I started this blog in November 2008. Sort of amazing to have written and read and thought so much about living and learning together. Also amazing to have shared my thoughts with so many readers, from my mom and sister and co-workers to total strangers from around the world. I find writing on the blog now is one of the routines in my day I most enjoy, that I crave, even, on most days. I’ve probably thought as much about the writing as about a school, maybe more, am wondering if my calling is as a sharer of ideas more than as a creator of a new school.

Thing is, I love my job. I love our family day care. I love my colleagues and our families and our kids. I love my home, which is integral to our program. I love my neighborhood, our park, our community of children and caregivers and parents and neighbors. I love our walk with gardens and birds and a high school and an apple tree and tall grass and a hill and sidewalks and driveways and a UPS driver who has been saying hello to us for fifteen years, elderly folks for almost as many. We are integral to this place and it is nearly impossible for me to imagine leaving, moving to a new space to start something new.

But, at the same time, it is impossible for me to put down the idea of making change in the larger world, of imagining a school with greater freedom, more connection, a better balance of life with learning, outdoors with in, hands on, hearts on, minds on, big and little, old and young. Thing is, for my kids right now Sudbury Valley has all that, ten acres, a big old mansion, one hundred and sixty kids and ten or so staff, a democratic structure that has been around forty years, grass, grass, trees, trees, flowers, bushes, boulders, rocks, a pond and a bridge, and as my city son said yesterday, I saw two groundhogs. Now, we have animals in Somerville, but we don’t have ponds and groundhogs and we don’t have and never will have ten acres and a mansion, and we won’t have those things on a forty year old mortgage, and we won’t ever be able to charge 7,000 dollars for the first student in a family and three quarters of that for the second and half of that for the third. We just won’t. So, no matter what school I might invent, I will have to count at least my biggest kids out, and probably my youngest, as Sudbury Valley is likely as good as it will get for them.

Which leaves me wondering, who am I making this school for, and how and why and when? Is it all about a dream, about the imagining of what is right and good, and the telling of stories to share with the world? Is it all about our little world of family day care, the day to day occurrences, the recurring themes, the resilience of the basic structures of society to which we are gradually, slowly finding our way back, after training as teachers, working in schools and child care centers, stripping away the layers of civilization is the closest thing I can name which describes the way I feel these days about my professional development. It’s all about going back, finding the core, the essentials, stripping away the unnecessary, tossing out the worn, the bad, even the good but nonessential. Too much stuff, too many rules, too many thoughts and ideas sometimes to just be.

So, for the concrete version of this rant, nothing has really changed. Day care still in operation, thriving, serving school age kids and younger ones, working with gradually more homeschoolers in the mix, same teachers, same hours, virtually the same schedule we started with fifteen years ago, if you count drop off, inside, outside, lunch, home, nap, outside, home, as a schedule. But, close up, it does feel different. Homemade bread, stories on the couch with a teacher and kids who want to share them, rather than in circle (tried that today again after a long hiatus, and it was a disaster), focussing on flowers, clay, plants, wood, fixing and making and doing things, wrestling, caring, working, helping, all kinds of things we could have been doing five hundred years ago, though not blogging about them or taking pictures of them with a digital camera.

So, something has changed, but I can’t still name it clearly. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, happy reading, happy story sharing, happy photographing, happy walking and talking and singing and dancing, happy running and jumping and playing, happy cooking and cleaning and dressing and washing, happy eating and growing and composting, happy painting, happy sculpting, happy collaging, happy drawing, happy water, sand, earth, wind, even happy fire, happy elemental, earthy, crunchy, back to the land, poetry loving, hugging, kissing, comforting, company keeping day.

Good at least to be back to Next Steps after so long away. I hadn’t known what to say. Still don’t but here is my best attempt.

November 4, 2009

Well, I am coming up on the one year anniversary of this blog, have passed the one year anniversary of my son starting at the Sudbury Valley School, am living in a different way in my personal life, separated from my husband and on my own financially, without the kids half time, learning how to do some new things I couldn’t do last year, use a digital camera (thanks, Sarah and others), use itunes and Pandora (thanks, Ben!), write personal and reflective stuff for the world, as well as observations and education related thoughts. Finding myself and my family and even the day care in a somewhat new place is sometimes energizing, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes dizzying, sometimes grounding, never know what the next year will bring a reminder from a friend on the side of the pool this summer something I must believe.

Last year at this time, my vision was for a new alternative type school. Now that seems far off and unlikely. Lots of reasons for that, but not ever sure. Can’t imagine making a big change financially right now, barely figuring out my own personal finances, never mind a business expansion or a change in my income that would involve a lot of risk. Can’t imagine working more than I already am as a single mom ofthree kids who wants to also have a life of her own. Do love working with the mixed ages, in the summer, after school, on Fridays with our mix of younger kids and homeschoolers. Do love working with a larger group of teachers, an accidental discovery I made while Alice was out this summer, two great subs to remind me of all the wonderful ways there are to be a teacher/caregiver, and of the joys of working with younger teachers, of being a little bit of  mentor, of learning new things from them, of mixing up the different life stages and personalities for the adults and the kids. Loved all the reading and writing and photographing this year, can’t imagine giving it up, can’t imagine keeping it up:) My book shelves, even with a new one this year, are overfull, and there are more books I want to read than I can possibly get to this year, maybe this lifetime. Also had a great time thinking about music and art in a fresher way this year, and nature and seasons and the outdoors, and doing things by hand, and real work, lots and lots and lots I want to think about and to keep exploring, but no idea in the world where I will be next year at this time, refreshing and scary as can be, this place of unknown, but also a reminder that we never really do know, even when we are feeling secure and sure of ourselves, things change. Hope I am learning to adapt, to take life a little more as it comes, not to be such a worrier and control freak (probably just two of my potential downfalls).

Going to keep on keeping on. Going to go back to the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference in June, to Gilchrist in July, if I am able, to my Community Reflective Supervision Group if I can hire Danny to sub and afford the time away, to keep on watching and wondering with the adults and kids in my life to see what next. And will keep on cooking and eating delicious food, making and appreciating some sort of art on my own and with the kids, singing and listening to music, and dancing every so often, spending time in city and in the park and in the woods and in the water and with friends and family, reading good books, writing whenever I can, thinking hard and wondering on just about everything in the world. Hopefully that will make me a good mom and teacher and caregiver, best I can do for now.

October 12, 2009

Fall is here, and about six weeks into our new group and our Friday homeschool experiment, I have no idea where we will be next year at this time, though my guess is that our family day care group will continue and thrive as will our after school group. The homeschooling is a more experimental venture and the success or long term viability of that is yet to be determined. We now work with two homeschool families on Fridays. A third did a trial and the fit was not right for now. There are two other established homeschool groups in the area and all these families are familiar with the three and with many families who participate. Our program seems much more child directed and child care based than the others, and also has a wider range of ages and does a wider range of things (summer care, after school care, child care, home school support). One of our homeschool girls came to learn Spanish from Liana and to learn more about caring for babies. After several weeks, she wishes she could be with us more and we wish she could, too. Her younger siblings are also taken with the toddlers and so I see the wide range of ages as a unique opportunity we provide, and Spanish also. Our other home school boy is not as taken with the babies, but the mix of ages has been really useful to him in learning to form relationships, in being admired and a mentor, in learning to be with a wide range of people in different ways, from physical to artistic to repairman mode to cerebral. I think what we offer to home school families has value, but it is not enough time one morning a week to know what it would be like to do it full time, and it is also interesting to notice that it is in fact the care aspects and the wide age range, and the child directedness of it that seem to make it useful and somewhat unique.

And, I am happy and really loving work these days, in all its varied forms, mixed age summer care, daytime care of toddlers and preschoolers, and now Fridays with home schoolers added to the mix, after school, which has expanded this year and is more fun than ever, and also in being a teacher/provider and learning new things from the substitutes we have had this summer and fall while Alice has been out for surgery, and from the parent group, who has been giving me feedback on the blog, and from Liana and Alice, who are growing, too, and from my colleagues at the park, my slightly larger provider community. I am not missing the involvement with BAEYC (Boston Association for the Education for Young Children, where I as a board member for three years), or my volunteer work at school for our public alternative program (though I am looking forward to chaperoning an upcoming trip to Nature’s Classroom overnight), nor the grassroots organizing or support group for family child care providers. All these things were huge in my understanding of the larger world of education and care. The perspective I gained from working with people from around the city and state learning about and advocating for education and care were invaluable. But now, my work on infant and child mental health from the spring, and my own exploration of how children and adults live and learn has taken over. Writing the blogs and taking pictures is helping me to see what is in front of me everyday with new eyes and is waking up my heart and mind and dare I say soul, and that for now is the direction I am heading, wherever that may lead. I am alive and taking each day as it comes and looking forward to the next, not so much with a plan, but with hope, and that is huge.

August 26, 2009

Fall is fast approaching. Our mixed age summer, with kids from two to ten, sometimes an eleven, twelve, or fourteen, has been pretty darn good again. The mixed ages today, as we head back to school, made me wishful again that we could somehow extend what we do to include school age kids as an alternative to school every day. I love the interaction between the ages, today in woodworking, building, cooking, looking after one another, conversation, social skills, play, real work, I kept thinking and thinking how stimulating the place can be, how well kids behave when they are with kids of wider age spans, how much growth the younger and older kids experience in these roles of mentor and apprentice, caregiver and nurtured one, observer and model, needed and supported, the list could go on. I also just find myself really happy working with this wide age range. My ten year old alum brought insights to my work and to the day care, returning each summer after having been with us three years, that I really appreciated, and I think he was probably moved to reflect on his own growth as well as he shifted this year to a more adult conversation partner and to a true helper in the work of running the place and looking after the younger ones, but continued to do his own real work and projects, not running out of things to do, nor could I imagine that happening soon.

But then I also am looking forward to our toddlers, coming soon, and I love the fact that we serve working families who have a desperate need for good places for their youngest ones while they are at work. As families leave us for school, they are so grateful for the time their children have been with us, and as families enter they are so eager to begin. Makes me wonder how I would give up the early childhood work and the child care work for school age work that would be part child care part school (or just a life of learning?).

And I wonder about expanding, am very resistant to the idea of losing the intimacy of what we do, not interested in doing a lot of fundraising or administration, in doing less direct care, or in working in a space or program that is at all institutional. I love home, love the neighborhood, love homemade food, couches, kittens, old folks and neighbors, parents coming and going and I really don’t want to spend my days any other way, just don’t want the kids to leave and love the timelessness of life in family day care, the freedom kids have to follow their passions, to interact, to relax, sit back, watch the world or jump right in according to their energy, needs, development.

And I feel strongly that kids grow tremendously with us, that they could grow and learn as well by following their more natural developmental paths, making many choices, socializing, being physical, building and making things, being outdoors, as they can in school, doing more “academic work.” What I think is really, really missing is the larger mix of kids, and in particular the socioeconomic mix that kids, at least in my kids’ school, are getting. I don’t know how to do what we do for families who can’t afford our tuition, which is not near as high as many private schools, but is more than my family for one can afford, if we were to homeschool.

Also, ten kids is a small number to serve at one time, and so the wish to do it all, family day care for working families with young children, and an alternative to school for kids from five to eighteen, or even five to ten or twelve, is hard to imagine, seems unworkable year round, though why I am not sure, as it works all summer and after school.

Going to keep on reading and writing and thinking. Two more families asked me this week if we were still considering shifting to working with school agers as an alternative to school. We may be adding a fourth homeschooler to our school age group within the group on Fridays, and there is some potential for a group of younger kids, including two fours whose families homeschool, and others who have expressed interest, with younger kids still, to form down the road. Question is, do we want to stop serving all the families of young children that seem to need us to work with this older population, could we do both at one place in one time, or would we do two separate programs, or one larger program somehow?

No way to predict the future, can only dream and wonder about it. For now, I am going with a quote at the end of a book I just finished and loved, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

July 16,2009

So, after the inspiration of the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) Conference and the Gilchrist Teacher Retreat, my batteries are charged. Right now I am energized about doing lots of photographing and writing and finding the combination is drawing more readers to the blog, or perhaps the same readers and viewers are now checking in more often. The idea of spreading what we do by sharing with the world, of highlighting the importance of Len Stoddard’s ideas of Human Greatness and Positive Human Diversity, of using my talents in the Talent Show of Life (my silly term), maybe by being a family child care provider forever and sharing with the world what our version of the good life looks like, feels likes, sounds like, how we do it and how it makes us all feel and think, is a good starting place for expanding the world we live in, or maybe there is more, and by writing and photographing and sharing with the world, something new will emerge.

For fall, we have settled our group, now have four days with one through four year olds in the morning, and a mix of after school and younger kids those afternoons. On Friday, we will have a group of mixed ages from one to eight, including three homeschoolers and two of their four year old siblings, and five other kids.

I am also really energized by art, animals, gardening, family and neighborhood and outdoor spaces as models for what we do and exploring new ways to bring these things to the kids and to our lives feels good. Also, beauty, peace, rituals, freedom. love. All the good stuff that makes life rich and worth living I want us all to have more of and to enjoy with attention. This week we got kitties, we’ve had tea parties, art parties, made messes, cleaned up, felt joyful, inspired, loved and loving. Also sad, angry, defiant, hurt, but within a safe nest of the other stuff, the hard stuff can come and go with more ease.

So, not sure what this means about a school. I still like the idea a lot. I also love my work now and the time I have to be with kids, to do the dishes, put in the plants, talk with the parents, take pictures, write, be in my home. I don’t know if I want to give that up for a different place and commitment. I wonder if others are interested in joining a larger venture, or if keeping things small and expanding our world in other ways besides growing larger is what we are meant to do. Still listening, feeling, wondering my way along, good news is I am expecting the best, that things will all work out, and I am enjoying the ride even more than I was a year ago, before the idea of starting a school hit. Power of reflection, taking time to read, write, observe, learning to write a blog, use a camera, has opened up my world and brought me into lots of interesting conversations and new questions and values I am pleased to have found and to continue to explore.

Next step? One foot in front of the other, eyes wide open, faith in the power of the heart, the mind, the senses, the world and myself to help me find the way.

June 23, 2009

We are wrapping up enrollments for fall. For September, we will have a mixed group of homeschoolers and younger kids on Friday mornings. Monday through Thursday we will have ones through fives in the morning, then some will go home and school age kids will arrive for after school. There are quite a lot of school year only contracts for 2009-2010, which means we will have more spots for summer 2010 that normal, making room for more school age kids in our summer mix.

We are getting lots of positive response to the blog, continue to get up to ten readers a day on the Schooling Alternatives blog, and some days over thirty readers for Living and Learning Together. Liana and I are going to the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) conference this weekend, open to meeting new people, sharing ideas, and maybe finding out something that will help us with direction and next steps for our alternative to schooling plans.

The following week I am attending a Teacher Retreat at Gilchrist, sponsored by the Yaegar Foundation, which is affiliated with the Fetzger Institute and which I found via the Courage to Teach website. I am going to spend a week in a hermitage (!) by myself reading, reflecting, writing, and listening, exploring the retreat center, and getting to know a small group of teachers who will be there that week. I am not at all sure what will happen and am looking forward to the surprise.

I feel the same way about the school idea, not at all sure what will happen and looking forward to the surprise. I have met lots of interesting, good people this year as a result of exploring the possibility of creating an alternative to schooling, have found the world open to me for the exploring, as I have read, talked, observed, and written about How Children (and adults) Learn. Sure there will be something down the road to come, not feeling too much pressure to know just now what it will be, hoping others will join the fun and that we might make something new together. One thing I have learned this year is how much it takes to start a new school or program, and that I don’t want to and am not able to do it alone, or even with a very small group. It takes a village to raise a child, and probably to raise a school.

May 6, 2009

We have interviewed many families and spent the school year thinking, dreaming, writing, planning, talking, reading, reflecting, and are now in a place to plan for the fall, if not to know where we will be down the road. It has been a magical year in many ways, moving out of my roles as family day care provider and public school advocate to consider the larger world of education and care and reading and writing about a lot of things I wasn’t even thinking about last year. My oldest moved from public to private school, a move I never expected and is so happy at the Sudbury Valley School. My younger son and daughter both considered SVS and my daughter and I considered homeschooling, then recommitted to public school. My daughter and son both went through child study processes last year, considering their learning and other needs from a special education perspective and this year we have changed focus, stepping back to allow their development to take it’s course and to find ways for them to grow and bloom with less anxiety.

Many families expressed interest in our ideas of expansion to include school age children in our family day care program, other families and teachers expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of creating a new alternative school. After learning a lot about how to do these things, exploring real estate, licensing, financial, and administrative implications for all kinds of options ,we realized that for next year we could manage the inclusion of more school age kids in our family day care program. These students would need to be homeschoolers, as we cannot claim to be a school and all kids must either attend school or be homeschooled.

After interviewing several homeschooling families and sharing our ideas with the world via our two blogs, putting the word out on many lists and by word of mouth, it became clear that we could not gather a solid group for a five day a week experiment next fall. Instead, we have a small group of homeschoolers on Friday, and are in the process of enrolling younger kids for the remainder of the week. We will see how this feels for 2009-2010 and as we go through the year, we will see if shifting or expanding to a new format for 2010 makes sense.

Part of the result of this year of reflection has been that we have become more joyful in our work and if possible, even more committed to what we do as family child care providers. Reading about new ideas, and writing about all sorts of things having to do with living and learning together has brought attention to the everyday grace of our work, to the sense of meaning and peace it brings to us as caregivers and to the children and families in our care. We love what we do and in some ways we just want to keep on doing it. It would be wonderful if we could find a way to make this sort of experience more widely available, if older kids could get what we offer, if more teachers and programs could experience the joys of living and learning with children that provides deep satisfaction and growth. For now, living and writing about what we do seems to be the best we can do. Maybe down the road we can do more.

Notes below from prior to May 2009

Here are some things I/we need to do to figure out how/whether we can make a new school or expand/modify our family day care to include school age kids:

1. Visit with Natasha at her homeschooling group program to see how it works to have kids from 2 to teens working in a home setting with a lot of self-direction and some adult direction. 1/13/09 – Visited and really enjoyed the experience. Strong differences between that group and ours, but a viable model from which we could learn a lot. A very inspiring/inspired space and leaders in alternative schooling/group homeschooling.

2. Talk to the west coast connection from Nadia who set up homeschooling resource centers within public school buildings. Find out how this worked. 2/1/09 – Seems a bit far from what we are doing right now, though a good connection down the road. If we are able to gather a group of committed kids and families over the next year or so, we will have a better sense of whether homeschooling is the model our kids will follow, and whether or not a homeschool center is something that we could/would do.

3. Talk to Lynette who ran the Mystic homeschool learning center to gather her insights into our project. Liana is arranging for us to have a Saturday tea in January. 2/1/09 update. Scheduled for January, Rescheduled for February. Met in March, learned a whole lot about Lynette’s experience in family child care (!), homeschooling her own children and offering classes to other homeschoolers in her home, then establishing the Mystic Learning Center (a homeschool learning center that was first in Medford, then moved to Watertown, no longer functioning). Lynette now works in public schools again, so our talk was very much about our ideas, but also about the paths women take in their lives raising children, teaching, and finding security and satisfaction in their work across the lifespan. I felt enriched.

4. Consider the option of  getting another space approved for a second family day care license, possibly by getting a tenant in the day care and licensing the upstairs of Maria’s house. Figure out the regs regarding one provider holding multiple fcc licenses, or consider getting someone else to get the second license. Also, think about how staffing, scheduling, and grouping of kids would work if we had two programs running simultaneously. 2/1/09 – For now, this plan seems to be one option, but we are pursuing the idea of building a broader age range within our group of 10 to keep providers and families together. The second program idea seems more like a step for 2010, provided we can build up our group of school age kids in 2009. The financial hurdles of buying a second property seem too risky and time consuming to figure out this year, but perhaps after trying our ideas with older kids next year, and experiencing more of the effects of the economic situation, we will feel this option makes sense for 2010. Also, the idea of trying our ideas with older kids while also incorporating new staff members seems like too big a risk. Liana, Alice, and I work well together and splitting our team feels like a bad idea until we know more about what we can accomplish together with older kids.

5. Learn more about the fire and building codes in Somerville (and surrounding towns) as they pertain to schools or child care centers/preschools. Maryann, Gerlinde, PHA, Fayerweather might be good resources. Should also talk to Somerville Inspectional Services. 2/1/09 update – Again, this feels like a step to learn more about once we gather a small group of families and begin to grow beyond our Family Child Care capacity. Good to know resource people and next steps for when we need to learn more about expansion possibilities. 4/11 update – for now, we are planning to go forward in our family day care format for fall 2009, so we are not investigating purchasing a property or needing to know about regulations and  building and health codes for center care or school designation.  Keeping an eye on other programs, including Agassiz, which purchased a house in Summer St. and is converting it this summer to a preschool cooperative to replace their wonderful space in Cambridge, which has been purchased and is being developed by Lesley.

6. Learn more about the Real Estate market and what sorts of spaces might be available and suitable for an expanded program, possibly a multi family house for multiple fcc programs, possibly a leased or purchased space to operate a learning center, preschool/school, or school age child care program. Make an appt. to meet with Therese’s real estate agent Paul or with Mr. Takvorian, who knows a bit about deleaded properties suited to FCC. 2/1/09 update. Real estate market continues to decline in Somerville. Many vacant spaces and properties for sale/lease. Again, learning process is gradual, and putting a lot of energy into a larger space before we have families interested/ able to afford what we are doing seems not to make sense right now. 4/11/09 update. Keeping an eye on the real estate market, but not ready to buy, as we don’t have a sense if and when we will expand. Several ideas keep circulating, including the idea of buying or leasing a space that could house multiple programs, serving folks in need of child care, home schooling, schooling, and after school care, as well as summer care. Also, thinking about how to grow the idea of real estate investment and family child care going hand in hand. Talking to folks about this concept as key to healthy growth and families in Somerville and surrounding area.

7. Make a business plan. Think about budget, space needs, timeline, program description. Figure out what the format could be, what info. is needed, useful. 2/1/09 – Made practice budget for a second family child care group with purchase of a bank owned two family home in our neighborhood. The finances were workable, but tight. Property is under agreement for the third time in six months, making me think there is something wrong with the property or that getting financing in this market is very difficult. At this time, postponing sorting out business plan and real estate issues for expansion in favor of connecting with families interested in what we are doing and shifting the focus of our stable, already functioning program and space to one which serves a broader range of ages including school age kids. 4/11 – for now, focussing on finance, budgeting, tuition, and contract issues related to serving homeschoolers. How will this populations’ needs be different, how are we willing or needing to shift the way we do things to work with homeschoolers without compromising our program’s integrity or financial stability?

8. Think about financing.  2/1/09 Update. Thought long and hard. We are not rich. Our target families are not either, for the most part. Money is tight. This is going to affect what we can do, our potential for expansion, our ability to find families who can afford to do what we envision. For now, while expanding might have the potential to lower tuition and make our ideas more accessible to more families, our ability or willingness to take the personal risk expansion would involve makes that option too hard. We are going to stick with the financial model we have been using all along, charging tuition that covers staff wages, expenses for the use of Maria’s house, food, and minimal supplies and equipment. We will continue to reduce, reuse, recycle, offering healthy, creative opportunities for kids with minimal expense, focusing on minimizing tuition for familiess and offering decent wages to teachers without letting Maria’s house fall down! Taking on loans or seeking outside financing or support feels riskier than depending on ourselves and our families to make the budget balance. Expanding slowly might be the goal for 2010, with an eye toward minimizing debt and financial risk while continuing to balance tuition against wages and space costs as equitably as possible. 4/11 For 2009-2010, we are going to continue with the current approach to budget and finance with the family day care model. For 2010, we will see!

9. Think about nonprofit status. 2/1/09 Update. Another goal if and when we build up a group and are ready to expand or shift to a model other than family day care. 4/11/09 Might be a goal for 2009-2010 if we can foresee expansion for 2010.

10. Gather people together again, both interested families and interested teachers/founders. Create a founders group? Find people with different skills to contribute, including administrative, fundraising, real estate, legal, as well as outreach and programmatic roles. 2/1/09 – Liana, Sarah, Maria working over e-mail and in conversation on shaping the idea and vision. We are also working on two blogs, one which is more reflective, and a new one, yet to be publicized, which will be more static and serve as a place for folks to get basic information about our program and to invite them to find out more about us (sort of like a web site). Sarah will help with technical support and outreach. Alice suggested business cards. Our ongoing work in day care and after school continues to feed our vision and confidence. Maria has interviewed two families and is in contact with some others. Need to expand that circle, not sure how to do that. No other founders/leaders have emerged yet. Maybe they will soon! 4/11/09 Blogs are generating interest. As of today, Thinking about how our children learn has had 1625 visits (since November) and Alternatives to Schooling has had 672 visits (since February?). Folks who contact us are very positive, appreciate all the information and stories, and request visits. So far, we have had 6 families visit who have wanted to know about school age care for kids who would be homeschoolers. Two families are committed for one day a week, most likely Friday for summer and fall of 2009. A couple of other families are still considering. Three families with younger kids who would like to stay on for the school years have also visited or will visit this week.

11. Figure out a timeline for fall 2009 to sort out enrollments for younger and school age kids, possibly including Isabel. 2/1/09 Update.  Have asked families of younger kids who have inquired about WFDC to check in periodically. At this point, I am thinking I will need to do interviews in February so that these families can visit us before the typical deadlines for applying to other programs (though maybe these have already passed) and certainly before deposits are due for other programs. This is why our enrollment cycle has begun in December in the past, and I am taking a risk by postponing it this year. We are making plans to send out information about our school age ideas to more listservs in February, too, in hopes that we can find other families interested in working with us. If we can gather a group of three or four older kids to join the day care, we feel ready to do it. If not, we would have to consider how an individual or pair of school age kids would have their needs met within a program of primarily younger kids. I am not setting deadlines for figuring this out, but expect to have more information by the end of February and to figure it out as we go along. 4/11/09 Timeline in place. Families of school age kids have visited. Two families are committing for one day in the fall, most likely Friday, with a total of three school age kids, ages 6, 7, and 7. Another couple of families are still on the fence. Time to check in with them. Families of younger kids still visiting and we are getting ready to make schedules and contracts sometime in the next month or so. Also working on incorporating some of these prospective homeschoolers for summer 2009.

12. Meet with families who are curious about this option for their school age kids and invite them to visit the day care and after school. 2/1/09 – We have done this with two families and connected with a couple of others who are mildly curious by e-mail. We plan to update a new blog to act as a website of sorts to offer just basic information that might explain what we do and give people something to check out and decide if they want to come for an interview. Probably it would be useful to do more networking in Somerville, though I am nervous about that. This is our community base and there may be other families who would like to stay in Somerville and who would want/could afford what we offer. 4/11/09 Outreach has gone pretty well. We have visited in the day care with 7 families of children who wanted to learn more about our program. Others have connected via e-mail, many have asked us to keep them posted for the following year, especially if we can get a school going. Liana and I are debating the wisdom of expansion, as we love what we do in family child care and with young ones and see a great need for child care. But, we love to try new things and will see how this year goes with more older kids, and decide as we go about 2010.

13. Continue shaping ideas by talking with people, writing this blog, reading, and exploring what other programs in the alternative realm are doing and how they got there. 4/11/09 – Blogging has gotten more personal. May shift to more about a school concept, but for now, I am enjoying going a bit deeper and thinking about universals in caring and raising children and in wondering what to think of those as we go forward, what is at the core, and how we can preserve the integrity of our values in any work we do with and on behalf of children and families.

14. Connect with the homeschooling community. Possibly join one of the Arlington homeschool meetings. 4/11/09 – Doing this one person at a time, rather than by joining a group . Seems to be working ok. Also reading some on the internet.

15. Talk with Marcia, a large family day care provider in Arlington who is homeschooling her 9 year old daughter and who has talked with our licensor about this. 4/11/09 talked with her briefly awhile back. Good resource if and when we need her. We are both very busy so phone calls are hard!

16. Figure out what my own kids will do for school next year!! One going into 7th grade and the other into 3rd, both considering options. Having this unresolved is contributing to my difficulty moving forward with the school age group in the day care. 4/11/9 – Looks like Isabel will be at school, Jonah likely to go onto the 7th grade at the Healey, though we have real reservations about both. We will see. Can’t really afford to have either/both kids homeschool full time, will also keep SVS as an option, as it is cheaper and doesn’t depend on a decision this spring or holding a place open for my kids.

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