Quail Ridge Schoolhouse: A Window on What Kids Need
By NANCY HUMPHREY CASE
Photos By CARI LAZANSKY
Nancy Humphrey Case received an M. Ed. from Antioch/New England Graduate School in 1995. She is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a contributing writer for Vermont Magazine as well as a freelancer contributing to many other publications. She lives in Hyde Park, Vermont.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience may hold clues for every educator.
Our 11-year-old daughter sat on a stool in my study and pouted. Back in the spring, when we told her someone we knew was starting up a school on his ranch, she seemed mildly interested. Everything we learned over the summer about this new, private home school on 70 hilltop acres in northern California sounded so promising, we enrolled Bronwyn while she was away at camp. But coming home and facing the fact that she would not be joining her friends in public school put her in a funk. Now, after the first few days at Quail Ridge Schoolhouse, she complained bitterly.
“What kind of school only has six students?” she spouted. “It’s so stupid. Why can’t I go to a normal school?” She lamented being separated from her old friends. She grumbled about the injustice of being made to do barn chores—part of the responsibility curriculum at Quail Ridge. And she fumed about her new teacher, Mr. Warrick, a young man whose mission was to teach respect and honesty as much as reading, writing, and arithmetic. With only a handful of students in his one-room school, no one got away with anything.
“He doesn’t even let us roll our eyes!” Bronwyn said.
Sensing that this learning environment was exactly what our often-difficult youngest child needed at this point in her life, my husband and I didn’t budge. Instead, we insisted she tell us three good things about the place before she got up off the stool.
Soon the complaints fell away. Bronwyn made fast friends with all five of the other students—three girls and two boys who ranged in age from 7 to 13 (grades 2-8). When I dropped Bronwyn off in the morning, she and 13-year-old Kristen fairly skipped down to join the other kids in feeding the alpacas, goats, and chickens, supervised not by Mr. Warrick but by that week’s student barn manager. Bella the dog wagged her whole body at their approach. When I picked Bronwyn up after school, she waited her turn to say good-bye to Mr. Warrick and shake his hand. “Now look me in the eye when you shake my hand,” he said gently. She did, and Mr. Warrick sent her off with an encouraging smile.
One afternoon this independent pre-adolescent stopped me in my tracks by asking for my opinion on some moral question. Was I hearing things? “It’s for homework,” she said. “We’re supposed to ask our parents what they think.” Her tone was sincere. She showed me the sheet of questions Mr. Warrick had prepared for discussing that week’s “chapel” topic. The sheet included quotes by classic thinkers and writers. On Friday each student would stand in front of the class and speak for five minutes on which quote he or she liked best and why—a reflection of Mr. Warrick’s experience with Toastmasters as well as his commitment to character development.
When Bronwyn’s horseback riding instructor asked her, “What’s your favorite subject?” Bronwyn replied, “ethics,” surprising me again. Besides the weekly “chapel” sessions, Mr. Warrick led his multi-age class in discussing moral dilemmas. He encouraged the kids to think through issues for which there are no easy answers and to reach their own conclusions—the fruit of training he’d received at the Institute for Global Ethics based in Rockland, Maine.
One day in mid-September my husband joined me for my customary long walk before dinner. When we got back, the table was set, complete with tablecloth, neatly-folded cloth napkins, and a fresh bouquet of flowers from our gardens. Bronwyn—who had always dragged her feet when asked to help out—was in the kitchen, making a salad. When she saw us, she beamed. I think a lump rose in my throat.
Over the course of that year, we watched our daughter blossom. Although staying on task had always been difficult for her, she did excellent academic work using an individualized curriculum on the computer. With Mr. Warrick constantly emphasizing the progress she was making over the weaknesses that still needed improving, Bronwyn gained intellectual and social confidence, self-respect, and a sunnier disposition.
After awhile I couldn’t drive up to the ranch without feeling a rush of gratitude for what I knew was a rare and precious opportunity. Seeing the kids bottle-feeding a baby goat, pushing Mr. Warricks 3-year-old daughter on the swing, or binoculars in hand, strolling down through a field with Mr. Warrick, an avid birder, was sweet enough. But as a volunteer teacher of creative writing at Quail Ridge, I witnessed transformation in several students. Take Andy, for example.
An extremely bright 8th grader, Andy spent the first two or three months not only resisting doing his lessons but disrupting the other kids’ efforts at doing theirs. He fidgeted, made sarcastic remarks, and attracted negative attention. Mr. Warrick often moved Andy’s desk to a quiet corner to help him concentrate, but spoke to him in calm tones and included him in the warmth he obviously felt for all his students. In January something shifted for Andy.
Mr. Warrick believed that for a school to be effective, it needed to involve the families of its students. Once a month, one of the Quail Ridge families hosted a dinner at their house. Everyone gathered for a potluck meal followed by a discussion of that week’s “chapel” topic, led by one of the older students. As the months wore on, it was obvious the kids were benefitting from the increasing closeness of the Quail Ridge “tribe.”
So in January I invited all the students to a weekend at our cabin in the mountains. Part of the plan was for teams of students (there were eight of them now) to plan the meals, do the shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. A 7th grade boy wrote later, “I think it was cool how we had to shop and cook....It showed me that it’s not that easy and it takes a lot of responsibility to cook a meal for a group.”
After dinner that first night, Andy put his hooded sweatshirt on backwards, covering his face, and played the comedian. For quite some time, he was the center of attention, and his clever humor was genuinely appreciated. His defensive, disruptive attitude dissolved. He felt fully accepted and enjoyed it. After that, he applied himself to his writing, which was outstanding, and his desk didn’t get moved to the corner as often.
Then there was Ben, whose mother brought him to Quail Ridge halfway through the school year because she was concerned about his disengagement in public school. His 6th-grade teachers had been unable to motivate him, and he was unhappy. Upon his arrival at Quail Ridge, a fifth-grader named Jonathon reached out without reservation and made friends with him, showing him around and making him feel at home. Over the weeks and months, Mr. Warrick also took Ben under his wing by finding every opportunity to praise his efforts and trace his ongoing progress. At the end of the year, Ben would write, “Thank you, Mr. Warrick. You saved my life.”
In June we moved back to Vermont, and a year later Mr. Warrick accepted a teaching and coaching job at the private school that had been transformative for him when he was growing up—The Principia in St. Louis, Missouri. In looking back, I am profoundly appreciative that my daughter had such an experience. I admit it’s something not available to most kids—and I don’t mean because of money. (Mr. Warrick gave scholarships to those who couldn’t afford the full tuition.) Under that wide, blue sky, roaming the ranch’s open spaces at recess, performing their barn duties with peer-enforced diligence, or articulating their thoughts about things that really mattered, those kids formed a community set apart from the world. But it was a community Mr. Warrick hoped would prepare them to be productive, responsible, and compassionate contributors to society.
Could some of the elements that made the school so successful be applied in traditional classrooms or other educational forms? Yes, the setting had a lot to do with the magic of Quail Ridge Schoolhouse. The calm atmosphere, the closeness to nature, and the interaction with living creatures that depended on them, settled those students and prepared them to learn. The small size of the school was a huge factor, too. Each student thrived under individual attention and mentoring, and the group wasn’t big enough to divide itself into cliques. Everyone was integral.
Most significantly, though, Mr. Warrick raised the bar for his students and then gave them the level of loving support needed for them to reach it. He didn’t buy into any of the world’s excuses for why a given child behaves badly or performs poorly. He saw each one as uniquely valuable and capable of living up to the highest standards of character. He didn’t tell them to be responsible; he gave them real responsibilities. He didn’t tell them to be respectful,; he showed them respect by expecting a lot of them. He held them to his vision even as he encouraged their sometimes uneven progress.
Maybe that commitment to each child’s innate spiritual qualities is something that can transform any classroom and earn the gratitude of students. At the end of her year at Quail Ridge Schoolhouse, Bronwyn wrote: "I am So Grateful. I was completely dreading going to this one room schoolhouse and leaving my friends at my old school. Now I’m glad I came here. It has done so much for me. I am happier. I don’t cry like I used to. Everyone here is friends and I don’t have to worry about what people think about me. We are like a small family. We know almost everything about each other.
Mr. Warrick has taught me how to have a strong, good character and how to be ethical. I am so grateful for what Quail Ridge has done for me...."
A hard act to follow, maybe, but so worth trying.
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