The System is Failing Our Kids

For as long as I remember I have wanted to open a new school, one founded on the premises that:


  • Children belong in the world, not cordoned off from it.
  • A community really is the strongest teacher.
  • Children learn best from people who understand them.



There are three observations I can share, from our past months, that clearly illustrate how ‘the system’ is failing our children.


#1 – While the world changes ever more rapidly, education is stuck.


We do not separate our students by birth date.  This decision, purposefully made, has paid too many dividends to count.  For one of our gifted math students (we have many), this has meant being able to pursue mathematics at a grade level many years above his age.  We do not buy in to limiting students on the basis of birth date.  If this boy is able to extend his mathematics and work with other students nearing twice his age we allow that.  When I have discussed his work with other schools they refuse to believe it possible that he can achieve this level in mathematics.  His age, in their minds, somehow dictates an inability to solve for a when 4a – 4 = 8.


Conclusion: Age does not define ability.  We should not confine our children to the content of one grade, as defined by ‘experts’ who do not know them.




#2 – Children are being taught to be passive learners (or, worse yet, passive observers).


We recently attended, as a school, a large community education event with children from other schools.  At lunch my students asked me “why are those other schools looking at us so weird?” and “why aren’t they asking any questions?”  I too had noticed that the other students, who outnumbered our little class 4:1, were extremely well behaved but also entirely disengaged from the learning.  They had long ago learned that the best thing to do was ‘stay safe’.  Best not to be seen as a ‘geek’ by asking questions.  This would make it easy for a teacher to stand and ‘deliver’ the curriculum.  Meanwhile, our students were bursting at the seams to get involved, ask questions, and be totally present in the experience.  Our oldest girl, which in some schools would be the most sensitive to criticism, was our leader followed closely by her male peers.  They all were slowing the lesson down with their constant questions… I’m sure that what was planned to be ‘delivered’ in our 45 minutes wasn’t.  This is true of us here at the Academy – we never seem to have enough time to ‘get through’ something; but then, our goal never is to ‘get through’ but instead to actually learn.


Conclusion: Large groups of students is a decision based on economies of scale and efficiency, not on the best learning environment.




#3 – ‘The system’ is missing the diamonds in the rough.


We had a Grade 4 boy join us in the Fall Term.  He came to our school like an open wound – even the smallest indignity could potentially send him in to a rage.  He hated school – when I met him he laid on the floor in our library with a dead look on his face.  Even I was concerned that he might not engage with what we had to offer.  He was also prone to anger… he had long ago learned that the only way to not get more hurt was to turn the hurt onto others.


A series of changes took place.


First, someone here believed in him and his parents made the courageous decision to not accept what was happening to their son.


Second, he started arriving at school first, such did he love his school.  He does this to this day and always comes with a smile on his face.


Third, we started to work at managing the anger.  It took patience from our community… but eventually he began to see that no one was judging him, mocking him, or out to hurt him. And, to be clear, no one was hurt in the process. Our students showed understanding and compassion.  The ‘system’ would have thrown him to the curb and made him unwelcome.  We chose to give him the skills to deal with his anger.


Fourth, and this is where we’re at today, we can start to rebuild the beautiful person that he is as his self-esteem is returning.  His parents noted this weekend that even their friends are seeing a difference.


They have their son, the one who is happy and has endless ideas, back again.


Conclusion: ‘The system’ is ill-equipped to build self esteem.  It is designed to sort students on a very rough basis – hence, like a rough sorting of gem stones, they easily miss the diamonds that just need a small shine to gleam brightly.




Another family joined us this past Fall term.  I remember talking with their mother during the process… she pointed out that by choosing to act, and move her children to our school, she was, in effect, taking on the responsibility for the potential failure of the experience on her own shoulders.  Accepting the status quo and their mainstream schooling was both easier and less risky.


It is difficult to act and make change because we cannot know what is around the bend until we take the steps to round the corner.


Until education, as a whole, takes steps to round the corner and get off that straight road it will remain as it is – unchanged for over half a century.