This summer, when Addison County Schools announced their plans to reopen with a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, Willowell Foundation Administrative Director Tasha Ball started getting a lot of email.
“Parents were looking to us to pull something together for their children’s days off,” Ball told the Independent in a phone interview last month.
Willowell, which occupies 230 acres in Monkton, operates Wren’s Nest, a nature-based program for preschool children, and the Walden Project, an outdoor alternative public education program serving students in grades 10-12. Last winter the foundation had been discussing the idea of launching a program for middle-grade students, but planning was interrupted by the pandemic.
As parent inquiries continued to come in, Ball reached out to a couple of educators who had participated in those winter discussions — Eric Warren (science, health, outdoor skills) and Casey Burger (nature-based education).
“Do we want to try to run something?” she asked them.
The answer was a resounding yes.
“So we pulled a program together in three weeks, and 80 students enrolled, ages 6 to 15,” Ball said.
Thus was born the New Roots Project.
New Roots is entirely outdoors in all seasons. It runs five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and students can enroll for however many days a week they like.
Ball recalled what it was like during the first session, which ended Oct 20.
“It was so cool to go down there and see four fire pits going and to see the land be alive with so many students,” she said. “(For example) Eric Warren’s encampment has a tarp roof with chalkboards, globes and woodworking tools.”
Session Two runs from Oct. 26 to Dec. 18. Enrollment has dropped to 23 now that the county’s elementary-age students are attending school in person full-time, but the program will accept new students on a rolling basis at any time, with prorated tuition.
The curriculum has developed organically, based on what the faculty bring to the table, Ball explained.
Other teachers in the program include Corey Hayes, Ethan Mitchell, Meghan Rigali, Gabrielle Schlein and Ian Gramling.
However, the program is not meant to be an alternative to the public schools, emphasized Willowell Founder and Director Matt Schlein.
“After 28 years as a public school teacher, I have great respect for what the schools are doing,” Schlein told the Addison Independent. “My VUHS colleagues (for example) are pouring their hearts into making the hybrid model work.”
New Roots will spend the next couple of months looking for ways to partner with the public schools to offer place-based educational opportunities, much as the Walden Project has done.
“Ideally we would be the domain of several school districts,” he said. “But we’re not looking to compete with public schools.”
New Roots’ first session was a “total lifesaver from a parent’s perspective,” said Addison resident Caetlin Harwood.
Harwood’s 10-year-old daughter, Violet, attended Session One of New Roots part-time, while also attending sixth grade two days a week at Ferrisburgh Central School (FCS).
“Violet has completely fallen in love with her (New Roots) teachers and the land,” Harwood said last month. “She asks us to take her to the property even on days when people aren’t there.”
One weekend toward the end of Session One, Harwood’s family spent three hours at the school. Violet showed them around, and then she and her 6-year-old brother, Isaac, caught frogs in the pond.
Violet loves the school so much because she feels free, Harwood explained.
“At FCS it’s quiet, people are masked, there’s Plexiglas,” she said. “There’s a heaviness in being separated. Kids feel that, even if they can’t process it.”
Violet has returned for New Roots’ second session — this time with Isaac in tow. The siblings attend the program three days a week.
With winter fast approaching, New Roots is advising current and prospective students to gear up for the cold weather.
But thanks to a state HUB grant, and additional grants from the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College and from Silver Maple Construction, New Roots has been able to winterize its outdoor classroom setups with two yurts, plus additional learning supplies and a handwashing station that won’t freeze when temperatures start to dip below zero.
“This is not just ‘normal school’ that happens to be outside,” Harwood said. “There’s wood carving and survival skills and an amazing science program. And the teachers are rocking my world. They’re wicked down-to-earth and they’re doing it just because they love it.”
For more information about the New Roots Project, visit willowell.org/new-roots-project.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
Photos courtesy of Caetlin Harwood.