Friday Feature: Awakening Spirit Homeschool Collaborative

  • January 26, 2024
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Colleen Hroncich

Amy Marotz loved being a teacher at a classical‐​type charter school. But when she had children, she wanted to stay home with them and be their teacher first. She may not have expected it, but Amy was learning right alongside them. “My daughter went to Minnesota Waldorf School for her preschool education,” she recalls. “It was not only wonderful for her, but it was amazing for me to take a step back from the traditional world of teaching and see how a Waldorf school operates and see the importance of rhythm and simplicity and nurturing and calm and the environment.”

Amy says her experience with the Waldorf school was really formative for her as an educator. When she decided to homeschool her daughter, she incorporated the best of what she’d learned from different educational methods. She posted about her homeschooling journey on social media, and people became interested in what she was doing. A single mom reached out and said she’d love to homeschool her child but didn’t have the time or knowledge. Amy agreed to help. She started a homeschool cooperative with three students in the first year. Soon she had five students and then seven. “It was all just kind of organic,” she says. 

With news of her homeschool cooperative spreading through word of mouth, Amy decided she needed to get serious about it as a business. “I took my teacher glasses off and I put some business owner glasses on, and that’s when I started working with Microschool Builders. I went through the Microschool Builders workshop and filled in all the gaps that I had about business and budget plans and making sure that my ideal families and ideal clients are set in stone. We operated for one more year out of the lower level of my family home at that point. After a year of working with Microschool Builders and getting crystal clear about everything that I wanted and my vision for the school, we were able to purchase a 15‐​acre property in Stillwater, which is about 25 minutes away from our house. It’s wooded, with a beautiful landscape, a pond, and a sledding hill. We opened up the house at that point as a standalone school.”

Awakening Spirit Homeschool Collaborative offers a lot of flexibility for families. Kids can attend from two to five days a week with prorated tuition. Rather than a rigid start and end time, there’s a drop off period from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. and a pickup period from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. Amy chose this approach “because everybody’s schedule is different.”

In the beginning, Amy’s efforts were geared toward highly sensitive children who likely don’t fare well in a conventional classroom. She explains that the flickering lights, banging lockers, bells, and other visual and auditory stimuli in a typical school can overwhelm sensitive children and disrupt their learning. She purposely chose a home setting for Awakening Spirit to create a more comfortable environment for the students. Amy has found a lot of overlap between highly sensitive and gifted children, so she has shifted her focus a bit to encompass both.

Hearing what life is like for children at Awakening Spirit makes me want to move to Minnesota and enroll. “Our mornings start with chores,” says Amy. “We have goats and chickens and rabbits and bearded Dragons and turtles and cats and dogs and all kinds of things. That’s a part of our school. And that really gives the kids ownership in the whole operation. ‘It’s important to be here because the goats are waiting for me. I know I have to feed the goats today.’ A lot of our kids would exhibit reluctance to go to school before or even refusal. And we just don’t get that. The number one thing that parents are surprised about is that on the weekends the kids are like, ‘Wait, we’re not going to school today? Why?’ So that’s a really fun side effect of the program.”

After chores they have individualized reading and math using adaptive computer programs so everyone is getting the appropriate level of work. Then they have a group lesson based on topics that the students vote for. Right now they’re doing botany, but it cycles between science and history and literature. “We do Shakespeare every year because the Minneapolis Guthrie Theatre puts on a wonderful Shakespeare production, so the Guthrie gets to choose our Shakespeare unit,” Amy explains. “I have first graders reading Hamlet and then attending the performance engaged because they understand the story and what’s going on.”

As part of the focus on real world skills, the kids prepare lunch in the afternoon. Then they have passion project time. “They can take an Outschool class if there’s something that they’re really interested in. They can connect with somebody in our community. We have a lot of parents who are in the trades, so we have a dad who comes in and does a small engine repair class once a week. We have a mom doing sewing and crafting classes,” says Amy.

As they get more knowledgeable in their work and need less support, they can choose independent projects. “I’ve had kids do aluminum foundry in the backyard. Beekeeping, maple syrup, and things like that, too. A lot of our kids really like hands‐​on learning and do really well with that.”

Depending on their age, the children spend one or two days a week outdoors with guides trained by the Forest School Teacher Institute. Amy is a huge proponent of getting all kids outside, which is why she sought a location with so much property, including a pond, woods, and lots of space to run around. They even have an outdoor classroom. They use the Boy Scout of America handbook to go through outdoor skills, knot tying, ropes, and naturalist‐​type activities. The school even has an outdoor gear library so parents don’t have to buy boots or snow pants or anything. That way the kids can be warm and dry so they can enjoy the outdoor time even in the winter.

While this all sounds great, I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes me want to enroll in AWS myself. Three times a year, the school goes on break and students can join a roadschool trip. “We studied ancient Mayan and ancient Incan civilizations. Then the school had a spring break and families who wanted to could opt in and we went to Tulum [Mexico]. We actually walked in these amazing ancient places and were able to visit new place‐​based education. We’ve gone to Atlanta when we were studying Martin Luther King Junior and Jim Henson for puppetry because the Center for Puppetry Arts is down there, which is amazing. We went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, after a geology unit and mined for crystals,” Amy says—with obvious enthusiasm.

If you’d like to learn more about Awakening Spirit and other hybrid and microschools, join us next week (Tues., Jan. 30, noon‑1:30 p.m. EST) for what’s sure to be a fascinating panel discussion. Amy will be there along with Dominque Burgess from Burbrella Learning Academy in North Carolina, Sharon Masinelli from St. John the Baptist Hybrid in Georgia, Jack Johnson Pannell from Trinity Arch Preparatory School for Boys in Arizona, and Eric Eisenbrey from Eyes and Brains STEM Center in West Virginia.

If you’re in the DC area, you can come to the Cato Institute and hear their stories in person. Or join us online from anywhere. And, of course, I’ll be profiling the other schools in future Friday Feature posts.