North Country School Reflections

Emily A. Daniels
SUNY at Plattsburgh

As we pull onto the dirt road, I see fields and fenced-off pastures, farm animals, a pond, and several barns. The road leads to a long building on the right that looks more like a camp than a school. There is a particular flavor to this spot; it tastes of wood smoke, pastures, barns, trees, and boisterous kids. I sense a comfortable, almost 1970s-like, atmosphere. This is my first introduction to North Country School (NCS), reached via a twisty mountain road close to Lake Placid. The school is a progressive boarding and day school that places the outdoors as central to learning, and works to engage children in responsibility, community, and environmental sustainability.

Upon arriving, my son and I shake hands with faculty and administrators, explore the lengthy building, admire the range of children’s art on the walls, and examine the slick wooden slide right next to the dining room. We tour the main building and take note of a climbing wall and a small library with a reading nook in an old fireplace—complete with pillows and a few scattered books. My son engages in an interview with an adult he had only just met—a price to enter into this space of privilege, of learning, of openness. The people inside are kind and enthusiastic.

I am an academic as well as a mother, and the representation of the school, its identity, and the concept of progressive education all appealed to me. Truthfully, I was also afraid for my son; my own memories of middle school are not pleasant. I worried about his passage through that gauntlet, especially as a multi-racial Latino in a small, predominantly white district where brown and black folks are either “from the college” or “from the prison.”

As a critical scholar, I have had training in the many meanings of school, and the ways in which it can advantage some people, while positioning others as unwelcome at best, but criminal or deviant at worst. This tends to happen disproportionately to young brown and black children. Over-referral to special education, intense discipline, and expulsion are among the traps that lie in wait for some youth more than others. My mothering instinct was to protect my son, and my academic instinct was to find an environment where these injustices were less likely to occur. Money can buy such protection. I recognize, and remain conflicted about, the fact that my knowledge, my education, and my ability to ask for (and receive) financial aid in the world of the elite have all contributed to my son’s growth and success.

At NCS, creativity, nature, and engagement are beautifully woven into the curriculum, which includes traditional subjects like math, English, social studies, and science, as well as art classes on a daily basis (e.g., weaving, costuming, theater, music, photography, dance) and unique opportunities such as Japanese language and Edible School Yard. Each student is placed in classes with peers in the same grade, but also may receive individual support or advancement in subjects such as math or science. The outdoors are an integral part of the school, expanding the concept of the classroom. For example, science classes may take place outside standing in a river to explore habitats just as easily as in a traditional classroom. Additionally, students share chores within the community, which can include feeding and caring for the farm animals. They also may have other responsibilities, like tidying up common spaces or helping with the compost and recycling efforts.

Every afternoon, regardless of the weather, brings “out time”—an hour and a half of being outside. Various activities are offered, and
students sign up to go on hikes, walk to town (7 miles each way!), climb, ride horses, etc. Embracing the outdoors is expected and nurtured. In the winter, everyone skis or snowboards at Whiteface mountain (a mountain used in the 1980 Olympics—it’s terrifying for those of us who are winter-sports-challenged). I have wandered their woods a few times, and encountered a complicated and curious ongoing tree house project and other shelters made of natural materials. In the spring, students help harvest maple sap to create maple syrup; in the fall, they harvest the farm produce (animal as well as vegetable).

Engagement in this learning space can look and sound very different for each child. Teachers are called by their first names, and a progressive stance is central to the school’s philosophy. When speaking of progressive education, it is important to remember and define what this means, and what the term “engaged” represents. John Dewey (considered by many to be one of the fathers of progressive education) focused on education and life as intertwined—that education should not be mere preparation, but life itself. Dewey also advocated for student-centered learning, and for creating curriculum based upon children’s perspectives and passions.  

At this school, students have access to laptops, balanced by limited time allotted for technology and ample time for nature. Children live together in homes with “house parents” and 10 to 12 other multi-age youth. International students increase the ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity of the school. A sense of community is supported and reinforced on the campus, and the students have opportunities to develop close relationships with their teachers and house parents. Relationships are central to the teaching endeavor, and building honest, deep, strong, and respectful connections with students supports much more than learning—it supports their being. Good teaching is as much about connection and love as it is about learning new information and growing.

The use of the outdoors as a space for exploration, learning, responsibility, and community is important to understand and apply. Strong arguments have been made that youth suffer when they are disconnected from nature (academically, but also socially and spiritually) and so we need to consider their/our connection with nature as a vital part of education. The responsibilities these students take on to care for the animals as well as the community help them to engage with larger perspectives, to understand themselves as part of something much bigger. This connects nicely to the sustainability element, where an understanding of what food means, where it comes from, and the choices we make about it are all part of everyday life.

Finally, the arts and play are important aspects of the school. The arts are often lost in many schooling situations, and we lose a
bit of our soul when this is the case. Bringing creativity into the curriculum, in the form of a diverse range of arts, and supporting children’s and youth’s growth in this area helps them to develop more fully.

Can we draw upon some of this school’s key concepts on smaller scales? How do we encourage responsibility, community, relationships, arts, and sustainability in our own classrooms and communities? How can we take these important concepts and help to situate our middle school students in the much larger, richer, and nuanced world around them, in close connection to themselves and to one another?

Everything is not perfect at NCS: the usual teen drama happens, some teachers are preferred over others, the weather makes me shiver even in the spring, and my son states that NCS is most suited for younger children. He says the 9th-graders are ready to push the limits and boundaries. This does not surprise me. Developmentally, 9th-graders may consider the 4th-graders among them to be very different in their perspectives.

Here is what I have seen as a parent. My son has become more mature in his interactions with himself and others, centered in his strengths in areas I never knew he had (stage craft, improvisation, photography, and weaving!), and he has gained a love of learning in the sciences while still embracing the arts. The changes I see in my son are manifest throughout the student body. The children and youth who attend this school are thoughtful, playful, and mature; they offer powerful insights when engaged in conversations. They present at local conferences on environmental sustainability, and perform in front of audiences of parents and community members in an annual play. Students are allowed to be children and developing young adults at the same time.

My son is 15 now, and this was his last year at NCS. He has built relationships with peers and teachers that are precious and unique. I have driven down every Friday afternoon to pick him up for the weekend. The beautiful drive down is quiet in contrast to the rich conversations about his week on the way back. I know that he needs to spread his wings and try himself out in the larger world, but NCS has been a powerful nest to develop those wings. I am confident he will be ready to fly.

North Country School’s website is https://www.northcountryschool.org/