Coming Together

I’ve nearly overcome that feeling of telling people that we’re starting a school, without fearing that they must think I’m mad, but yes, we are starting a school.

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I am part of a team of four dedicated wahine: Rita, Shivani, Sabrina, and myself, Kate. Towards the beginning of our journey, I felt hopeful and google searched ‘how to start a school’. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much help with my 50,000 questions. This post is about our journey so far; in the hope that it may help others in their similar adventure or simply amuse and enlighten you!

It all started with our main dot-connector, Sabrina. She wanted to start a school for her twin daughters, but like all of us, she wasn’t happy with our mainstream schooling systems, and started to question the lack of alternative options. Sabrina and I met at a Startup Weekend, and we hit it off. In the first 20 minutes of meeting, we were quickly talking about all our research that we’d done, asking each other if we’d read this article by Peter Gray, or listened to talks by Peter Grille or Daniel Siegel. It was relieving to finally meet someone who was interested and passionate in the same things as me.

Sabrina carried on connecting dots and also brought in a colleague from AUT, Shivani, and went on to connect us to Conscious Kids. The Conscious Kids ladies proved to be a wealth of knowledge, and we were grateful that someone else had already paved some of the way in this space by providing outdoor programmes for children in Auckland.

The first time we all got together was in a small bar on the North Shore just before Christmas 2016. We all nervously met each other for the first time and quickly got talking about outdoor education, the lack of play in schools and what we could do to change things. To say the least, I left that meeting feeling alive and excited, and I remember going to work the next day and telling people that I was working with some woman starting a school, and yes, they looked at me like I was mad!

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At this point, we arranged to have more meetings and I think we tried to do budgets and look for locations, but really what we were doing was getting to know each other. Nothing serious happened, until we started working on our ‘Manifesto’. This was a collaborative document, that we started writing sitting under some trees on a beach eating a picnic while the sun went down. This was an exciting process, as everyone had their own strengths that they wanted to contribute. Shivani had been visiting Play Mountain Place in LA, and would tell us stories and share knowledge about what she had seen and read. The Consious Kids ladies were extremely practical in their outdoor play skills and Sabrina and I could finally do something with all the research that we had been collecting over the past few years.

Once our Manifesto was drafted, we started to send it out into the world to get some feedback. We realised that we needed a platform to connect like minded families, share our ideas, and start to grow a community. A Facebook page ‘Space to Play’, was created where we took turns posting articles, shared documents and asked whanau questions. There were lots of little decisions that needed to be made at this point and this all took time, patience and many long, late-night skype calls.

The biggest turning point in realising that this school was actually going to happen was launching our website akospace.com. It made everything feel professional and official and it quickly became a reality, rather than a dream. We unabashedly shared it with every person we knew. The response was amazing, but we realised we needed to hear what people really thought. We needed to understand parents better to validate all our assumptions. To identify those parents who were happy to give us deeper insights through interviews, we created a survey.  Sabrina had made contact with an anthropologist who  helped guide us in realising what we truly needed to know - why weren’t people sending their children to alternative schools, was it because they were inaccessible, unaffordable, not credible or not socially acceptable (or all of them)?

This was definitely my favourite part of the journey, as we got to talk to families and hear their stories. Some key things that stood out were, that there was a need to build and support a community of parents interested in alternative schools, and that parents were feeling a lack of confidence and support. Parents wanted to have conversations with like minded people, as they felt like they were outside the norm. We also realised, that there was a lack of confidence in parents around openly questioning the system, or simply seeing a crack in the system but not knowing what to do about it. Our amazing anthropologist, Corina Enache talked to us about the need to empower parents and help them hear their inner teacher voice and understand and trust the teacher inside. We are eternally grateful to all the lovely families, who gave us their time so far, and we are constantly talking to more families to hear more stories.

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We realised that we really needed to get things started, and there were so many uncertainties: what kind of school would we be? Should we be a private school or an integrated school? How do we go about registering? There was a lot to learn, and a lot went over my head. But this is the beauty of working in a team, Sabrina stepped up and has been working with lawyers, advisors from the MOE and she connected with other inspiring people who had already walked this road.

We realised that we needed to start small to test out our ideas. We knew, that there was a need for a learning space for 5-7year olds, as a lot of families with young children had told us they were feeling trapped by the idea of their kids starting school so early in NZ and were trying to look for alternative options.

Recently, we have been doing yet more research looking at some amazing schools around the the world: The Blue School, Brightworks, Ao Tawhiti Discovery School, and we went back to our original manifesto that had started under a tree by the beach and looked to strengthen it and incorporate some of the amazing research we’d found, plus the information we’d heard from parents.

Amongst all of this, we decided that it would be a great time to get some advisors involved. We were already in contact with some super inspiring people asking for ideas and feedback, so we started asking them if they would like to be advisors to our school. This was another huge boost to momentum and passion, as we soon had 3 highly influential and inspiring people who stepped on board.

And here we are now, working to get the pilot started, organising talks to get whanau together, working with the MOE to get registered, and a thousand and one other things.

I thought this would be really hard to write. It feels like so much has happened over the last 9 months, and I’m sure, I have left things out. But the past 9 months have been the most exciting, overwhelming, challenging, and creative months and it is a real pleasure to share them with you!

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Sabrina NagelComment