Home > Uncategorized > Wichita’s Wonder School Looks Wonderful… Despite the Founder’s Surname and Assumptions that Competition is the Answer

Wichita’s Wonder School Looks Wonderful… Despite the Founder’s Surname and Assumptions that Competition is the Answer

February 22, 2018

The headline in a Wichita Times article earlier this month immediately repelled me. It read “Koch Family to Open New Kind of Private School at Wichita University“. But in an effort to be open minded, and, quite frankly expecting my repulsion to be reinforced by an article describing an ill conceived “anti-government school” that would lead to a denigrating post, I read the article. And when I read that one of the partners and co-founders of the new school, called “Wonder” was Zach Lahn, a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative political advocacy group, I was certain the whole project was going to be badly conceived. But as I read deeper into the article I was stunned to find that the school envisioned by the son and daughter-in-law of one of the Koch brothers and a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity actually looked wonderful! The article described the school’s program as follows:

▪ Students will be grouped into multi-age studios, rather than traditional grade levels, and advance only after they achieve certain academic and social milestones – a mastery-based approach touted by Kahn Academy founder Sal Kahn.

The first level, Wonder One, will be a Montessori-model preschool, Lahn said. Wonder Two will be for children roughly in second through fifth grades. Wonder Three and Wonder Four, part of the school’s long-range plan, will be geared toward middle- and high-schoolers.

▪ The school’s floorplan reflects a trend toward flexible seating, rather than traditional desks, with glass walls and wide-open spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.

The school’s outdoor space, which will feature berms, tunnels and various climbing structures, was designed by Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA,” who argues that movement should be a part of people’s everyday lives.

▪ There won’t be any teachers at Wonder, but rather “guides” and “coaches,” Lahn said. The school plans to allow students more say in what, how and at what pace they learn.

“We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now,” Lahn said. “We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.”

▪ There won’t be traditional grades or report cards either. Students will spend four to six weeks working on theme-based, hands-on projects, presenting them at the culmination to family and community members, who will offer feedback and ratings.

“There will be conversations happening every day in the studio: ‘Is this your best work?’ And they’re constantly being challenged to produce more iterations and better iterations,” Koch said.

▪ And no homework – at least not in the early years, Koch said. Older students who want to start a business or pursue a specific career goal might work on those projects outside of school.

“We think there’s so much value in spending time with your family, having free time, playing,” Koch said. “We really want to preserve that for the kids.”

In reviewing and reflecting on these elements, I was struck by how much they align with the libertarian– AND progressive— notions of self-direction and individuality… and how contrary those notions are with the current “factory model” of schooling. I was also struck by how the “Wonder” structure was developmentally appropriate as compared to the “factory model” that groups children by age cohorts and measures their progress based on comparisons to children who are the same ages.

While I liked everything about the Wonder design, I DID find it unsettling because it was only possible because of the resources the Koch’s could bring to bear… resources that can underwrite a small start-up but would defy scaling up without a marked increase in funding levels for public schools. And in the final paragraphs, after reading that the Koch family did not want their schools to be perceived as having any kind of political mission, I was distressed to read this statement from Shirley Lefever, dean of the College of Education at WSU, who said she was “…excited to partner with the school, which will serve as a kind of living laboratory for teaching students”:

“I think they have an incredible vision, and we just feel very privileged to be a part of that conversation,” Lefever said… “We’re always looking for ways that we can continue to learn and continue to try to understand how to improve educational outcomes for students.”

Koch said she envisions sharing ideas and encouraging other startup schools.

“We want other people doing this. We want competition,” she said. “We want somebody else to open another one of these, because we feel like that would make us better.

“We’re a small school, but we feel like we could have a big impact.”

A note to Ms. Koch: the notion that competition is the only way to make schools better is reinforcing a political notion that schools are a commodity and not a public good… Schools can get better faster through collaboration… and underfunded schools can get accelerate their improvement even more rapidly if they receive the funding they need. But that cannot be seen as a viable solution in Kansas where the legislature has decided that schools don’t need more money.

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