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A Wild way for students to learn

Self-directing schooling programs like the new Wild School in South Philadelphia are becoming less of a wild idea when it comes to alternative learning.

This fall, a new option of learning for children ages 5 to 12 will debut at FDR Park in South Philadelphia. The goal for Wild School will be to connect a community of families and students who are committed to radically reimagining education while centering social justice and environmental stewardship.

In partnership with Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation, Wild School will utilize FDR’s sprawling 342 acres to offer a different method of learning, free from the confines of classrooms and curriculum. Instead, Wild School encourages children to follow their curiosities.

Following a year of hybrid and online learning for most students in the area, Wild School officials are hoping parents reexamine current systems and explore new options of learning.

“This is the moment for outdoor education,” said Wild School facilitator Lauren Umlauf. “With the climate crisis but also post-COVID, parents have really spent the last year and a half with their kids outdoors more than ever before. Some might be reluctant to return to learning indoors and they’ve also seen firsthand what their kids are experiencing at school or have chosen another path and have done some unschooling and have seen that learning happens in the course of your natural life.”

Umlauf is an educator and mother of three unschooling children. She co-founded the South Philly Cooperative Playschool in 2014 to provide affordable early childhood education in South Philadelphia. She was also a founding member of the self-directing Philly Agile Learning Community in 2018. It is located at 756 S. 7th St. and serves about 80 South Philly families.

“I’m an educator and when my children were young, I was looking for early childhood education that wasn’t academic, that wasn’t preparatory, but instead met kids where they are and understood them as full human beings living their lives right now,” Umlauf said. “It wasn’t for people that needed to be prepared for something that might happen to them in the future. Very few things existed and what did exist was outside of our price range.”

Similar in some aspects to Philly Agile Learning, the new Wild School is different in that students will be learning outside instead of in a classroom. On bad weather days or at extreme conditions, students will have access to learn inside the clubhouse at FDR Park, where they will also have bathroom access at all times.

During Wild School’s pilot year, the program will be on Wednesdays and Fridays only. There is also a sliding scale of tuition based on family income, but officials are hoping the program will be free and full time once it gains nonprofit status sometime next year.

“It’s out of line with our values to make it a tuition-based program,” Umlauf admitted. “It’s just kind of the reality of the world we live in that we can’t just start it as a free program. This year, we will become a nonprofit, which will enable us to fundraise on a larger scale. Unfortunately, that process just takes about 10 months. In order to start quickly, we are starting as a tuition-based program.”

For the upcoming school year, Wild School costs anywhere between $25-$125 per day based on family income, which equates to between $200 and $1,000 a month, not including a $170 annual activity fee and a $25 application fee. Those enrolled will be registered as legal homeschoolers.

Officials said they aim to start small this year with about 25 students ages 5-12, who will learn under four co-directors. Over time, the program intends to increase both enrollment and the age limit up to 18.

“Our hope is to increase the age of our program every year,” said program facilitator and program co-director Kermit O. “If a kid comes in at 12, we’re not going to kick him out at 13. If we do this right, they should be with us the entire time.”

Wild School’s pitch is to have children focused on cooperation, collaboration and problem solving, and grow in community with one another and with their environment. The program emphasizes learning that happens when children are free to explore, experiment, play, question and interact in the real world, while being supported by a community of facilitators trained to support children directing their own learning.

It follows the unschooling philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for natural learning. There is no fixed curriculum or top-down instruction, which can sometimes be a harsh adjustment for parents who were brought up by generations of standard schooling.

“It’s getting people to think about a paradigm shift,” said Kermit O., who worked in the School District of Philadelphia. “School isn’t the only way to do things. When COVID was raging, the district was talking about bringing back people in April and it was a terrible idea. The options were to go back and risk COVID or continue virtual learning, which proved to be a disaster. Why are these the only options? Why can’t we do school outside? A handful of people wanted to talk about it but they couldn’t get past bringing a whiteboard outside. They just couldn’t understand how to bring a school outside. And that wasn’t the ask. We’re trying to do a whole new level of education.”

Wild School will use only a portion of FDR Park, at least at the beginning, until it is familiarized with the spacious public park. It will provide room to expand, as Wild School intends to do in the next few years. It will also adapt to its first year based on student and parent suggestions, much like students will adapt to a new way of learning.

“We are situated in FDR Park, which feels like a really unique opportunity to use public space to grow community education programs,” Umlauf said. “Our larger goal is to radically reimagine the education system and to do that we need to provide a viable alternative for schools and childcare, too. As a pilot, we are starting intentionally small and on a part-time schedule so we can be really responsive in creating this community gathering feedback from students and families participating and from the Parks and Rec partnership so we can really grow this as a community program that meet the needs of the actual people that are in this school community.”

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