Little School offers oasis in educational ‘prairie’

       Sue Spengler doesn't think “misfits” is quite the right way to describe the kinds of students that attend her school.

Sue Spengler and her son Grant check out a grammar and Latin book, respectifvely, from Sue's Little School on Vermijo collection for the coming school year.
Westside Pioneer photo

       But the founder of the Little School on Vermijo agreed that the word isn't completely off. Some students feel out of place in “normal” public middle schools, and they and their parents may be attracted to one like hers,
       She writes on her website: “Combine the freedom of actually being able to creatively teach, with a small group of eager students [maximum of 12], a little house and a Westside neighborhood, and you have 'village schooling.' At its heart, the village schooling concept takes what is best of both home schooling and public education, and combines them into something entirely new. Or, to be more precise, something entirely old. You see, I always wanted to be the teacher on the frontier, the 'Little House on the Prairie' schoolmistress, the one whose schoolhouse was her home. Now I am.”
       She's a bit of a “misfit” herself. Before she started running the Little School out of her house on West Vermijo Street last fall, she'd taught in the public education system for about 15 years, often rebelling against “strict guidelines,” as she put it, that seemed to stifle true learning.
       Adding to the mix was Spengler's confrontation with mortality: a battle against breast cancer, which cost her all her hair for a time (but she kept working and is now two years cancer-free). She also reached the point in her public teaching career where she was eligible for a retirement pension. And then, about a year and a half ago, there was a parenting decision to make. Her older son Grant, now 12, was finishing fifth grade at Buena Vista Montessori - which Spengler had helped organize as a volunteer in '04 - and she and her husband John didn't know what middle school to put him in.
       That was when the idea dawned on her, that she could teach Grant herself. Further, if she could find a few other folks with kids of middle-school age (grades 6-8), the school might even provide an income.
       The first year (2010-11) Spengler had six students. With the 2011-12 school year coming up in August, she's looking for a few more.
       She teaches under state homeschool laws. This allows considerable leeway, although one of the needs is to educate students so they can perform well on a national test when they reach the seventh grade.
       At the Little School, the lesson plan for the year is broken out into quadrants. Each one has topics under the headings of ”core study,” “practical life” and “fine art,” with certain activities (including math, history, reading and computer use) going on year-round.
       Most of the instruction is provided by Spengler, who half-jokingly describes herself as the school's “founder, lead teacher, principal, superintendent, custodian, secretary, and lunch lady.”
       She also thanked her husband John for his support. He teaches biology at Pine Creek High School and thus has little involvement with her school operation, but he experiences his wife's endeavor on a daily basis in the need to keep the house's main floor clean for school purposes. “He's very gracious to let me do it at all,” Spengler said. “I feel very lucky to have his support.”

Students in the 2010-11 school year tended a garden at nearby Vermijo Park - a project that is continuing into 2011-12.
Courtesy of Sue Spengler

       Guest instructors are recruited for specific subjects (for example, the coming year's first-quadrant astronomy core), the school has a plot at the community garden at Vermijo Park, and kids work as ushers for Imagination Celebration in exchange for the chance to perform there.
       Spengler even teaches Latin. As the root language for the romance languages and much of English, “it will help them in conjugating verbs, learning vocabulary and in developing skills that will carry over into any languague they want to study,” she said.
       She realizes that her school plan is not for everyone, but she also understands that sixth grade is a key time, in which students often feel “too old for elementary school and too young for middle school.” For such students (“misfits” or otherwise), going to her school “could be that one year away,” she said. “Think of it as studying abroad. You can have this amazing cultural experience and go back to regular school when you're ready. The system will always be there for you.”
       An informational meeting for interested parents and children is scheduled Sunday, July 31 at 3 p.m. at the school/house, 2332 W. Vermijo Ave. For more information, call 205-3668.

Westside Pioneer article