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Story - Education

Feb 10, 2010 10:21 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Hayground School wins $300K grant, expands innovative curriculum

Feb 10, 2010 10:21 AM

The wind gusted across the gardens, greenhouse, chicken coop and empty, L-shaped swimming pool on the Hayground School campus on a recent morning. Inside, another storm had just passed.

This progressive private school in Bridgehampton had recently staged a performance of “The Tempest” following a four-week artist-in-residence program with the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company. Beneath a vibrant gallery of student artwork depicting scenes from the play, students and teachers sat in a wide circle on the floor, casually tossing around reflections on their latest unit.

Founded in 1996 on the experiential philosophy of John Dewey, Hayground continues to blaze its own trail when it comes to pedagogy. With mixed-age classrooms and no grading rubrics, plenty of beds of kale but few computers, Hayground educators and families have always relished the young school’s unorthodox curriculum, viewing it as a breath of fresh air from the limiting confines of traditional academia.

In this period of belt-tightening, however, the school, which currently enrolls 36 students from the nursery school level through eighth grade at a campus covering nearly 13 acres, is looking to expand its academic offerings. Although the cost of tuition varies widely, full standard tuition for one student per year is $19,500.

Hayground recently won a $300,000 grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, a private, non-profit philanthropic organization named after a late Wall Street investment banker. With its grant money, Hayground plans to reinstate its scientist-in-residence program, which will host a scientist over several weeks to conduct independent research projects with students. It plans to extend the school day via an after-school program that would also be open to non-Hayground students. It plans to refocus its energies toward foreign language education—namely, Spanish—in a meaningful way. And it is also drafting a five-year plan, growing its endowment and looking to increase scholarship funding.

“We call ourselves a lab school, which means that we’re never 100-percent fixed in our view of how we do things and we’re always looking to improve,” explained Arjun Achuthan, a culinary arts and mathematics teacher who is also one of the school’s founders. Mr. Achuthan elaborated on the Deweyan ideals of the school as he sipped student-brewed organic tea from a student-crafted mug in the school’s art studio. “So, when learning about tea,” he continued, “make your tea mixes, and make your teapot.”

The Hayground philosophy of learning cannot easily be crammed into 42-minute class periods. Therefore, there are no class periods. Instead, students explore one topic in depth for an approximately two-hour morning work session after their mathematics classes. At midday, students are usually responsible for preparing lunch themselves, plucking leafy greens from the gardens and greenhouses. In the afternoon, they enter another free-form extended work session.

Jon Snow, a fellow founder, explained, “A guiding principle of our philosophy is if it’s worth doing, do it deeply, don’t do it superficially, don’t trivialize it. ...We’re not trying to cover a vast number of subjects. It’s about trying to get to know them and love them and experience them.”

While not a “forest kindergarten” such as those forward-thinking outdoor curricula for early grades that have been sprouting up across northern Europe and New England, Hayground is in tune with nature. In addition to its gardens and solar panels, the school is hoping to set a precedent with its low carbon footprint and eventually completely distance itself from the energy grid.

Since one of the school’s founding principles is that a Hayground education should be available to everyone, the school is seeking to boost its enrollment to 50 students, with goals of eventually building to near 70. “We need to change the culture that a private school is only for the wealthy,” said Mr. Achuthan. “Through diversity comes strength.”

The Hayground approach does not come without controversy, however. Mr. Snow acknowledged that “people are afraid we’ll get behind if we don’t push our kids every minute academically.”

Stephanie Wade, whose 7-year-old daughter attends Hayground, said she expressed initial concern, but ultimately enrolled her child after being impressed by the senior learning projects. “It’s a leap of faith,” she said of choosing to enroll at Hayground. “It’s undefined what the outcomes are.” So far, Ms. Wade is pleased.

As graduates of the relatively new school begin to enter to real world, their legacy remains to be forged.

“It’s great to know what the world’s standards are,” said Mr. Snow, “but you really have to have your own.”

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