Monday, April 1, 2013

Burgundy Farm Country Day School - Alexandria, VA

Progressive roots run deep at Burgundy Farm Country Day School. Long before the Civil Rights Movement took shape, the school became the first integrated school in Virginia, actively recruiting and enrolling African American students as early as 1950. Founded by parents in 1946, the vision of the school was to serve an ethnically, racially and socio-economically diverse student body. These courageous founders believed in freedom and egalitarianism, motivated by what founding parent Eric Sevareid (and long time CBS journalist) described as "a good thing to do." The school is located in Alexandria, VA., on 25 partially wooded acres. To advance its environmental vision, the school acquired in 1967 the Burgundy Center for  Wildlife Studies center on 500 acres at Cooper's Cove in West Virginia, where students experience twice a year an immersion program in natural science studies. The school serves 278 students in grades JK - 8. Head of School Jeff Sindler (with his gracious dog, Cameron) hosted my visit.

The first integrated
school in Virginia (1950)
As soon as you enter the campus at Burgundy Farm Country Day School (BFCDS), you become aware of the school's history as so many of the original buildings are still in use today. While one "barn" houses chickens, goats, and other farm animals, the other "barn" is the home of the Junior Kindergarten, Kindergarten and First grades. The other classroom buildings are scattered around campus and divide the school by grade level clusters. As kids grow through the grades, they "graduate" to the next region of the campus (farm), and the transition represents a rite of passage. Add to the layout of the buildings the flow from indoor to ample outdoor space surrounding each part of the campus, and you have a dynamic campus design which has served the school for almost 70 years.

Jeff Sindler
Head of School
Head of School Jeff Sindler talked about the school's deeply progressive history, but noted that over the years the identification of Burgundy as a progressive school has waxed and waned. Institutional ambivalence has creeped in at various times depending on the time in history and the challenges the school has faced. In its current incarnation, BFCDS has declared itself a progressive school and is trying to help its constituent groups understand the principles and practices of progressive education to avoid the tendency to fence straddle. In framing his definition of progressive education, Jeff characterizes children as being receptive to learning when and if they feel themselves to be a valued part of the learning community. He describes this as the wellspring to success for any school, no matter the educational philosophy. The democratic principles of progressive education manifest at BFCDS through the way that students are valued and included. The students see themselves as part of a functioning community, and are preparing to function well in any educational or working environment.

 Consequently, because there is a level of comfort with the adults, the students are more self-reflective and evaluative. Ask any student on campus to describe how they learn and with few exceptions, they will give a cogent response. Jeff believes this is the key to building a students' internal motivation for learning. As they comes to know themselves better and better, as the learning environment respects their needs, they will seek knowledge and be more receptive to deep conceptual understanding. Jeff contrasts this learning climate with the "mile wide, inch deep" curriculum that is so prevalent these days in the mainstream educational system. There is a palpable excitement among the kids at BFCDS, and a level of real engagement all over campus.

A charming farm
setting sets a tone
for exploring and learning
As I have done in each of my interviews, I asked Jeff what stereotypes he has encountered about progressive education. We had a fun moment as he recounted the usual suspects: "tree-hugging, unstructured, not data driven, disorganized." Jeff knew them all. Parents are dazzled though, when they see the serious-minded approach the faculty at BFCDS takes to program development. Subject-by-subject, the teachers have illustrated how the students are developing literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving skills. This is how the stereotypes vaporize - with a real demonstration of the learning environment, and engaged students growing more and more skillful.

My swing through the east coast has revealed more and more schools sharing this philosophy and dodging the invectives of those who truly misunderstand that in these schools happy and engaged students are preparing to be leaders. I was able to witness first-hand the confidence and ownership that the students at Burgundy Farm possess; this is an impressive campus environment, pulsing with excitement and the true spirit of progressive education where "kids come first."

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