“Our education and schools should not be so overly focused on learning. It is the wrong aspiration for our students, despite centuries of academic tradition. If we were to focus instead on helping all students be the very best and most capable people they can be, our kids’ education and our society would be light-years ahead of where they are now.”
“The Goal of Education Is Becoming” By Marc Prensky
As an advocate for education, I would have told you a year ago that I believed and lived this. For more than a decade I have invested in the educational world of our girls. I have served in most capacities offered to parents. I have mentored students in and out of school settings. I have advocated for teachers and administrators, and partnered in seeing that every child has the opportunity to be who they were created to be.
Before we even had children, my husband and I chose a home in a public school district that we believed could provide challenge and opportunities for the family we hoped to build. When it came time for our children to go to kindergarten, the neighborhood elementary was a second home. For the next 9 years, I invested and partnered to make school a home away from home. It was not always perfect or easy, but that’s life. We faced challenges and aimed for success.
As we transitioned to middle school, new ideas and faces and expectations were part of the journey. Our girls have both been nurtured in a smaller learning community that our district offers. The leadership and teachers in that program were a great fit for us. Even with normal middle school woes, both girls found avenues for individual growth. Little thought and planning went into educational steps in this season. For high school, we followed the natural feeder pattern of our district to a campus with more than 2,000 students.
Our oldest daughter is a passionate, loving thinker. She is an old soul in the best possible way. She loves caring for those who need help. Very few of her life-giving passions are held in sacred regard to the majority of teenagers. She could care less about brand names or social gatherings. She is more likely to be found with a 2 year-old in her arms or advocating for legislative reform. She is well read, interested in global issues and can write a better positional paper than most college students. At 16.
While these traits make remarkable high-level college scholars, they can make for lonely weekends and lunch conversations at most American high schools. Add to this challenge the pervasive diseases of depression and anxiety and you set up a situational disaster. For most teens, finding your place and your people is the goal of independence. Under the best of conditions, this season is hard. When you add a constant internal and worldly message that you “don’t fit” to a mental health condition, you set up a losing situation. That is where we found ourselves at the beginning of sophomore year.
The exterior was precious. A beautiful, 5’9″ blond, smart, talented young woman. But being a well spoken, determined, academic powerhouse is no match for paralyzing anxiety attacks coupled with the fear of crowds in the hallways of a huge high school. Even classes that were once her favorites like choir and debate proved to be unmanageable in the face of normal teenage immaturity and insensitivity towards anyone that is slightly different.
As someone who has walked the road of mental health challenges, I know firsthand that the brain is a brilliant and wicked machine. It can propel and destroy with equal power. And there is no quick fix. Time and therapy and medication and space and skills cannot return you to “normal” in 3.2 days. It is not a virus, that 24 hours post symptoms, will allow you to take your AP World History test.
When the need to change educational environments was clear, we frantically began searching for alternatives. We were 6 weeks into 10th grade and the district that had always worked for our family could no longer meet her needs. We needed an immediate path forward and the desperation and hopelessness was heavy. Things reached such a point of panic that our daily goal was functionality. No longer could we think about next year or college or beyond. Just weeks before, we had been on the Duke campus with a wide-eyed dream of a big, wonderful collegiate future. We were now in crisis management, with the enormous goal of choosing to live – which in moments seemed impossible.
We read. We studied all of the options we could find. We chose an online school that looked good. We talked to their team and we felt that Laurel Springs School would give us the most space to grow and take care of her health. At the same time, she would not have to sacrifice academics. We were committed to taking nothing away in her dreams for the future. We needed her to know that we had her back no matter the road ahead.
The decision was made to start 10th grade over. It was November before she was stable enough to really concentrate on school. The transition was not without bumps in the road. Self-regulation and time management were key. No longer did a tardy bell designate the start of the school day. More often, it was a not-so-gentle reminder to choose to live fully. With each passing day, we found a school rhythm and were able to engage in things that gave her life and purpose.
As a 6th grader, Anna Jane co-founded a charity called Dolls For All. Because of our choice to do online school, she was able to devote more of her time to developing relationships in the community and beyond. What before had been a fun Christmas-time focus, became a year round organization of hope dealing – both for the children that received dolls and for the one working to make it possible. Helping others became the pivot point on days when we were headed down dark paths. She added other mentoring opportunities with local children to her day-to-day schedule, as well. Being on a completely self-directed schedule allowed for flexibility in every area.
For so many reasons, the transition to Laurel Springs has changed our family. In November…and beyond…I was terrified. Was this the right decision? Can we find happiness? Is she going to be challenged? Yes! Yes! Yes!
We have just completed the End Of Year Celebration with Laurel Springs in Orlando. Once a year, students from around the world come together to celebrate high school milestones like National Honor Society induction, graduation and prom. This year, we had a family field trip day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. All of these things were wonderful, but the highlight was meeting the team of administrators and dedicated staff that make Laurel Springs a success. I cannot express how impressed I was with the passion and love for learning they displayed. But the BEST part was the desire to see every student meet their personal potential.
Every time we met a new face, they asked us (and most importantly, Anna Jane) why she chose LSS. They inquired about her as a person. They want HER to succeed. You knew that from every interaction. If the goal of education is ‘becoming,’ LSS is exactly what #TeamHilbrich needed. Education is not a one-size-fits-all system. I had no idea just how ill-fitting traditional large brick and mortar high school was for our daughter.
But, you should see her now. No, things are not perfect. But she is thriving and dreaming. She is more confident. She knows that she has a place of belonging. She feels successful. As a mom, that is the greatest joy. To know that I have helped my child ‘become’, is to know that I have been her partner in education and life.
If your child is not thriving in traditional school, please don’t assume that you just have to push through. Explore your options. Believe that there are options! I resisted this change for so long. I joked about how I would never have my kids home with me all day for school. I wrongly assumed that alternative educational options meant sacrificing academics and rigor. I was wrong. Education is so much more than math and reading. We owe it to our kids to explore and invest in education the way we do their sports teams and our own job searches. May we help our kids be the best people they can be, because that is the heart of great education.