Lisa Pavlock and Ben Kestner taught in schools around the globe — India, England, Germany, Belgium and the United States — so they took note when their daughter’s enthusiasm for school faded in kindergarten.

“It started to become more about sitting down and doing work instead of continuing to use play as a way of learning,” Pavlock said of the Brussels school where she taught English to second- and third-language learners in addition to coaching soccer.

“We didn’t want Marina to go to the school we worked in,” said Kestner, a former principal as well as math and music teacher.

The school fit the needs of many students, he said, but not all, including their daughter. Having studied various educational philosophies, they knew they had options.

About five years ago, they were looking to move to Montana. Pavlock’s family settled in the Mission Valley after studying at the University of Montana. They began looking at each house as not just a potential place to live, but as the base for a small, nonprofit school. They wanted more freedom in teaching and to give their daughter the chance to learn in her own way.

“The more we watched her struggling, and having the background we did where we had learned about other options, we started to think, why wouldn’t we try something?” Pavlock said.

Almost four years ago, the Glacier Lake School accepted its first class of 10 students and was later granted tax-exempt status by the IRS as a nonprofit. Today, about 30 children attend, ranging in age from 5 to 17. The democratic, free school on the fringes of St. Ignatius looks and operates little like a traditional campus. 

The split-level, off-white house sits on about three acres 2 miles down a dirt road from Mission Reservoir. The back yard features a climbing wall, a wooden play structure designed by students and small soccer field. Agricultural fields wrap the property with St. Mary’s Peak and Kakashe Mountain on the horizon.

Elected School Chair Wilson Hidy, 16, called the academic philosophy “radical” compared to his experience at public schools.

“It’s totally different from what you expect when you hear a school,” he said. “It’s really freeing and allows you to do what you need for your own personal goals.”

In short, Kestner said, “We trust children to educate themselves.”

***

Glacier Lake School is based on a nearly century-old model developed in Suffolk, England, and brought to the United States in 1968 with the establishment of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts as well as similar “free” or “democratic” schools worldwide. Glacier Lake is the only such school in Montana and on an American Indian reservation.

One unique feature of Glacier Lake School and many like it is the governance structure.

Every person at the school, regardless of age or title, has one vote to cast whenever a decision is made about rules, purchases, classes to offer, leadership or anything else. The school meeting agenda is posted on a bulletin board near the kitchen at a height easily read by the youngest students. On a form beneath it, anyone can add a new item for consideration.

Recently, one young student suggested a new rule: “If someone wants to play without someone else, they can if they say so politely, and do not have to share what they are playing with.”

Another student wanted to update the wording of the rule that banned “sword fighting” to allow the use of foam swords if approved by a new Toy Committee. Others requested the purchase of replacement guitar strings, suggested the school have a fall pajama day, and asked to discuss the use of paper towels warming pizza in the microwave.

Disputes at the school between students or staff, as well as reported violations of rules, go before the Judicial Committee. The person who submitted the write-up, as well as witnesses and the accused student speak. Kids plead guilty or not guilty, which determines whether the case is mediated or goes to trial. The school’s chair serves as judge.

One day, Kestner forgot to sign in when he arrived at the school, a violation of fire safety protocols. He was written up by a 6-year-old. With his schoolmates knowing he did not like to bake, Kestner’s punishment was to make cookies for everyone. A 7-year-old wrote up another student for calling him a “crybaby” and interrupting him, resulting in the loss of toy room privileges for two days. Others must complete extra chores or are assigned other tasks.

“It helps kids to see how they can take control of their world when they’re having problems,” Pavlock said. “They have a way of following through on rules and confronting other people who are breaking the rules in a way that’s not tattling, a way that’s more empowering. … It teaches the idea that we’re all responsible for our community.”

Glacier Lake also differs from many other schools because there are no required classes. Decisions about what to study and when are entirely up to the students.

A bulletin board in the kitchen is covered by sheets of paper that briefly describe current offerings pitched by students or staff. Across the top row are some taught by Kestner:  Math I, Math 2, Math 3, choir, and rehearsal for a winter play. Others include current events, karate, ninja turtles, English writing, World War II history, French and photography.

Some courses are even taught by students. For instance, Cadence Olesen, 12, partners with a staff member or other kids to teach cooking, outside and nature and soccer skills.

Some parents who tour the school fear the lack of required coursework means less rigor. Kestner said that the first few months a student is at the school, they might not study much.

“The only two things that are compulsory at this school is sign in and sign out and doing chores,” he said. “You could climb trees all day or play computer games all day. As long as you’re within the rules of the school, it’s fine. But what we find, if we get a kid who’s like a teenager from a public school, is they go through an education detoxing period (where they take no classes). Two months later, they get bored with that.”

Soon, Kestner said, they start exploring the topics that interest them. Pavlock noted that kind of purpose-driven learning reinforces core skills, such as reading or mathematics, in a way that’s practical and engages the students.

Gabe Moxeness, 16, counts himself among those who went through a detox period. At first, he said mostly played Minecraft, a popular computer game.

“I didn’t care about the stuff they were teaching me at public school,” he said. “Here I can learn about whatever I care about. I’m really interested in psychology and economics, and I also enjoy lock-picking.”

Kestner said Glacier Lake is “not better than public school or worse,” just another option.

“For example, we have one girl who’s a twin. Her sister goes to Ronan public school and she comes here. Even within twins, our education, self-directed, meets the needs of one daughter better than the other,” he said.

“The trust part is the most important part. We know as they grow through this kind of school they will get interested in a myriad of different things. Getting into college is always the worry of the parents. They will do it. My Math 3 class right now with my teenagers is SAT prep.”

***

On one recent day, a volunteer worked one-on-one with a student on a reading lesson in a living room converted into a library and quiet study area. Around the corner, several children grabbed their lunches from the refrigerator. Another moved between holds on the climbing wall outside.

Downstairs, a teenage girl worked on her laptop in the workshop, which has a wall lined with tools. The white board still included a drawing of the school’s geothermal water heating system from a recent lesson. In the computer room, Oshean Bossy, 9, demonstrated a programmable robot.

A group of younger children played games and built a house-like structure out of foam puzzle tiles in “the big room.” The converted garage also is used for gymnastics, practicing the school play and, last week, was the site of a math lesson about measuring area.

Nearby, Pavlock sat with students on a trio of couches as parent volunteer Betsey Johnson taught them how to knit.

It is the second year her 8-year-old daughter, Lyla, has attended Glacier Lake School. Johnson and her husband moved to Ronan from the Los Angeles area to raise their family. They create 3D computer graphics from home, trade Bitcoins and help family run two event venues. Their oldest daughter had been homeschooled until they had two more children and it became too difficult to juggle. They choose Glacier Lake School because of emphasis on playing as learning at younger ages and the personal academic freedom.

“If she wants to learn something, why should we stop her? And why should we force somebody to learn only what we have to teach?” she said. “My husband and I felt like we could’ve had more potential doing things we really wanted to do if we didn’t get stuck doing the things we had to do.”

Emma Hoppe, 12, sat next to Johnson, casting, looping and stitching purple yarn as she listed her classes, such as Around the World and several one-on-one lessons.

“I just learned how to do this, which is really cool,” she said, nodding toward her scarf-in-progress.

Upstairs, in a bedroom converted to a classroom, Carolyn Hidy taught fundamentals of grammar to three students, ages 10 to 15, including Kestner and Pavlock’s daughter, Marina.

“When she started, if she’d been in a traditional school, she would’ve been considered behind,” Pavlock said. “She didn’t start reading until about 8 when she felt like a confident reader. Now, she reads on her own time. She loves it. Sometimes we have a hard time pulling her away from reading.

“It takes some faith on our part to know the model and the philosophy would work,” she said.

Marina was the one who requested the grammar class this fall.

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.