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“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

– W.B. Yeats

ST. IGNATIUS – Last week, on the second day of the new school year, 12-year-old Gabe Moxness set about building a small catapult.

Not because a teacher told him to, but because he wanted to.

“I’ve made one before,” he said, “but I think I can make it better.”

Moxness is one of a dozen students, ranging in age from 4 1/2 to 12, enrolled at Glacier Lake School, a school unlike any other in Montana. We’d tell you the first day of classes was last Tuesday, except there are no classes, at least in the traditional sense.

There are also no assignments. No tests. No grades. No teachers.

Glacier Lake is a “democratic school.” The kids are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning. They decide the rules they will live by while at school. Choose their own activities. Eat the sack lunches they bring from home when they’re hungry, not when someone tells them to line up and head to a cafeteria.

“It’s a very different approach,” allows Ben Kestner, a London native who started Glacier Lake with his wife, Lisa Pavlock, in their home east of St. Ignatius. “We are not anti-public education. Some kids thrive in public education, some don’t. We’re just a great alternative.”

***

If it sounds like “Lord of the Flies” anarchy just waiting to happen, Kestner says you’d be surprised.

“Give kids the chance, and you’ll end up with rules where everybody needs to be safe and respectful,” he says.

What if a child sits around all day doing nothing?

“Kids don’t,” Kestner says. “They are innately curious. Kids want to do things.”

If what they want to do is play Monopoly, that’s fine. The board game can teach a young child about counting, adding, subtracting, finance, saving, lending and mortgaging, and it happens while they play a game.

At one point on the very first day of school, Kestner says, one child was learning to play the piano, the 4 1/2-year-old decided she’d try the guitar, three students began planning a marketing strategy for a fundraiser, a 9-year-old was teaching a 12-year-old to play chess and other kids organized a science experiment.

Gabe Moxness, meantime, asked Kestner to explain the Pythagorean theorem, something people in the construction business use all the time in building roofs, Kestner says, even if some may not know what it’s called.

“They went over it last year” when he was a student in the St. Ignatius public schools, Moxness said, “but the way they described it didn’t stick in my head. It’s just a cool thing to learn about.”

St. Ignatius “is a good school,” Moxness added, “but I learn at a different rate. Here I can learn what I want when I want, and that’s a lot of help.”

Kestner says if a third-grader shows an interest in algebra, for example, he or she can dive into algebra. No one tells them they must wait for sixth grade.

***

The husband-wife team who started Glacier Lake each have 18 years of experience in traditional schools.

Pavlock, a language specialist, began her teaching career in public schools in Washington, D.C., and taught at international schools, which serve a lot of American families living overseas, in India, Germany and Belgium.

Kestner taught math in his native London before becoming an administrator, first at an international school in Berlin (where he met Pavlock) and then in Brussels, where he was a middle school principal.

How did they land in the Mission Valley? Pavlock has a sister who has an 80-acre organic farm nearby, her parents retired nearby, and two more sisters live in Missoula. They had visited many times, and loved the area.

Kestner and Pavlock’s 7-year-old daughter, Marina, is one of the students at Glacier Lake, and one reasons the school exists.

“I didn’t want my daughter to get to my middle school,” Kestner says matter-of-factly. “It just wouldn’t suit her.”

At TEDxBrussells, an event he helped organize, Kestner told 2,500 people in attendance – and another 10,000 watching live online – how he had recently spent a day as a seventh-grader in the school where he was principal.

One teacher challenged the students to come up with “what-if” scenarios, such as, “what if you could push a button and freeze everyone around you, what would you do?”

When it came Kestner’s turn, he asked, “What if there was a school with no homework, no tests, where you could learn about what you want to learn about?”

“When someone came up with the push-a-button, everybody-freezes one, no one said that was crazy,” Kestner says. “But when I asked about a school with no tests, that, they said, was crazy.”

***

Glacier Lake is based on a Massachusetts school called Sudbury Valley that features the same democratic principles and self-directed learning.

It was founded in 1968, and has 46 years of students to back up several statistics, Kestner says. Chief among them:

90 percent of Sudbury graduates have gone on to college. Once there, they reported that their unorthodox education helped them.

“They are competent, they are self-motivated, they are used to working independently, they are able to assert themselves in order to reach their goals, they are not waiting for constant feedback or help,” according to “The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Alumni,” a 2005 book.

Traditional schools like the one he was principal of at the time, Kestner told the TEDx conference, “Move kids around in boxes all day long. We’re putting set curriculum down their throats and asking them to regurgitate it. We’re giving them meaningless tests which they forget in a month or a year. And we’re doing this all day, and sometimes we’re giving them one, two or three hours of homework on top of all that.”

Kestner and Pavlock now call themselves staff members, not teachers.

“Instead of a sage on stage, we’re a guide to the side,” he says. Like the students, they each have one vote in determining the rules everyone will live by between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., or however long the students spend at school.

On the first day, he reports, everybody stayed all eight hours.

Tuition is $5,100 a year, with a 25 percent discount for a second sibling and 50 percent for a third. Glacier Lake is applying for nonprofit status, Kestner says, that would allow it to pursue grants and offer scholarships.

The school has taken over two-thirds of Kestner and Pavlock’s split-level home that faces Mission Falls and the Mission Mountains. It accepts students from 4 to 18, and they’re never separated by their ages at school because, Kestner says, in the real world there aren’t separate offices for 25-year-olds and 45-year-olds, either.

The staff members put on programs students can sign up for, such as “fun with math,” and will also offer many field trips and guest speakers on subjects ranging from computers to wildlife photography.

Always, Kestner says, it will be up to the students whether they want to participate, or do something else during that time.

Hard to fathom such a school?

“The (educational) system we know has only been around 150 years,” Kestner says. “Think of the things the Romans did without schools – it’s amazing.”

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Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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