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Education that Really Means Something

By Theodore Timpson

A New Kind of Public School in California

I decided to be a teacher when still in high school. One could do the most good for people, I felt, when they are still children. As my own education progressed, I grew to feel a profound dissatisfaction with the conventions and expectations around me. Why were so many people obsessed with “making it” in a world that is so flawed and crazy?

I traveled across the country, spending time in national parks and visiting various intentional communities, all the while asking myself how to live in a worthwhile way. Eventually I was drawn to practice a form of yoga and meditation that promised a better sense of completeness and knowledge of one's higher Self.

Eventually I became a teacher. But I was not interested in joining a school system ruled by all the conventions that once had disappointed me. I taught in various alternative school environments where what matters most is the child's own sense of purpose and well being. I knew somehow that these schools were keeping alive a faith in the child sadly lacking in so many classrooms. Usually, though, these schools depend on some external source of support, often a religious or philosophical community with its own spiritual “lens.”

To make such schools more common and widely accepted – to create them within public school systems – requires an organization to support them, in our case, one that articulates principles of wisdom in a nonsectarian way. That was the origin of Young Spirit Foundation.

As Young Spirit Foundation explored a new approach to education, it also started working with Bay Area interfaith youth groups on service projects.

As Young Spirit Foundation explored a new approach to education, it also started working with Bay Area interfaith youth groups on service projects.

For years I sought to start a school, with no clear progress. Somehow the idea of a foundation caught people’s attention. Young Spirit Foundation began convening groups of educators, parents, and community leaders to talk about what a good education is and how it relates to issues of social and spiritual identity. From these gatherings three core principles emerged with which to build our vision: meaning, relationship, and self-awareness. Our assumption: a school that demonstrates these principles throughout its programs will bring people toward wholeness instead of fragmentation.

We started small – a volunteer, five-member board of directors, a mailing list, a website, and a growing number of friends, supporters, and donors. But the Young Spirit vision started taking root. In 2010 I joined with a local group of charter school founders who embraced the notion. For more than two years we worked to develop a public charter high school that follows the wisdom-centered approach we advocate.

In August 2012 the doors opened on the first Young Spirit sponsored school, Communitas Charter High School in San Jose, California.

Communitas holds a countywide charter and will operate multiple schools. Its curriculum revolves around an integrative approach to learning, weaving the traditional disciplines through collaborative, thematic teaching. It also offers a series of experiences to build personal identity and connections in the community called The Wisdom Project.

Students practice mindfulness, develop a personal creed, design service projects, hold internships, study life skills, and explore the world's wisdom traditions. As one of its teachers commented, “This idea is crazy, but it's the best kind of crazy!

In addition to Communitas, Young Spirit has now sponsored a new independent elementary school called The Children's School of Art and Science in Palo Alto, California.

Together these institutions will model a fundamentally different sense of what education means. The Young Spirit dream is that schools worldwide will begin to take seriously the student's basic need for authentic purpose and human connection. This will happen when more parents and educators stand firm in the conviction that the best elements of education are not reducible to numbers. How can numbers or grades convey meaning, relationship, and self-awareness? Yet these are the qualities most desperately needed in the world and most desperately sought by young people.

Please send your goodwill and prayers to the Young Spirit vision quest. A year from now you’ll hear from us again about the results at our Communitas campus.