When conviction meets passion and perseverance, anything can happen. Going against conventional thought to blaze new trails can be a lonely endeavor, but it’s the path from which most great innovations produce better outcomes. 

In this instance, there must be something in the gene pool that enables people to address their convictions by looking at things differently. I’m referring to the creation of the new Wild Oak School launched this fall by two enterprising women seeking a better way of educating their children.

The lyrics; “Teach your children well” came to mind as I sat down with Brooks Parrish to learn more about Wild Oak School in the East Hill neighborhood of Pensacola. The more we talked, the more I understood the idea behind such an ambitious undertaking. 

The term ‘Avant-Garde’ comes to mind when I think of Brooks and Jessica Fulcher who started Wild Oaks, an Acton Academy. The term means favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas. Brooks and her husband, Justin, have had an unconventional life including spending ten years in Belize, where their first two children were born. 

Brooks grew up in Greenville, Alabama, and tells me she had a good experience in school. After attending Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia for two years, she transferred to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina with a major in Sociology. There, she met her future husband, Justin, and became interested in agriculture. She worked on an organic farm for two years before graduating.  

She and Justin married and a year after finishing school, they moved to Belize, where Brooks managed a 2000-acre Permaculture farm and nature reserve. She managed the farm for seven years and then managed a resort on the coast of Belize for three more years before deciding to move home. They settled in Pensacola soon after.

While in Belize, Brooks and Justin’s girls attended a Montessori school. Montessori schools are known for emphasizing hands-on learning experiences and developing independence in young children. “The girls spent a lot of time outside with children of mixed ages. It’s like growing up in a big family,”  says Brooks.

After moving to Pensacola, she tells me she saw a big shift in the girls after they were enrolled in public school. “I sensed they lost some of their confidence. They didn’t want to answer questions for fear of being wrong. A couple of months later, Covid hit and schools closed, so we began to homeschool. It was also eye-opening at how little time it took to teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.” 

She started paying attention to how much learning happens through play, and how much value is gained through children exploring their interests and passions. “They see the value in reading, writing, and math when they are involved in things they are interested in. Learning happens organically.” She goes on to say that while she had a good experience in school, she doesn’t think a lot of the old practices are relevant in today’s world. “I think we can do it better.”

“I was looking for a middle ground, a place where you can allow your child to follow their passions and also have a community in which to learn. I kept asking myself, what do we want our younger generation to learn?”

She goes on to say that she feels public and private traditional education has become stale to some degree. “The core skills are foundations and still important, but we now have technology for learning and it’s here to stay. We can harness technology  and allow learning to happen on each child's level and at their own pace, freeing up the majority of our time together to dig into different topics and ideas and explore their unique gifts and talents ”

Brooks began earnestly looking for an education model that blended all the things she felt were important in the educational process. “When I found the Acton Model, I knew I had found something special. The Acton Model started in 2009 and offers a framework, but by no means says there is only one way to learn. It’s more about learning to learn, learning to do, learning to be.”

Brooks and her teaching partner, Jessica Fulcher, began putting together their research into a working school for ages 4 to 11 years old. Jessica oversees the younger group, ages 4 to 7, and Brooks oversees the older group, ages 7 to 11. “The 7-year-olds overlap because this is an age where maturity and readiness vary. Everyone works at their level, so no one feels they aren’t good enough. Learning is fun.”

Mornings in the Wild Oak studios are more structured, while the afternoons are based on the Forest School principles and allow children to explore, be curious, and be problem solvers. 

“It’s an experiential education, allowing young learners to explore their unique gifts, talents, and interests. You get excited about learning when you are excited about what you are learning. We want to give the tools needed to become life-long learners.”

Much of the Acton model utilized at Wild Oak is focused on character development. There are two posters on the wall of one of the classrooms, both with tenets developed by the students themselves. They list goals such as speaking with kindness and encouragement to one another, treating space with respect, and communicating clearly.

“You can teach skills, but you need to teach people how to learn. Things like how to think and make decisions before having all the information at hand, how to get along with others, and how to communicate well both orally and in writing. We want students to ask themselves, how am I relatable? Do I have integrity?  Do I communicate well and get along with others? These are life skills. We want to teach the whole child, the whole human.”

Brooks tells me the unstructured afternoon allows the children to participate in risky play, climbing trees, building forts, and such. There are Quest Themes such as gardening with community experts who are doing something within the theme. “We want to spark an interest in what you love, what interests you. That’s a key element to becoming a life-long learner.”

“One of the reasons I love the Acton model is there is no other alternative educational model that takes you through high school.” Wild Oak currently has 20 students, and Brooks says they want to cap the number of students to 15 within each age group. 

She tells me that recently, the students called a meeting without any guidance from teachers, to resolve a conflict they were having during the afternoon session outside. They all went inside and in 20 minutes returned outside with the conflict resolved and happily playing together again. It was a 7-year-old who called the meeting.

“That was so rewarding. Seeing them learn and grow, and building confidence in themselves. Our kids love coming to school. They get excited.”

I’d say that’s progress. Congratulations Brooks and Jessica! What a great story. We wish you much-continued success as you chart your path toward better education. We should all pay attention!

Dec 13, 2023
Events That Inspire

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