The School Around Us in Arundel, founded in 1970, transitioned to a co-earning community this fall. Here, students who receive instruction there attend a morning meeting with educators. Tammy Wells photo

ARUNDEL – There’s a sure-fire way to learn about how elections work – by holding one. Young people who learn at the School Around Us are doing just that, and students, educators, parents, and others will choose a president on Election Day, Nov. 3.

They’ll pick either Gina “Mio” Romagnoli, 13, of the Eco Party, which uses the slogan “Keep it Sweet,” or Fiona Bandy, 9, who represents the Environmental Party – whose slogan is “Nature is our Future.”

Every good election needs campaign posters, as any candidate will tell you. These ones were made by two student :candidates” who attend classes at the co-learning community called School Around Us in Arundel. Voting is on Election Day, Nov. 3. Tammy Wells Photo

There have been campaign events like a beach cleanup, speeches, and press interviews.

The parties are similar, and the candidates, say Lauren Tenney of SAU’s Leadership Team, are quite nice to each other.

The two candidates scheduled a debate, but there wasn’t that much “debate” involved, according to Margaret Munro, one of SAU’s two educators.

“They agreed too much,” she said.

Who will emerge the victor at SAU on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the winner gets to lead two weeks of classes – and in the meantime, they’re learning about the process.

This fall, SAU, which is marking 50 years since its founding, began taking a different approach to their learning model. School Around Us, which provides instruction to young people either full- or part-time, is now a co-learning community – a learning center as they’re often called – and not a school as defined by the state.

That means students who attend classes here are considered homeschool students by the state of Maine; they receive instruction at SAU as part of their education.

“It gives us more flexibility,” said Tenney. She said one of the reasons for the change is due to the movement of progressive education across the country, where parents, families, and educators step outside the regular school structure.

“It’s unique for each student, but (there is) a community holding us together,” she said.

The School Around Us, founded in 1970 in Arundel, has transitioned to a co-learning community. Tammy Wells Photo

According to the Maine Department of Education, homeschooling parents must provide 175 days of instruction annually; including education in English, math, science, social studies, physical education, health, library skills, fine arts, and depending on their grade level, Maine studies, and proficiency in use of computers. While there are a couple of methods the DOE allows to gauge a homeschooled student’s progress, one is for parents to provide an educational portfolio – which educators at SAU can help set up and maintain.

Tenney noted that in 1970, SAU was founded as a parent-led school; and while families today remain involved in their children’s learning, work responsibilities and other commitments don’t always lend themselves to being as involved with school governance as it did in 1970.

Currently, the SAU co-learning community has 10 students who receive instruction led by educators Munro, who has been with SAU for 20 years, and Amy Wentworth, a 22-year veteran. SAU’s administrative director is Laura Laprise.

Full-time instruction at the nonprofit School Around Us is $9,500 annually, Tenney said.

Delilah Poupore, whose daughter Lilyana Drummey is enrolled at SAU, is part of the leadership team. Lilyana, now 13, began at SAU when she was 5 years old, her mother said.

“My husband Jonathan and I and I dreamed that our daughter would grow up keeping a love for learning, that she’d be curious and proud of her own mind, and that she’d really understand her connection to other people and to the planet,” said Poupore. ” When she was 7 or 8, she was very interested in outside play, and learning how to do back handsprings.”

Poupore recalls her daughter loved being read to, but at the time had no interest in learning how to read.

“All of the teachers were unworried and unhurried about it, and Jonathan and I trusted that reading would come,” said Poupore. “Soon, she was introduced to a book that she really wanted to be able to read on her own, and within a couple of weeks, she was reading. Now that she’s 13, I can say that she absolutely loves reading, is passionate about math, has firm opinions about the state of the world, and she’s able to listen to others’ points of view. I think that comes from trusting a young person’s mind to be able to learn when they are in an environment that supports that learning.”

SAU has several outdoor and indoor classroom spaces, and studios for visual arts, movement and dance, STEM, carpentry and more. Each learning day begins with a morning meeting outside around a fire pit, where students and educators discuss an array of topics, from studio work to skill-building and more.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Tenney said there’s a plan for how learning would continue online if it becomes necessary.

Poupore, who is helping shepherd the transition, reflected on the change to a co-learning community.

“Really the biggest piece of evolution has been guided by the question, “What conditions would support the young people, educators, and family members to truly thrive,”” she said.

“The kids have a consistent experience with us and an individual experience,” said Tenney. “”We’re a principled place with a really strong vision and progressive in a thoughtful way.”

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