NO TESTS • NO GRADES • NO HOMEWORK
If you were to ask a student what a dream school would look like, the Walden Community School is probably what they would describe.
Words By Heather Reneau | Photos By SouthpawPhotography.net
Walden Community School is a progressive private school in Winter Park, Florida, founded in 2002 by Dr. Carol Mikulka in an effort to provide her two daughters with an advanced academic school that was also focused on developing the whole child while being supported by inspirational teachers and a community of other students. Over the years, Walden Community School has gone through many transformations. Originally a middle and high school program, the school currently serves students in first through sixth grade and will continue to expand to meet students’ needs. After more than 14 years of evolution, Dr. Mikulka says the school’s program transcends intellectual pursuits and academic achievement to educate the whole person. She does this by carefully choosing extraordinary teachers who are progressive-minded and passionate and who demonstrate respect for students’ autonomy.
Dr. Mikulka describes the school culture as a hybrid between homeschooling and private schooling. Homeschool parents usually don’t grade their students; rather, they evaluate the students’ entire body of work. Teachers carefully evaluate each child’s performance based on his or her educational, social, emotional and physical literacy through individual quarterly evaluations instead of traditional testing and letter grades. Dr. Mikulka believes kids should not miss any educational standards. However, she has created a safe and stress-free school that allows students to hit these standards on their time without anxiety because their individual personalities and learning styles are considered.
During a visit to the school, you’ll feel at home because, well, you’re in a house. Situated on an acre of property, the main house acts as the school office, reception, art studio, library, kitchen and features a few open collaboration areas. The property also has another building that houses the lower elementary group as well as a classroom trailer that houses the upper elementary group. Outdoors, there’s a zipline, a student-tended vegetable garden and an outdoor science lab. Shoes are optional (kids can wear whatever they find comfortable). Each student has housekeeping chores, completing tasks such as watering the plants, stacking chairs, sweeping the floor and taking out the classroom garbage.
The classrooms offer a variety of seating areas, much like your home does, allowing students to choose where they are most comfortable to learn. Students may work at a table for large group projects, sit on comfortable chairs while working with a friend or work independently on the floor. The kids get plenty of outdoor time. Students eat lunch together outside in addition to daily P.E. class and ample recess time. It’s very common to find children engaged in independent reading on the outdoor hammocks.
The curriculum is developed by the faculty each year and includes an overall historical theme. Writing, critical thinking, and hands-on projects are the largest components of the inquiry-based lessons. For example, when the upper elementary students researched and studied the Civil War, they were not tested on dates and facts. Instead, they were asked to explain how the slaves might have felt after being freed and what challenges they may have faced. This year, upper elementary students are studying evolution and philosophy with help from community advisors from the Rollins College Philosophy Department. Meanwhile, the multi-age first through third grade class made Stone Age-inspired tools and fire pits, created cave paintings and hand stencils, read The Epic of Gilgamesh and engineered an irrigation system after planting their first crop.
Walden Community School offers an interesting combination of Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Classical, Harvard’s Project Zero and the Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences education approaches. Their curriculum development is inspired by the Finnish education system that is consistently rated one of the top systems in the world.
the fine print
What’s not so dreamy about Walden Community School is the tuition. It costs $12,000 per student per year. The tuition ensures that the school maintains great teachers at a 1:10 student-to-teacher ratio. Walden is accredited by Advanced Education Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and is also a designated Project Learning Tree educational center, instilling responsible action on behalf of the environment. Walden accepts McKay Scholarships and Step Up For Students scholarships. For more information or to request a campus tour, visit www.waldencommunityschool.com.