Reading, Writing and Sustainability

The Sierra School that offers an environmental approach to education
BY: LACEY STORER

When you think of middle and high schools, you typically don’t think of things like sustainability, recycling, ecological hikes and classes covering environmental ethics. But those are all part of the educational curriculum offered to students attending the Sierra School in Todos Santos.

The Sierra School is a non-profit, private school that takes a holistic, skills based approach to learning. It has both an intellectual mission and a social mission for its students. “We’re a school that focuses on teaching kids to become leaders, with an added focus on sustainability,” says Molly Lou Freeman, one of the school’s cofounders and its head of learning.

That focus on sustainability includes place based learning (using the natural environment as a classroom and lab), close monitoring of the resources the school uses, organic gardening and composting, and engaging in a very rigorous research and development plan to make the school’s campus sustainable.

In addition to sustainability, the Sierra School also focuses on bridging the gap between Mexican and international students (those from the U.S., Canada or elsewhere), filling an educational niche that’s missing in Todos Santos. The students speak English or Spanish or both languages. As part of the educational model the school follows, the students become bilingual. Students who don’t speak Spanish when they start at the school take intensive Spanish for beginners classes.
The students at the Sierra School are kids who are high achievers and are looking to go to college and pursue professional careers. Freeman says the typical students are those who are highly motivated and have demonstrated academic potential. They are kids who love to learn, are active in the community and have good leadership skills. Also important is that the students’ families really want to nurture them and offer them an exceptional education experience; they’re families who will take active roles in their children’s education and will support them in their academic endeavors.

The school follows the International Baccalaureate Organization Diploma Program (the IBDP), which is a curriculum model that provides internationally accepted qualification for entry into higher education. It’s a rigorous and challenging program, and Freeman says it has an educational standard that’s two years ahead of the Mexican curriculum model.

This is the Sierra School’s second year of operation. Although it’s not yet accredited by the Mexican department of public education, the school submitted its application earlier this year and Freeman says accreditation is imminent (meaning they’re just waiting for bureaucrats to get their act together and give the stamp of approval). Accreditation for the IBDP program will take longer and is something the school is working towards, but Freeman says the school will have that accreditation by the time the first class of students is ready to graduate high school.

Classes at the Sierra School include the traditional subjects of math, art and physical education. They also include Spanish, which encompasses not only the language but Spanish literature, history and geography; creative writing; the Great Books; and environmental studies, which covers local ecology, sustainability and environmental ethics. Students also complete two individual research projects in grades 10 and 12, and a community service project.

And students at the Sierra School are expected to do more than just their homework while they’re at school. They are also responsible for taking care of the school’s vegetable garden, maintaining the school blog, keeping the school clean, participating in weekly meetings and school events and developing the school’s local internship program.

The Sierra School is a small school. Currently, there are just eight teachers and 12 students in grades 6th through 8th, although they are actively seeking applications for students in 7th, 8th and 9th grade. Freeman says the school’s ultimate goal is to have an enrollment of 50 students from 7th to 12th grade. For the next school year, they hope to have 20 students.

The school recently held a raffle to help raise money for the school. Three prize packages totaling more than $5,000 USD in value - the packages included stays at local hotels, massages and gift certificates to restaurants, to name a few - were given away. More than 200 tickets were sold, bringing in a total of $8,500 for the school.

The money raised will go towards the school’s scholarship fund. Freeman says the school charges $5,000 USD per student, but it costs much more than that to keep the school running. (She estimates operating costs to be around $120,000.) The school offers full and partial scholarships to students; part of its core mission is to provide an education to any student that is qualified and academically-motivated, no matter their financial status. Currently, about 75 percent of the school’s students are on some type of scholarship.

Although the raffle is over, Freeman says they plan on doing another one later in the year, and there are still many ways to donate to and support the school now. Donors can sponsor scholarships or classes (meaning the money pays for the materials and staff for a particular subject); join Founders Circle program, where donors give a minimum of $5,000 per year for at least three years; or become a benefactor of the school with a donation of $50,000 or more. Of course, there is always the option to make smaller one-time or recurring donations through the school’s PayPal account.

For more information on the how to donate, and on the Sierra School in general, visit their website at www.sierraschool.org.