Circle School students ponder just before recess comes to an end. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s 8:30 a.m. at The Circle School, and the student body is gathered for morning circle in the main room of the 1910-era Mahncke Park house that has been its home for 50 years. The children begin their day as they have started every day, with a story, a song, and a Native American blessing extended to the world.

From there the students head to class. Rather than “first grade” and “seventh grade” and so-on, their rooms are named for an element of nature. Sky room may go first, followed by sun room, and more.

A Circle School student poses for a photo behind playground equipment. Photo by Scott Ball.
A Circle School student poses for a photo behind playground equipment. Photo by Scott Ball.

A deep connection with the natural world is one of the signature values of The Circle School, where students are encouraged to explore their social, intellectual, and natural world to discover knowledge and wisdom. Every inch of the main house is covered in art projects. Inside the classrooms, teachers are free to teach in their own style and manner. With a maximum 12 students per class, teachers are able to get creative and try new things. Some have Montessori training, others have art and music backgrounds, and others are traditionally trained. Some, like Terry Ramirez, are not formally trained at all.

Ramirez, one of the middle school teachers, began as a home educator. She considered herself an “unschooler,” using life experiences to illustrate and exemplify the basic skills she taught her children. What might sound unorthodox turned out to be quite effective. In high school her children tested into Keystone, and her older son has gone on to attend Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Blanca Luna asked Ramirez to “unschool” her kids as well.

Luna eventually decided to put her children in The Circle School, where she got involved thanks to the school’s mandatory parent participation policy.

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Every month parents accrue a $100 fee on top of their tuition, which ranges from $540 to $580 per month. Parents work off the extra fee at a rate of roughly $10/hour. According to Luna, it’s pretty rare for parents to end up paying any of the fee. Most parents find a service niche, whether it’s accounting, teaching special classes like art or yoga, leading field trips, or helping maintain the grounds. Some, like Maray McChesney and Mark Maker, use their professional expertise to help out with public relations. Ramirez, with her classroom full of animals, serves as a teacher.

Co-ops are not as common in Texas as they are in northeastern states, but families invested in The Circle School have felt the benefits.

“It’s been a crazy supportive group…I didn’t have that before my daughter came here,” said McChesney.

Maray McChesney embraces her daughter at The Circle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

As a parent, Luna became heavily invested in the school’s mission to cultivate “a thriving and compassionate community while individualizing education, fostering a lifelong love of learning, and providing the confidence and leadership skills needed to become impactful citizens of the world.”

In 2000, Luna began working with The Circle School, and eventually became its administrator.  As a celebration of The Circle School’s 50th anniversary, many past founders, benefactors and board members recently came back for a tour. Luna was encouraged when one of the founders pulled her aside and said that the school was running exactly as she’d hoped it would.

“The fact that she was proud of us, and that we still did morning circle was liberating,” said Luna.

The last 50 years have seen their ups and downs. In 1965 it opened as The New Age School, a passion project of Isabeth Bakke, based on the teachings of Maria Montessori, Carl Orff, Jean Piaget, the Waldorf School, and others. Bakke was deeply influenced by Nicholas and Helena Roerich’s vision of a peaceful society and wanted a school that would equip students with the necessary tools to bring about such a world.

The cosmic humanist New Age movement began shortly after the school opened, and while there was no association, it made the school a lightening rod of controversy as the culture wars raged throughout the ’80s.

In 1990 the school was renamed The Circle School, and music teacher Melissa Javors wrote the school song to help the children embrace the new name. The ups and downs continued as the school fought for financial stability in the midst of San Antonio’s increasing suburbanization.

In some lean years, the school did not have grades 6-8. It was common for home schooling families to send their children part time. Now, Luna says, the school is operating at capacity, with a wait list. They don’t have space for part time students, and they have a thriving middle school program. A refurbished playground and a new classroom building opened for the 2015-16 school year.

Students look at each other while singing during circle time. Photo by Scott Ball.
Students look at each other while singing during circle time. Photo by Scott Ball.

While re-urbanization certainly helps, Luna also attributes this to the rising concern in middle class families that over-testing is sucking all the joy out of their children’s learning. Others are concerned that traditional middle school environments are putting kids under needless social and academic pressure.

Watching the kids playing outside during their half hour (at least) of recreation, its easy to see a healthy web of nurture. Older kids are pushing the younger ones on swings. Kids are hugging and helping each other in some areas while competing in others.

“Kids have an opportunity to learn from older students, watching what independence looks like,” said Luna.

The outdoor space is full of free from play structures as well as a playhouse, some tractor tires, and plenty of mud and rocks. With the confidence and self-actualization characteristic of the school’s students, McChesney’s daughter Arden and one of her friends explain that they had been making pottery out of the mud, but the sun cracked it. 

“(The outdoor space) is an extension of the classroom,” said Ramirez.

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In many ways, The Circle School is an institution whose time has come. What was radical and even controversial during the Civil Rights and “hippie” movements is now largely mainstream. Students at The Circle School were doing yoga before Madonna. They were getting in touch with nature before Al Gore was making documentaries. They don’t need celebrities to tell them what they are doing is valuable, and they will keep right on pursuing peace when cultural trends move elsewhere, just like they have for the last 50 years.

*Top image: Circle School students ponder just before recess comes to an end.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.