April 13, 2022 428 PM
MARFA — Marfa parents sat in a circle in Marfa Public Library’s Community Room last week to hear a presentation about a new alternative school coming to town — Wonder School Marfa, a mixed-aged “microschool” where, per the website, “education is reimagined and curiosity is fostered through the cultivation of mind, body, and spirit.”
Administrators are aiming to open fall of 2022, with an enrollment goal of 10 to 20 students. The concept is that of a one-room schoolhouse, with mixed-aged students from kindergarten to eighth grade. The location secured for the school is the ground level of the First United Methodist Church on Washington Street.
The establishment of Wonder School Marfa comes after Marfa Independent School District suspended its Montessori programs for grades 1-3 and 4-6 at the beginning of the school year, with the district citing a continued decline in enrollment and only six students enrolled in each of the classes. At the time, some Montessori parents told The Big Bend Sentinel they had been turned away from the program, with the district citing classes were full. Superintendent Oscar Aguero refuted the claim.
The only surviving class was pre-kindergarten through kindergarten, led by the Montessori teacher Emily Steriti, which consisted of 14 students at the start of the school year. The Montessori class will be suspended at the end of the school year, and Steriti will become an instructor at Wonder School Marfa. Aguero did not return a request for comment on why the only remaining Montessori program would be soon coming to an end.
Steriti founded the nonprofit Marfa Montessori, which operated independently for a handful of years before folding into MISD in 2013. Because the program was a partnership between the school district and the preexisting nonprofit, it was free for all students. The idea to bring Montessori into the school dates back to 2012, as then Superintendent Andrew Peters sought creative ways to combat the district’s historically declining enrollment.
Now, after the program’s decline, Steriti is looking to Wonder School Marfa to fill the space left by its absence.
“Flash forward a few years and the school administration has shifted, and the goals of the school and my own goals have not remained quite the same,” said Steriti at last week’s first Wonder School Marfa meeting. “So now I’m looking for a place where I can be my entire Montessori self, be supported, and help the people I love the most, which is the children.”
In a later phone interview, Steriti said Wonder School Marfa would like to expand to offering an early childhood program for three to six-year-old children, but more time will be needed to meet legal requirements and certifications.
“My ultimate goal is for there to be another three to six-year-old Montessori program in Marfa, because there’s so many people who want it,” said Steriti.
Wonder School Marfa isn’t the first alternative school to pop up in recent years. Another kindergarten through eighth grade school called Marfa International School operated from 2013 to 2016, but eventually folded due to financial issues. Steriti said she believes Wonder School Marfa will not meet the same fate, and ultimately will stay afloat because it is led by committed locals.
“We are people who are interested in investing in this town,” said Steriti.
Around 20 interested parents gathered for the introductory meeting, which was led by Wonder School Marfa Director Kristal Cuevas. Kids shrieked and boisterously ran around in the neighboring courtyard, visible through large glass windows.
“There’s our microschool right there,” Cuevas laughed.
Cuevas was joined by other Wonder School Marfa team members Steriti and Sam Watts, who, along with Cuevas, will serve as the school’s teachers or “guides” — the style of learning places the emphasis on student-led, rather than traditional teacher-led, inquiry.
Watts taught at MISD for a number of years as an art, music, and afterschool programming instructor before leaving the district in 2020. As a father of two, Watts said he was excited to be working with Wonder School Marfa, which will provide an alternative to homeschooling, a practice many parents in the meeting took up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is something that is very important to me. It’s very important to my kids who have had a very difficult time homeschooling,” said Watts.
Led by copies of informational packets donning the Wonder School logo, an origami fox, Cuevas kicked off the meeting by saying she wanted to discuss the educational needs of the children in their community. Cuevas moved to Marfa a year ago with her husband and two children after routinely visiting Marfa for a number of years from their homebase in San Antonio.
She said her entrepreneurial spirit leads her to help find solutions to things that might be lacking in a community. With Wonder School Marfa, she aims to embrace the best parts of homeschooling, which their family engaged in during the pandemic, while offering kids more socialization.
“We felt isolated. I felt isolated. My daughter felt isolated. It was very hard for us not only being new in a new town, not knowing a whole lot of people, but doing this [homeschool] curriculum all on our own,” said Cuevas. “I liked the freedom though, and the flexibility of creating our own schedule every day — waking up a little bit later, going outside and taking trips here and there on our own time.”
Meeting attendees reviewed a proposed weekly schedule for the students, which Cuevas said was preliminary in nature and subject to change. The curriculum will utilize online learning platform Prenda and involve daily routines of setting goals and project-based learning with an emphasis on gratitude, play and discovery.
Over 300 microschools across the country employ Prenda’s curriculum, which is designed to meet state education requirements, but Wonder School Marfa would be the first in Texas, said Cuevas. Prenda lessons are virtual — they are not interactive nor conducted with a live teacher, Cuevas said, responding to a parent’s question about the format. Learning assessments will be conducted three times a year.
The school will utilize diagnostic testing at the start to determine student’s levels of understanding on a variety of academic subjects, said Cuevas. In order to meet each child’s needs, Steriti said day-to-day strategies might include pairing kids of different ages together or asking parents to work with their children additionally at home.
“I will follow each child wherever they need to go, so that will be incorporated into the environment each day,” said Steriti.
One parent asked about Spanish-immersion, to which Cuevas said staff intended to incorporate language learning in a conversational way, playing or having snack time in Spanish.
It is currently up in the air whether the school will adopt a four or five-day learning week, but a five-day model included field trip Fridays where students will participate in nature, art and community service activities around the tri-county area.
“The idea is to take learning outside of the church space where we’re going to be,” said Cuevas.
Watts said as a result of online learning during the pandemic, kids have been putting in a lot of screen time. He said Wonder School Marfa will incorporate academic lessons into real life experiences, like introducing fractions through cooking.
“How can we make 30 or 45 minutes count on the computer, but then count even more afterwards by going out into the world and finding those concepts in the community and outside in nature?” said Watts. “What I’ve learned as a parent is that you really have to pad [online learning] with a lot of physicality.”
Watts shared his ideas for field trips, saying without all the district-level red tape, getting kids out and about would be easier to achieve and more frequent. He said he’d like for students to experience more artists and artists’ studios outside of the contemporary art bubble of Marfa — showing them messy art environments they may better relate to as kids.
“I think that the freedom to be able to invite guests, and share the community with the kids at an early age is incredibly important,” said Watts.
There was a continued emphasis on instilling the importance of acts of service in Wonder School Marfa students; kids could engage with Marfa’s elderly population and perform trash clean ups around town, some suggested.
Another key goal of Wonder School Marfa outlined by Cuevas was a desire to ensure parents are a key part of their children’s education by becoming involved in student performances, field trips, and more. Parents will be required to contribute 20 hours annually of volunteer time toward helping with the school’s fundraising efforts, community outreach and facilities.
Steriti said she would work with Wonder School Marfa’s parent community to offer support and help establish clear communication between them and their children. She said she welcomed the opportunity to travel for her students and the school’s attendance would be flexible, but there will be some form of attendance expectations.
Tuition is currently set at $400 a month, with a 20% discount for siblings. There is also a $200 registration fee and $200 enrollment deposit. The cost was determined considering a number of factors including staff salaries, Prenda platform expenses ($100 a month per student), rent, utilities, wifi, insurance, class materials and supplies and software. The school intends to host two annual galas and a regular booth at the Saturday Farmer’s Market to fundraise.
Tuition assistance will eventually be offered, said Cuevas, once the school is eligible to apply for grant funding. Steriti said when she ran the nonprofit Marfa Montessori it was challenging at first, with all students paying full tuition, but by their third year 50 percent of the students had some or all tuition reduced.
“The more grants, the more funding that we can get, the more affordable we can make it even for families that can’t afford any tuition. Opening that up and bridging that gap in the community would be one of my personal missions,” said parent Stela Fuentez.