Forty Years, Still 'New'
Over forty years ago —in 1971— Blacksburg saw a group of parents and teachers collaborate on a new way to educate children. The "New" School was a cooperative school. It was designed to challenge the status quo of the educational system and change many of the conventions of everyday school life.
Blacksburg New School is revolutionary in many ways. It respects innovation, collaboration, and small class sizes. Its experienced and highly skilled teachers truly enjoy the challenges of teaching. And like in its earliest days as a school, Blacksburg New School continues to push the boundaries of quality education through a one-of-a-kind partnership between parents and teachers. Some have called it the New River Valley's best-kept secret.
A New Way, A New Vision
In a recent interview, T.J. Stone discussed the school's history. T.J. has been with the school since 1989.
"It started as a modest experiment in how to do things differently, in a 'new' way," said T.J. Stone, Kindergarten teacher and lead teacher for the school's 16 educators. "That's how the name came to be. A new way to educate, to cooperate and grow as a community. "
"As it was told to me, several founding-parents--led by Ann Goette (who still maintains a relationship with the school)--talked to some like-minded teachers about a new vision for how a school could work and function. It was an exciting time. Those founding parents and teachers wanted a small, engaging school that used 'new' ways of learning. The goal was to create a place where students could really flourish," she said.
That is the cornerstone of Blacksburg New School today: small class sizes, individual attention, engaging curriculum, safe environment (both physically and socially), and a group of teachers who are skilled and committed to teaching kids.
1970's Co-Op Schools
In the 1970s similar schools popped up around the country. All were looking for ways to create life-long learners and have less administrative overhead. They also wanted more parental involvement. The goal was well-rounded, hard-working, fun-loving, emotionally healthy kids.
According to Stone, people in Blacksburg were interested in something different, something connected to many of the social movements of the time. Since then, most of the parent-teacher cooperative schools have either changed their structure to an administration-driven model or have shut down entirely. Blacksburg New School, however, continues to thrive on its founding co-op culture. It is one of the only schools like this left in the country.
Growth and Change
Blacksburg New School has been on a perpetual growth spurt since the 1970s. In 1972, 40 students took classes in an old converted building on Roanoke Street. There were two full-time teachers, John Gerth and Betty Jean Young.
Since the 1980s, New School has moved from Whipple Drive to Ramble Road (now called Research Center Drive) to North Main Street--its permanent home where it is today. Its campus has an elementary school building, a middle school building, and a playground that you have to see to believe.
But a school isn't a just a building and the incredible growth of BNS comes from its community of teachers, parents, and students.
A Rare Private School
"New School is a unique place," said Jim McGehee, current Blacksburg New School president. "Kids love it here. Parents love it. Teachers love it. There's a spectacular spirit of community. You just don't get that in other schools."
Especially, he said, with the academic rigor. "Reading, writing, and math are critical pieces. Then there's our ongoing science, social studies, and Spanish language curriculum as well as art, PE, and music."
The price is right, too. "It's a great bargain in so many ways,” McGehee said. “You can travel the country and not find an equally priced education for your children with the same level of commitment and involvement. I think it's unmatched in the region."
There's No 'Us Versus Them'
Students benefit from the community atmosphere, Stone said. "The joint decision-making and cooperation are obvious every day. We try to avoid any 'us versus them' mentality and embrace the collaborative nature of our school structure."
A good example of that is the 1998 addition of a middle school program.
"It was done informally in 1997 for a single student — a test case. Then the entire middle school curriculum was put into place in 1998. At that point, a cluster of fifth-graders was ready to commit to the expansion, so we took on the challenge," Stone said.
Now middle school students are winning regional history competitions and science fairs. Most are reading literature found in the local high school curriculum.
No Big Secret, We Challenge Students
"It's no secret that we push and challenge our students. But they respond and thrive on it. It's a great atmosphere and very engaging," a parent in the school recently stated. Our teachers work to find "the zone" for students--where the challenge is just right.
In 2002, BNS received state-recognized accreditation and has remained an accredited independent private school. "We partnered with VISA (Virginia Independent Schools Association). Our cooperative structure was something new to the organization, which sees a lot of traditional private school environments with administrators and heads of school. They became fascinated with the model and impressed by how well it has worked for so long. BNS works to diminish hierarchy wherever possible--which is somewhat eye-opening for folks used to something quite different," Stone said.
The accomplishment is a credit to the school’s teachers. With them the ongoing development of a better and better school is made possible.
Passionate Teachers Are Foundational
"Having a strong team of innovative teachers is a foundational part of education," Stone said. "Experience and a passion for seeing kids learn is what we have here. It's what we value. Our teachers are incredibly creative; they share experiences and ideas with each other all the time; they have flexibility and control of their curriculum; and they work together as an incredibly effective group of friends."
"And our parents empower the teachers and work with them. It's an exciting collaboration."