Don’t be misled by the title. How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work is not your typical how-to book. This is because author Chris Mercogliano firmly believes no two schools should be alike, while it is the nature of how-to books to dish out formulas that readers are expected to follow like recipes. No, How to Grow a School doesn’t contain any blueprints. Instead it is an exploration of the art of the possible, a reference point, a confidence builder, a troubleshooting guide, a tool, if you will.
Above all, this book is an attempt to demythologize the artificial construct known as “school,” which, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain of illusion, has inflated itself into something mysterious and foreboding. “It is time to throw back the curtain,” writes Mercogliano, who for the past thirty-three years has helped to staff and run the Albany Free School, the nation’s oldest independent, inner-city non-coercive school, “so that all may see how simple and basic is the process of educating children, and so that we can reclaim it from the jealous hands of experts, bureaucrats, and academicians.”
The book, the first ever of its kind, provides valuable information and guidance to parents, educators, homeschooling families anyone with an interest in the future of our children. In addition to examining the core characteristics of any good learning environment and the basic steps involved in starting one, it chronicles the start-up of 18 uncommon schools and learning centers whenever possible in the voices of their founders. There is great wisdom in these stories. Each one is a unique example of how an individual or group managed to bring to life their vision of education. There is abundant inspiration in them, too, because in nearly every instance the explorers were faced with navigating the shoal-filled waters beyond convention without reliable charts, often relying on serendipity and synchronicity to keep them on course. Not all of the examples are “success stories,” for lack of a better term, because there is much to be learned from others’ misfortunes and mistakes.
You will find the words “sprout” and “grow” throughout the discussion because in addition to being a teacher and a writer, the author is an inveterate gardener, too. To him a good learning environment, the kind that meets children’s real physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs, is like a garden. It begins with a seed, a vision of a better way. Then emerges a sprout that must be carefully tended until it matures and bears the fruit of happy, competent, purposeful, autonomous young people.
How to Grow a School promises to be a good read, too, for as Ron Miller, publisher and author of What are Schools For?, said about Mercogliano’s first book, Making It Up As We Go Along:
This is the most soulful and authentic book about education since the writings of the radical critics of the 1960s, Holt, Kozol, Dennison, Kohl, and Herndon. . . . Mercogliano reminds us once again that true education is not a management technique but a human encounter.