Sycamore Community School to open for 2021-2022 school year
Story By Bridgette M. Redman | Photos COURTESY OF SYCAMORE COMMUNITY SCHOOL
The sycamore tree, found throughout the Los Angeles area, grows fast, is resilient, and experiences annual regrowth and regeneration. These are the qualities that are inspiring a new K-8 school opening in Santa Monica in time for the 2021-2022 school year.
The founding of Sycamore Community School is in response to the way children were educated during the pandemic, but also sprouts out of a lifelong dream of the principal and the way she believes children should be educated.
“We see our school as fast-growing and our curriculum is designed to foster resilient kids who have high self-esteem, feel good about themselves and have empathy toward others,” says principal Mary Ann McQueen.
Sycamore Community School will have a curriculum that, while recognizing the importance of technology, will emphasize pencils, crayons, markers, paint, manipulatives and, most of all, real books – the kind you hold in your hand and turn the pages.
“When you think about kids (during the pandemic) having to learn virtually and primarily through a device, it is very limiting,” McQueen says. “Not because technology is bad, but because as a medium of learning, it can be tiring. It’s not as effective when it comes to things like reading.”
McQueen says they plan to use technology intentionally, carefully and thoughtfully, and not let such things as digital reading replace reading out loud and together in groups. Even their oldest children in the upper grades will be read out loud to.
McQueen formed many of the school’s philosophies throughout her life, while others were a direct response to how education took place during the pandemic.
“Ever since I was a small child, I always viewed my own experience in schools through a lens of what I would do differently if I was in a position to have that kind of impact,” McQueen says. “A lot of the things that we’re doing and that the team has put in place are things I’ve believed for a long time about what works well with kids.”
She recalled that when she was growing up, kids constantly played outside with little to no supervision. They made up their own games, learned to get along, and experienced the outdoors no matter what the weather.
“We really want to get kids outside in ways that foster more independence, more resilience and more creativity,” McQueen says. “Kids are so programmed now, they spend so much time in the car, they don’t have the opportunity to use their imaginations and their personalities to navigate with people and to have a give and take, to just have fun without a lot of pressure to perform.”
In pursuit of such goals, Sycamore Community School will have more recess, outdoor classes, and field trips that involve walking to places and taking public transit. One such trip will be biweekly walks to the library, which is three blocks away.
They are working to develop strong reading lists for all their classrooms and filling them with actual books that provide opportunity to talk about topics that promote socioemotional learning. One of their focuses will be responding to what kids have gone through over the past 15 months.
“For kids, it was over a year,” McQueen said. “Their whole life got thrown upside down. Kids experienced loss, isolation and depression. We really want to use this opportunity to have a jumping off point for discussions.”
Enrollment for the school is now open and they have students in every grade but eighth. There are five teachers, all of whom McQueen has worked with in the past and who have experience with each other.
With tuition costing $15,000 a year, the school’s goal is to keep the school affordable and to offer scholarships to those who need them. They plan to forge partnerships with parents and relationships between families so that they have a cohesive community.
“People have the opportunity to be part of something new and be the pioneers,” McQueen says. “It is special to be a part of a start-up school and help develop the traditions and events and culture of the school.”
Every morning, school will start at drop-off time with a community gathering in their courtyard, where there is a decades-old sycamore tree. They’ll have announcements, community leaders will address the school, and people will have the opportunity to connect.
Parents will have opportunities to volunteer in the classroom and on field trips and outings. The school plans to reach out to and partner with such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, religious organizations in the community, the public library, the Santa Monica Y, and organizations that serve homeless people.
There are already plans in place for afterschool enrichment programs such as coding, art, musical theater, chess and yoga. Other activities will be offered based on the needs and interests of the students.
“I really hope to parlay over 30 years of experience as an educator in K-12 schools with my colleagues into developing a really excellent and affordable option for parents that has a rich curriculum with rigor,” McQueen says. “We’ll have a smaller teacher-student ratio.”