Growing Pains, Brooklyn, and Giant Sequoias

[In August I emailed the parent community and requested they tell me their feelings about our intention to open a second campus in Brooklyn because “I want to build our second campus to serve our whole community, not shoehorn us into a space because we are feeling rushed, cramped, or stressed. I want to know what you want; I want to build this with you.” One parent responded to me with honesty about their growing-pains-anxiety and I am super grateful for that because it helped me clarify my thinking about where we’re at as a growing community, and what I want to see for us in the future.

I put together this blog post with the intention of making my thoughts on the Brooklyn campus more visible and expand on my (intentionally brief) request for help with the Brooklyn Campus Working Group at October’s Assembly. Most of this post is excerpted from my email response to that parent.]

I think you’ve put your finger on exactly the concern that people have been hesitant to voice, one that merits a thoughtful response: that we as a community too small or too fragile to split up, that something will break if we make this change in order to continue growing, and that we should just hold still exactly as we are, in this equilibrium.

And I must confess, there have been times where I was feeling that too! I have been incredibly fortunate to walk into a thriving, healthy culture at East Harlem and become a member of the community almost immediately. I love the space in East Harlem, love the way the light slants through the windows in the back room in the morning, love the library, love the lady at the deli and Central Park around the Meer. I am grateful for the authentic relationships I’ve developed with all of the kids here and I’m sad to think that when things change it’ll mean that I won’t get to see every one of them every day. Our facilitator team is complementary and well-balanced and I know our lives will become more logistically complicated when our day no longer ends with all four of us in a room checking in. The idea that we could just hit pause and hold things just as they are is undeniably tantalizing, and it took me until this summer to truly appreciate why we can’t.

For one, it’s too late to hit pause now; we’ve already outgrown our East Harlem space. We have 30 students currently enrolled (and running and playing and making joyful chaos) in the space, with 3 more joining us as soon as their visas clear. We have a waitlist (!) of 6 kids, who have done everything in the application process except a visiting week (which we haven’t been able to schedule because our space is so full…) and 15 more families RSVP’d to our upcoming Parent Interest Night. We have doubled in size every year since the school has been in existence, and we have hit the point where the only thing preventing us from doing it again this year is the size of our space. With 9 kids and 3 facilitators already commuting from Brooklyn, it makes the most sense to open the second campus there to free up space in East Harlem.

Because beyond logistics, the exciting thing about adding the more humans to our community is that they (1) bring more material resources to support our kids’ already varied and awesome interests, and (2) bring their selves to augment, embolden, and enrich the culture of the school.

To the first point: more space means we can enroll more students, which means more tuition money to buy supplies, pay facilitators, or even hire support staff. Two locations means twice the jumping off points for field trips; more ice skating and DUMBO bouldering and Brooklyn-Museuming with less time spent rushing back on the subway up the entire island of Manhattan for spawn.

The second point is more ephemeral, but no less important. More kids means more interests, different offerings, new ideas. I’ve seen firsthand this year how each new person in the community enriches it, brings new things to light for all of us, creates more invitations to explore, discover, and grow. Some things we can only do as we get bigger, like field sports teams or run hackathons. My dream is to get big enough to stage a full musical; one the kids write, compose, direct, design, act in, and crew. We’re going to need quite a few more humans before we hit that goal!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cross-section of a giant sequoia tree I saw at the Natural History Museum in London – it lived 1300 years before being felled in 1893 in California and sliced up for lumber and museum fodder. It was large enough that I could have lain down twice across it, and its rings were marked with historical events: the penning of the Magna Carta, the birth of Queen Victoria (very Anglo-centric, of course). When that tree sent its first shoots out of the earth, English was not yet a language.

In ALC-land, we often talk about the Agile tree metaphor – the soil is trust, the roots are foundations, the branches are principals, and the leaves are the tools – to illustrate the difference between what is fundamental or essential to ALC and what is cyclical or changeable. But inherent in this metaphor is the idea of growth. Every year, every day, every hour, that giant sequoia grew until someone got greedy and saw its glory and cut it down. In the natural world, living things are continually growing, changing, and adapting or they die.

I do this work because I truly believe that self-directed education can do the most good for the most children. I believe our increasingly scary world needs more humans who are curious and adaptable and emotionally intelligent, and that ALC is a place that nurtures those traits and people. I believe we are doing something special by creating in a world where things are mostly destroyed. I want ALC to be the tree that keeps growing, across boros and states and countries and continents, that fruits children who grow to be adults who care about the fate of trees, that spreads its seeds to create a whole forest and support the lives of a whole thriving ecosystem.

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Mel Compo is an interdisciplinary artist, playworker, and facilitator at the New York City Agile Learning Center. Their work with children centers play, art-making, city adventuring, and open conversation about language, bodies, gender, networks, emotional intelligence, brain plasticity, and cycles of growth. Mel studied the intersections of SDE, poetry, and the history of American education NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. They live in Brooklyn, New York.

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