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Lawrence Williams, right, co-founder of Oak Meadow, stands with his wife, Eva Shelby, who is also on the Oak Meadow Board of Directors.

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40 years of teaching and growing

Home schooling and distance learning organization Oak Meadow celebrates birthday, welcomes community, and honors co-founder

BRATTLEBORO—Michelle Simpson-Siegel climbed on a chair so she could see the many visitors packed into Oak Meadow’s new offices in the former ballroom of the Brooks House.

“Thank you,” she said.

Oak Meadow, one of the first providers of curriculum for distance-learning and home-schooling families, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Sept. 17.

And Simpson-Siegel, the organization’s executive director, also announced that Oak Meadow had become the first of its kind to receive accreditation from the country’s oldest accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

She said that it’s important for Oak Meadow, which provides educational resources for students ranging from kindergarden to 12th grade, to receive this accreditation “from one of our peers in New England.”

The actual accreditation process took a year, but it’s the culmination of two decades, during which time the country’s attitudes about home-schooling have evolved markedly.

Accreditation puts a stamp of overall quality assurance on a school. It was issued after an exhaustive process that included scrutiny of everything about Oak Meadow, from its curriculum, to its strategic planning, to its human-resources policies.

According to Oak Meadow staff, the organization worked with NEASC. Now, Oak Meadow will set the bar for similar companies seeking accreditation.

The party also represented Oak Meadow’s first official invitation to the community into its new second-floor offices. Staff unveiled the Bonnie Williams Community Room in honor of the organization’s co-founder, who died in 2002.

Simpson-Siegel said that, since she visited Vermont with her family as a child, she has perceived the state as “a place of dreamers and people making dreams come true.”

Co-founder and Board President Lawrence Williams Ed.D. is the dream-maker, Simpson-Siegel said.

“He knows that children are sensitive and intelligent and that learning can be integrated into life,” she said.

Home schooling can provide a more peaceful pace, allowing people to change the rhythm of their daily lives from the typical frenetic stress of getting kids to and from school, she said.

In the 1600s, all children were taught at home. “What’s old is new,” she said.

Simpson-Siegel believes in public education, but the structure doesn’t fit every child’s learning style.

Oak Meadow uses technology for creativity and community collaboration across all ages, and students in grades seven and up use computer-based programs.

But one aspect of Oak Meadow that separates it from some other distance-learning programs is that the younger students don’t use computers for content acquisition, Simpson-Siegel said. Its elementary curriculum relies on old-fashioned print products, like books.

Brain science has shown that children learn better through print, she said. It is tactile, and children navigate the books much as they would a topographical map. Scrolling through a text on a screen doesn’t have the same effect, she pointed out.

‘A Brattleboro success story’

Oak Meadow “feels a little bit of a Brattleboro success story to me,” Simpson-Siegel said.

The company started in the Cotton Mill, where Oak Meadow still keeps its shipping and inventory. The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation’s complex in the former mill has served as a business incubator for some local businesses.

Simpson-Siegel said that the rest of the operation moving to the Brooks House feels like a graduation.

Lawrence Williams has weathered a changing education landscape since Oak Meadow’s founding in the 1970s, when most states banned home schooling. He remembers a few dramatic incidents when children were taken from the home and their parents jailed.

Many court cases later, Williams has seen the movement shift from illegal to a viable educational alternative.

The organization started as a day school in California. Williams received a master’s in Waldorf teacher training in 1973.

He and his wife, Bonnie, wanted to teach their four kids at home using the Waldorf method, based on the educational theories of German educational philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which uses tools like the arts, creativity, and experiential learning to teach, he said.

The area schools available to his children had few of those features.

He called their educational offerings “dry.”

It’s often because of budget cuts, Williams said of the curriculum he saw. “Often the first thing that goes is the juicy stuff.”

Williams would later earn his doctor of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1990. His dissertation focused on creativity and homeschooling, and he has since authored articles, books, and curriculum materials.

Lofty intentions aside, home schooling in California was illegal, Williams said. He called the state department of education to ask if his master’s degree would qualify him to teach the couple’s children at home legally.

No, said the California Department of Education. But Williams was welcome to open his own school.

Oak Meadow operated as a day school for three years. The Williamses collaborated with fellow teachers and parents in operating the facility.

The day school’s ethos was that children are sensitive and intelligent, and that learning should be enjoyable.

When the lease ran out on the school’s building, Williams said, the couple turned to writing curriculum for first grade on. Eventually, other families asked to buy their curriculum.

From illegal activity to alternative education

Home schooling started with mostly “back-to-the-landers,” with approximately 10,000 kids taught at home, he said.

Williams said that at some point, fundamentalist Christian organizations wanted to teach their kids religious doctrine at home. These groups took the states to court, an arena where Oak Meadow has also spent some time fighting.

By the 1980s, the Christian home-schoolers had changed some of the laws around home schooling.

Oak Meadow has never operated in the religious realm, but the organization did benefit from the Christian groups’ actions, Williams said. As the legal restrictions around home schooling lifted, more parents chose to teach their kids at home.

Ten years later, Oak Meadow found itself working with public schools to design curriculum for adjunct programs that some public schools have for home-schooled kids looking for extracurricular programs, such as theater or sports, Williams said.

Chickens and eggs

Oak Meadow has always had an academic accreditation through the the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA), and it also has accreditation from North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

But Williams is happy the NEASC accreditation has also finally come through.

Williams and his family moved to Vermont in 1995. He and Bonnie spoke with NEASC then about getting accredited.

In his opinion, NEASC liked the curriculum Oak Meadow produced, but Vermont had yet to recognize Oak Meadow as an independent school.

Once again, Williams called a department of education. This time, he was told that the state of Vermont didn’t have any laws regarding distance learning.

And once again, the folks behind Oak Meadow rolled up their sleeves to work with a state to change its laws around home schooling.

Williams said the relationship between Oak Meadow, the Vermont Department of Education, and Governor Peter Shumlin (then a state senator) was collaborative.

Oak Meadow received its Vermont accreditation, a process that took several years.

All told, it has taken almost 20 years for NEASC to revisit its stance on distance learning.

A sense of pride

Williams said watching children learn and grow still inspires him. Home schooling lacks the same pressures and routine of other education institutions, he said, and this flexibility gives students more time to integrate what they’ve learned.

The home schooling movement as a whole has grown, an accomplishment that gives Williams a sense of pride.

From parents, to Oak Meadow teachers, to the organization’s staff, Williams said, “I feel very grateful for them.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #324 (Wednesday, September 23, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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