Little house, big dreams 

Sixth-grade teacher Sue Spengler announces, "Time for the closing."

"Already?" the students ask, a candle's flame lighting their faces.

Indeed, it's the end of another day that Spengler and six students have spent in her living room — a cozy space dotted with bright ottomans and patterned storage boxes. Books in Latin such as Cattus Petasatus (The Cat in the Hat) and Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) line the walls.

The Little School on Vermijo feels like a modern-day version of a one-room schoolhouse, an idea encouraged by wagon wheels lining Spengler's fence outside. On the school's website Spengler says, "I always wanted to be the teacher on the frontier, the Little House on the Prairie schoolmistress."

Spengler saw her chance at this time last year. That's when, while she was searching for a middle school for her 11-year-old son, he asked if she could be his teacher.

Leading a class wouldn't be a stretch — Spengler, 43, has taught sixth-graders and adults for nearly two decades. But quitting her full-time job in Harrison School District in this economy took courage, passion and a bit of networking. She found five other parents whose children went to school with her son and lived nearby who were willing to try something new.

"It does take a village," says Spengler. She considers herself the lead teacher — her certification makes this whole model possible — but "not the only, or even the main, teacher." Parents are very involved with helping out and working with their kids in their own homes. Spengler is able to bring in many guest teachers and tutors to work with the kids, thanks to her extensive contact base.

Resources for homeschooling may have been limited in Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, but computers and the Internet have opened up new realms of possibilities. Students bring laptops and each has a blog where he or she can write about topics from poems to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Aside from using the Web for research, the class has its own YouTube channel, and the students have all learned how to type, search the Web effectively, make hyperlinks, leave appropriate comments, and recognize advertising.

The students also help Spengler develop an unconventional curriculum based on classical civilizations. Eight-week-long quarters make up the school year, with each quarter centered on a core topic like writing or reading, and involving both a practical and fine arts subject. Last quarter's topic was writing. For practical and fine arts components, the students learned computer skills and practiced tai chi in the park across the street.

Students also work on math skills every day and hold a performance each quarter to display what they've learned. For the first quarter, they held a tai chi/yoga, Greek alphabet and writing recital. This quarter, they'll perform a drama, and show off their Latin and knitting skills.

Spengler knows what the year will include, but not necessarily how each day's schedule will run.

"Nothing's glued down," says one boy named Forest. "We can switch and do crochet before Latin if we want to that day." And they like that. They also enjoy getting to know the other kids and "knowing everyone's name."

"I like being able to blurt out information," blurts out Spengler's son Grant.

The school currently consists of Spengler's "friends and friends-of-friends," but she hopes to expand in the near future. She wants to create a multi-age middle school with 12 students ranging from sixth to eighth grade, keeping her current house for the school and living nearby. She has a five-year plan that will get her younger son through middle school, and is excited to see what possibilities unfold from there. Right now, they seem endless.

As Forest says, "We're able to do things other schools just can't."


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