From Sudbury to the brink of failure.
It was mid-2014, and Jen and I had just come across the Sudbury model of education. It had all of the important bits of the educational model we were seeking. Now, we just needed like-minded people…no problem, right?
Jen is industrious (to put it lightly) when she gets her mind to something. She made our Facebook page, set up some info sessions at local libraries, and started joining Facebook groups dedicated to unschooling, homeschooling, stay at home moms, whatever she could think of. We put together a presentation about what the Sudbury model was, decided what it took to be a founder, and then put the call out.
I have no idea what a good number of people to show up to an info session is, but when we got two families at our first one, I was ecstatic! It was just great to know we weren’t alone in Charleston, and the only ones thinking about this. Both families were interested in helping (to an extent) and so we asked if they’d like to attend any of the other two sessions with us. They were not available. This began a trend.
Two more info sessions netted four more families. Some were interested in what we were doing. Some were interested in a homeschool collective instead of a full time school. One family was interested in helping. That family is still on our board today.
Now, with a little bit of interest, we started to try and figure out how to make this work. We decided that the plan was to gather an interested group, get some help from our interested families, and move forward at whatever pace would work best for everyone. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Jen will argue that we moved too slow. I’ll argue that we moved too fast. But what we definitely did not do was put together a solid plan and stick to it. To open the school, we knew we needed three things: families, a location, and money. We started with none. Jen and I were (and still are) willing to put half a year’s tuition in to the school as soon as we need the money. We expect any other founding families to put in at least their 20% up front (as any new enrollee would), and we knew at that point we would have enough money to get things up and running. We still believe that’s viable. But, we had no starting capital. So that was problem number one.
Problem two was that we had no location. Not only did we have no location, we didn’t even know what area of Charleston we wanted to put the school in! James Island, Johns Island, West Ashley, Downtown, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island, Summerville, these were all possible locations, and we were having info sessions everywhere. The problem was that we were getting small bites from all of these places, and none in any concentrated area, and we knew that once we chose a spot, those that were in, say, Mount Pleasant, would not be sending their kid to school in West Ashley, 20 minutes and two bridges away. So we hemmed and we hawed.
This led us to our third problem. We had families, but all of them had differing ideas of what they wanted. Those that wanted to help had their own visions…an exclusive school in Mt. Pleasant with a tuition of $15,000, a home school resource center, and others. We stuck to our guns, we knew what we wanted, and we weren’t going to bend. This lost us those families. But one founding family stuck through it with us. Our vision was the same, we wanted the Sudbury model, we wanted a democratic school, and we wanted it to be available to everyone. We set our target tuition at $5000-$6000 (about half of what a typical private school costs in the Charleston area).
So, with less families in tow (two fully committed, for a total of three kids) and some interest from others dependent on where the location was, we started looking. We met with a commercial Realtor. She said that, given our financial situation, our best bet was to try and sublet from a church or organization with extra room. So commercial real estate was out. Jen made a list of 20-30 churches in the area. We started cold calling and emailing, trying to get past any gatekeepers we could. The good news is, we live in the city with the most churches per capita in the USA. The bad news is, neither Jen nor I are religious. We do not attend church. We didn’t have any connections in the area. This made things difficult.
Multiple times we got through to someone and were rebuffed because we weren’t part of the organization (understandable), multiple times no one even called us back (disappointing), most of the rest just put us off. Two different times we got in to talks with a church, spent months jumping through the hoops (you have to meet this person, show us your financials, what does the school do again?, here’s another person to meet) and then had them turn us down in the end. For a year and a half, we searched.
Last December (2015) was the final straw. A church turned us down after four months of talking. Our other founding couple told us that they were probably going to have to move (dad was finishing out his fellowship and it was time to find a job) in August 2016. We were alone again.
Back at square one.
This was our lowest point. We thought we were close, the rug had been pulled out from us, and we were ready to just lie there. We took the rest of December off to recharge.
By the new year, we were ready to pivot. We had no idea what to, but we were ready to pivot. It was time to re-think everything. We were scared…