Limestone Community School, an alternative for elementary education, is opening its doors in Lawrence this August with the help of an upcoming sold-out fundraiser and community support.
Limestone is an independent school, described as “reimagining elementary education to cultivate equity and inspire the next generation of innovators through project-based learning.”
Co-founder Madeline Herrera said Limestone will be open to kindergarten through second grade for the first year.
Herrera, who formerly taught at Deerfield Elementary, said she decided to start Limestone because she’s seen what happens to students’ imagination, confidence, and engagement with the community when that is nurtured through project-based learning. Public schools are not always able to prioritize PBL, she said.
“I just don’t think traditional learning environments work for everybody. There are a lot of diverse needs out there, diverse temperaments, diverse perspectives, and I think that there are different learning methods that keep those kids invested in their learning,” she said.
As an alternative to public schools, Herrera prefers to call Limestone an independent school. She said the word private “conjures up the image of gatekeeping,” which is not how she wants her school to be known.
“As improbable as it may sound, I really want this to be a school for anybody who wants to attend. I want to make it financially possible for any interested family.”
Herrera further explained the school’s philosophy. Limestone is stepping away from standardized testing and instead emphasizing outdoor education and PBL. She also said the school focuses on four cornerstones. The first is education, integrated with “play, passion and purpose.” The following three – earth-centered (play), arts (passion), and community (purpose) – all serve to support the school’s integrity.
“That’s really looking at academics in an integrated way,” she said. “It’s really about authentic learning experiences.”
One method that the educators will use is giving students an open-ended question that they get to “dig into” with research.
“A lot of times, the question is posed as some sort of problem, and they get to do prototyping, and they get to present it to professionals in whatever field it is that pertains to what they’re working on,” she said. “So we’re going to be doing that within the walls of Limestone.”
Herrera’s co-founder, Annie Gnojek, is a professional musician and educator, who will be incorporating that into a “robust and comprehensive arts program,” Herrera said.
“We are thankful to get to partner with musicians, artists, and dancers locally and beyond,” Herrera said. “Movement and play will be interwoven into our day.”
For the first year, kindergarten will have a maximum of 12 students; first and second grades will be in a mixed classroom with a maximum of 24 students. Herrera is currently in the process of finalizing a contract for a building to house the four educators and maximum 36 students for the 2022-23 school year.
In starting an independent school, Herrera said it was important for her to create a learning environment that she has seen motivate and excite students through her own experience.
“I was an elementary teacher for nine years in public schools, and I have seen that really great things are possible in that environment. … I believe in public schools. I think that they are incredibly necessary, and I believe in their potential, but well-intentioned standardization meant that I couldn’t always give my students that expansive learning experience that was really an animating force in the classroom.”
Though she left Lawrence Public Schools, Herrera still works alongside public education for a nonprofit called The Educator Wellness Project, which provides wellness coaching for teachers all across the country. But she has concerns for her former colleagues in the district, as well.
“I still talk with my friends who work in the district. I talk with them all the time,” she said. “… I work with public school teachers day in and day out on navigating what’s happening across the country, so I have a lot of empathy for what they’re experiencing.”
Rather than a competition with public schools, Herrera said she hopes the community sees Limestone as an alternative for students “who need to have their love for learning reinvigorated.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be for everybody, but I hope they can see the value that it adds to our community,” Herrera said. “… We’re really wanting to create a school that is a good place for teachers to work and a good place for students to thrive. We think that there isn’t a reason why both can’t flourish.”
To make it possible for any interested families to send their kids to Limestone, the school is asking for the community’s help – and, so far, the community has answered the call.
Herrera and Gnojek are hosting a fundraiser Saturday at the Cider Gallery, and have completely sold out of tickets. For the first fundraiser, Herrera said their goal is to raise $20,000 to go toward supplies, providing tuition assistance, and hiring a diverse staff of educators. Though the goal “seems lofty,” Herrera said they are “in pretty good shape.”
“I think there are a lot of community members really interested in what we’re doing,” Herrera said. “We’ve been absolutely humbled by the amount of support we’ve received since starting on this venture.”
For anyone who wants to hear more directly from the co-founders, Herrera and Gnojek are hosting an informational open house at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 6 at the Lawrence Public Library. They will discuss what the day will look like at Limestone, important dates and other pertinent information, according to a Facebook event post.
There are many other elementary-alternative schools and programs in Lawrence and Douglas County, including Montessori, Waldorf, private, religion-affiliated schools, and more.
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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.