The Unitarian Universalist Church in Oakland Park might seem an unlikely home for a school. Well-worn carpet lines the hallways, and a thicket of trees shades the lawn. Broward’s Black Lives Matter Alliance hosts its weekly meetings here, as does a group of pagans.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, the church is home to the Yellow Wood Learning Center, an experiment in cage-free schooling run by a former Broward public schools teacher, Judith Hirsch, who became so disillusioned with the district’s reliance on high-stakes testing that she quit after 11 years to found her own academy.
When she founded Yellow Wood in 2013, she was something of a radical. But now, thousands of families around the country — including many in Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest school district — are moving to “opt out” of standardized testing.
Hirsch started teaching in Broward in 2000, covering, in her words, “nearly every subject” at Sunrise Middle School. She then taught English literature at Fort Lauderdale High. But she felt that bright children were being hammered into automatons by tests like the FCAT and FSA and that the pressure to perform well was killing them.
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“There had to be a better way to help kids to learn,” she tells New Times. “The top 10 percent would get their own breakfast, but the rest were told, ‘We’re not special; we’re mediocre.’ Then, if you’re an F student, you don’t get anything. I was watching those stories being internalized. Students were believing those stories, that they weren’t good at anything. The restrictions these state-mandated tests put on them didn’t allow for Socratic discussion.”
The kicker came when she found out that some colleges, like MIT, don’t even require a high school diploma. “I quit that day,” she says. “ I wanted to contact every single student I’d ever taught and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I was perpetrating a lie.”
At Yellow Wood, the kids choose classes like they would in college. “One of my girls said she missed playing in an orchestra, so I found a youth orchestra where she can audition,” Hirsch says. She expects about 20 high-school-aged students to attend next year, as well as 12 kids ages 5 to 10. Tuition costs $9,000 a year, but she’s happy to negotiate prices with families. The point, she says, is to eschew judgment and let kids follow their interests. “If knowing trochaic pentameter is right for you, we let you go study it,” Hirsch says.
David Maurer, 49, pulled his daughter, Amanda, out of Hollywood Hills High School to attend Yellow Wood. “At Hollywood Hills, I felt the entire emphasis was on money and bureaucracy, with very little learning going on,” he says. His daughter wasn’t doing too well in classes and had gotten into some trouble with the school. “Now, at Yellow Wood, she’s taking marketing classes on her own. She’s learning responsibility for herself.”