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When Less Is More Rainbow School Offers An Education In Selfesteem

Sat., Nov. 4, 1995

There’s no rule against handguns at the Rainbow School.

But then, one probably isn’t needed. Unlike other schools, the tiny Rainbow School in Spokane’s Browne’s Addition has rules for self-esteem, not self-protection.

“Accept people for who they are,” reads one of the eight class rules. “Don’t call people names. Don’t laugh when someone makes a mistake or gets hurt.”

The aesthetic matches the size of Spokane’s last one-room schoolhouse. The Rainbow School is a 7-year-old private school with eight students. The oldest is 14. Youngest is 7.

It’s a home to students who learn a little faster, a little slower or who simply perform better in a class of six or seven than a class of 25 or 30.

Students come from single-mother homes, from old communes, from the Valley. At Rainbow, they all receive at least one thing they won’t get elsewhere: individual attention.

“With society the way it is today, I don’t know how children survive in classes of 30,” says Diane Huigen, the tireless teacher who founded Rainbow seven years ago in the Spokane Valley.

Huigen graduated from Eastern Washington University with an education degree, but after substitute teaching, felt she was nothing more than a cop.

“I decided I had to either find another job or another way to teach,” she says. She met a few parents who talked about the need for a private school for kids between 8 and 14, and like that, Rainbow was born.

One of four nonsectarian private schools in Spokane, it is a wild mix of 1950s innocence, 1990s learning and 1960s humanism. All in an 1890s-sized school.

Tuition is $360 a month, but Huigen rarely gets that much. Private schools shouldn’t be just for the wealthy, she says.

“People pay what they can,” says Huigen. “I can’t turn anyone away.” The school is not accredited and is governed by the rules that cover people who teach at home. Students from Rainbow perform well on standardized tests and the kids who go from there to public schools or vice versa say the small school education is really deeper.

“The work is a lot easier in a public school,” says William Moyer, 13, who has gone to Rainbow for four years.

On Friday, the older kids walk to Coeur d’Alene Park for physical education - a game of softball with a ragged ball of twine that lost its cover years ago.

It’s easier to get a hit when there are only two fielders.

After P.E., they return to the pillared, white house that has served as school building since Huigen and her husband bought it last March.

A couple of families rent the apartments above the school and the two youngest students - 8-year-old Morgan and 7-year-old Brock - are taught in the basement by Huigen’s assistant, Sadie Woods.

“We really stress individualism and self-esteem,” says Woods, whose 12-year-old son Deakin is in the kitchen performing an autopsy on a pumpkin. “It’s the Golden Rule approach to life.”

Taped to the wall above Deakin are signs of the rich curriculum: the parts of speech, a diagram of a brain with Lou Gehrig’s disease, the state capitals and a conversion chart for decimals and fractions.

Just before lunch, the students read reports about Halloween.

Twelve-year-old Sequoia - with his yin-yang backpack and baggy flannels - waits his turn beneath a sign that says we must think like a planet. Raised in a commune, he told his mother he wanted to go to school when he was 9.

Ten-year-old Heather’s Halloween report extols the need to dress warmly for trick-or-treating.

Thirteen-year-old Seth says “no one has the right to laugh at you” just because you believe in goblins or ghosts.

Twelve-year-old Tiffani says it is pretty lousy to “poison the candy or kidnap the kids.” She came to Rainbow after being told she might have to move from third to fifth grade a few years ago. Here, she learns at her own pace.

Huigen doesn’t give grades. She gives evaluations based on the work the students have done. School is the students’ jobs, she tells them, and so they can earn money with good work.

If they finish the thick packets of homework Huigen prepares for them, are respectful and work to their potential, they can earn $15 or $20 in a seven-week period.

At the end of each period, Huigen takes the kids to the NorthTown Mall and turns them loose with their earnings.

A visitor notices several differences with public school: three computers for eight kids, no textbooks anywhere and two cats that have the run of the classroom.

There was another cat for a while, a stray that two students found in a park. They nursed it back to health. One time when it seemed to be dead, Huigen gave it mouth-to-mouth and brought it back.

The cat finally passed on. Teacher and students cried, then went to the animal shelter and adopted a new one.

“It was an incredible experience for all of us and the kind of thing you can’t do in a big classroom,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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