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School Aptly Named Discovery Students’ Insights Emerge From A Different Approach

The first time Karyn Beiber took a metal instrument to her family’s toaster, she got a good scolding about using forks to free stuck toast.

“My mom said next time I’ll probably get electrocuted,” said Beiber, 10.

But when she tugged at the same toaster with a wrench last week, her schoolteacher, Mary Haberman, cheered her on.

“Does anyone have a Phillips-head screwdriver Karyn can borrow?” Haberman asked the tool-wielding students in her noisy science classroom.

A hollow “ding” sounded nearby.

“Found the bell!” Haberman said, smiling as 9-year-old Tom Seefried gutted a green telephone on his desk.

The project, which students dubbed “Take Apart Machines,” is typical for Discovery School, a place where textbooks make only rare appearances and hands-on learning happens every day.

Elementary students at the private school in downtown Spokane take frequent trips to Rimrock Drive to write poetry. They laminate trading cards with pictures of favorite historical figures. And to kick off a lesson on machines, they turn broken appliances into school supplies.

“I think the best way to get into it is to say, ‘What’s inside?”’ said Haberman. “Let them explore. It’s a good hook.”

Classrooms are piled with such “hooks” - chunks of clay, half-finished birdhouses, a student literary journal. A “space station” made of black plastic and inflated with two window fans consumes one classroom.

About 70 students, preschool through sixth grade, attend the non-profit school at 307 W. Fourth. The nonreligious school leases an educational building from Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ.

After growing from 13 students in 1983, administrators are now gearing up for a middle school next fall.

At the helm of the expansion effort is Julius Presta, who spent 33 years in public schools. Presta is Discovery’s board chairman and also acting principal at Spokane District 81’s Madison Elementary School.

He joined the board two years ago, lured in part by small class sizes and creative teaching approaches. He knew founder Marilyn Elliot back when she was a volunteer mom at Adams Elementary, where he was principal.

“Discovery School offers something to Spokane that other schools simply don’t offer,” Presta said.

Kids are urged to help each other solve problems. Quiet is hard to find in classrooms where desks face each other and children are encouraged to resolve disputes on their own, without using a teacher as referee.

Many classes have fewer than a dozen children. In Spanish class, which is required from kindergarten on, students sit knee-to-knee in a small circle on a worn rug.

Presta helped steer the school through tough financial times, especially last year when some parents worried the small school wouldn’t survive. Within weeks, Discovery lost about 10 students and some $50,000 in tuition.

Elliot, who has two grown children, founded the school with a fellow Whitworth College graduate who’d been teaching for years.

“We were really intrigued with trying different approaches to education,” said Elliot, who had watched her own children - one gifted and one with a learning disability - struggle in public school.

While the school doesn’t try to recruit gifted children, its students routinely test in the 80th to 85th percentile in national standardized tests, Elliot said.

“We use brain-compatible education, which says school is not the way most people learn,” she said. “The way you learn as a small child and process information after you leave school is considerably different.”

Discovery teachers try to reconcile those differences by relating lessons to real life, Elliot said. Reading literature and writing journals are mainstays, but lessons are expanded far beyond books.

When preschoolers studied plants, for instance, they seeded the school’s tiny lawn and planted crocus bulbs.

Students studying history wrote about the development of Spokane, spent several days at historic landmarks, then displayed their work on the school’s Web site.

When fifth-graders learned about foreign countries last week, Haberman sent them home to their kitchens to read labels. “I want to know how many countries are inside your refrigerator,” she said.

Parents are encouraged to join in, participating in talent shows and classwork. Partly because the school provides no buses, parents are frequent visitors.

Much of the schooling takes place in the community - at museums, bakeries, libraries, the symphony and historic landmarks. Preschoolers alone took 46 field trips last year.

Discovery teachers now spend their evenings planning their seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum.

The older students will be instructed by three or four teachers a day, a transition from one or two in elementary school.

Even physical education classes will focus on activities students could carry into their adult lives - possibly swimming, kayaking, sailing and martial arts, Elliot said.

Discovery’s elementary students currently tend to go to public middle schools before transferring to private high schools, she said.

“There are very few private middle schools that aren’t a prep program. We will definitely be very different from other middle schools in town.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TUITION Tuition runs from $3,180 for half-day preschoolers to $5,300 for the rest.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TUITION Tuition runs from $3,180 for half-day preschoolers to $5,300 for the rest.


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