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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pioneer School founder Betty Burley-Wolf remains called to teach

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 5, 2021

With 42 years at Pioneer School behind her, founding director Betty Burley-Wolf feels her calling to education even more strongly than the day she started. And, while she has recently stepped down from her roles on various local committees including the Schweitzer Alpine Racing School board of directors and the Spokane County Health Department School Advisory Committee, when it comes to Pioneer, she has no plans to retire.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in education and psychology from Whitman and a master’s in teaching for gifted education from Whitworth, Burley-Wolf began her career in Idaho Public Schools. But when her first principal told her to stop teaching her kindergartners how to read she quickly found herself in search of other options.

“There were kids in my kindergarten class who could already read – I was teaching them more, giving them harder books and dictionaries and the comment from the principal was, ‘Well, what will the first-grade teacher do?’ ”

And Burley-Wolf thought, “Well, I don’t care what the first-grade teacher does – I’m going to teach them what they’re ready to learn.”

“Betty … sees the big picture,” second-grade teacher and Pioneer graduate Jordana Schneidmiller said. “She has been covering the same – or similar – topics for (more than) 40 years so she has a lot to offer. She will bring in resources and share how she did an activity, then allow us to put our own spin on it if it’s something we want to use.”

So, with the goal of eventually opening a school where she could do just that, Burley-Wolf left the public school system for the Horizon School, a small private school nearby. And a little over a year later, with a bit more knowledge of private school-running under her belt, she was ready to make her next move.

The philosophy behind Pioneer School, Burley-Wolf explained, is that kids, especially gifted ones, need to move at their own pace.

“There are three things with highly capable students,” she said. “They are very unique, so you can’t just put them in a group. They are amazingly intense, and that kind of puts some people off, but they have this intensity about them, this ferociousness of ‘I want to learn.’

But, “I think a key part that a lot of people with bright kids miss is that they’re asynchronous, and by that I mean … you can get a first-grader reading at the sixth-grade level who can’t tie his shoes or cut with scissors because their little bodies haven’t caught up with their mind.”

The important thing, she said, is that you have to keep challenging their minds. A kid can be bright, but that doesn’t mean he’ll remember to clean up his lunch or she’ll have neat handwriting.

“It’s a matter of being aware, meeting their educational needs while remembering they’re still in a little body.”

While the Pioneer program somewhat resembles Montessori, Burley-Wolf primarily took inspiration from a trip to England during her studies at Whitman.

“I went to visit the British primary schools, and I was just so impressed with how much their children were learning,” she said, mentioning the more project-based, hands-on learning style. “I just fell in love … I said, ‘I want to do that when I get back home.’ ”

And with the generous financial support of her late father, Emmett Burley, she did exactly that.

Pioneer opened its doors with 13 students in 1980. Today, the school serves 70, several of whom are children of alumni.

The curriculum is “thematic,” integrated and topic-focused, switching between scientific and historical or social topics on a bi-monthly basis. Students work together in the classroom, older students often partnering with younger students to help teach and review concepts themselves. The students also enjoy regular field trips, or as they say at Pioneer, “learning expeditions.” And during the winter, the students learn how to ski on weekly trips to Schweitzer and Mount Spokane.

“Betty is the hardest working woman I know,” said fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Nicole Bronson, in her 16th year at the school. “Her vision for Pioneer and care for our students is inspirational. She gifts her teachers a huge amount of creativity, and it is amazing to have that freedom and trust.”

“I don’t feel like she’s ever going to retire … she loves the classroom,” Burley-Wolf’s husband, Gary Wolf, said. “She’s been an educator for 40 years and in that time she’s made an impact on the community in a very positive fashion. I’m so proud of her.”

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