Can the North Fork support a non-religious private elementary school that focuses on the arts, sustainability and civic involvement?
Three parents who grew up here and later moved back home to raise their children are betting it can.
Liz Casey Searl and her sister, Kathryn Casey Quigley, say they’ve dreamed of starting their own school for years. Both grew up on the North Fork, but Liz left to study drama and education at New York University, while her sister focused on international affairs at Columbia University.
They’re both starting families now, and while Liz has already moved home to Jamesport, her sister is planning to return from Brooklyn this year.
“I saw myself in the position of having two kids who are not school-age yet, but are approaching that age,” Ms. Searl said. “We know what we want for them in terms of education and we’re not finding it here, but we’re wanting it to be here.”
Meaning no disrespect for public education, Ms. Searl said there’s much public schools can’t offer in an age of standardized testing and shrinking extracurricular budgets.
Earlier this year, the two sisters met Patricia Eckardt, another North Fork resident finishing her Ph.D. in education at Fordham University, who quickly agreed to help get the school off the ground.
“She’s a local mom we met through having young children,” Ms. Searl said. “She’s passionate about progressive education and alternative methods. Our ideas meshed and it’s been a good team so far.”
One of their core ideas is that the arts, sustainability, stewardship and the environment should be integrated across a curriculum where hands-on learning is the key.
“Experiential learning has taken a back seat to testing,” said Ms. Searl. “We can do so much better for our children.”
The three parents, along with Ms. Searl’s husband, Stephen Searl, are holding information sessions to promote the idea and plan to have a kick-off fundraiser at Hallockville on October 2.
Their goal is to open in a year. They’ve yet to find a location, but would like to move in somewhere in Riverhead by January.
“We have a community of people we’ve tapped into who are interested in the idea as far west as Rocky Point and as far east as Greenport,” she said. “Riverhead seems like it could be a good central location.”
The first year student population would likely be 12 to 15, “but from the feedback we’re getting, we’ll have more than that interested,” Ms. Searl added. “We’re looking at a small teacher to student ratio, with multi-age classes with children of different ages learning together.”
She said that the group would like to serve students in kindergarten through third or fourth grade the first year, eventually expanding to the eighth grade.
The group just received its nonprofit status. Though they haven’t set tuition rates yet, they hope to create a sliding scale based on income.
“We do want it to be a community school,” said Ms. Searl, who attended public school, as did her sister. “The North Fork has a lot of different income levels. We want it to be a school my parents could have afforded when they were sending us to school.
Accessibility is extremely important. We’re looking at individual donors who can close the gap between low tuition and a lot of financial need.”
The organizers will be the guest nonprofit group at the Greenport Farmer’s Market on Saturday, Sept. 10. They’re next informational meeting is at the Jamesport Meeting House on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. More information is available at northforked.org.