Photo: alexa belajac

The Saxifrage School Prototype

nomadic low-cost courses v1.0

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Almost four years ago, in the first blog post on the old saxifrageschool.org, I laid out the following goal:

“My dream is of a college experience that leaves students with the knowledge they’ll need to live self-sufficiently, no debt to hold them back, foreign language fluency, practical skills, and a highly creative and passionate academic mind…
An experience that takes place in close community, not only with their fellow students, but with their surrounding community. So few colleges succeed in staying connected to their geographic neighbors, but the Saxifrage School will purposefully rely on neighborhood partners for its very existence making it impossible for any divorce.” — December 3, 2009

A few months later I described some specific financial goals:

“No doubt it seems ridiculous, unreasonable, pie-in-the-sky, overly idealistic to propose that students could get a high-quality, very personal undergraduate education at such a low cost. Well, this is the idea; this is the hope.
By owning and operating no buildings, paying low administrative salaries, relying on the wealth of underutilized community resources… I believe the Saxifrage School could reasonably keep tuition costs to around $6000/year per student.” — February 2, 2010

MONEY

In fall of 2012, we began our first course prototype to test the idea. Since then, we’ve held a dozen more. We began at a conservative price-point of $350 and have moved as high as $450, while keeping classes capped at just 12 students. We’ve taught graphic design, web development, organic agriculture, carpentry, and GIS. Our web development class runs with two instructors. If a student were to take these classes full-time (4/semester) it would cost them just $3600/year. In total, students have paid about $42,000 to take classes with us.
By holding our courses in underused spaces, we’re able to keep our costs really low, while mutually benefiting community partners. The best example of a classroom partner has been Commonplace Voluto Coffee Shop on Penn Avenue. A rough estimate shows that, over the last year, we have contributed about $4500 to Commonplace through purchases by our staff and students, as well as direct rent payments. We have held 4 classes in their space.

Here’s a brief breakdown of a recent class budget:

12 Students pay $450 bringing in $5400.
We pay instructors $3060 to teach for 12 weeks, about $30-$35/hour.
We support each classroom partner with about $500 in return value.
We set aside about $500 to pay for projector equipment, an end-of-course feast, and supplies for instructors.
The remaining $1340 goes to support the administrative staff and infrastructure improvements for classroom locations.

In the future, if we raise our prices to meet up with our revised goal for a yearly cost of $6500 the budget would be almost double the previous one, but still dramatically less expensive than most other colleges:
12 Students would pay $813/course bringing in $9750
We could pay $6100 to instructors for 12 weeks, about $60/hour.
We would support each classroom partner with at least $1000.
We could set aside $650 to pay for projector equipment, an end-of-course feast, and various other supplies for instructors.
The remaining $2000 goes to support the administrative staff and infrastructure improvements for the program at large.


CAMPUS/COMMUNITY

Beyond lowering costs, our second goal is to re-think the campus. We want students to immediately begin working in a real, diverse community. Ideally, our students are able to learn by serving relevant local needs and, consequently, have their abilities certified by the community.

About a year ago we chose to invest in the Garfield/East Liberty/Larimer neighborhoods as our campus. Ever since, we’ve developed partnerships and built up resources that benefit both our students and the neighborhood. The nomadic campus, even with a small student population, has proved to be a powerful concept that fosters connections, not only between our staff and students, but with the neighborhood at large. At times, our agriculture students at Garfield Farm get to work alongside kids from the neighborhood; graphic design students interact with other freelancers and designers as they co-work alongside them in the same coffee shop where our class is held later in the day.


While the financial aspects of the prototype have been successful, we have struggled to connect student’s work to relevant service opportunities. We have found it hard to connect learners with genuine projects that are more than just practice or pretending. Coordinating logistics and matchmaking amateur skills with community needs requires patience. With each new class, we try and consider more ways to realize this goal. Here are a few things we’ve done:

  • Students designed a print piece for our classroom partner, the Sprout Fund. Student products were likely not up to the high design standards of the Sprout Fund and probably will not be used.
  • Constructed a new storage room floor for the Union Project. The end-product was a great success. Students learned a lot in the process and the UP now has a solid floor, free of charge. It took a lot of extra staff time however, and staff wound up doing a lot of the finishing work.
  • Chicken Coop construction. The current carpentry class is building 3 coops that will be distributed to local non-profits (as a gift) or to an individual (as a sale). Construction is complete. Two are going to local, urban non-profit farms.
  • Students are planting $750 worth of perennial fruit trees and bushes at Garfield Farm, in addition to helping construct their new Bioshelter and tend to its first plants.

Beyond the work our students have done and the money we contributed to partners, we began directly investing in improving the infrastructure of our partners to benefit our campus and the community.

  • Garfield Farm: Investing $750 in perennial fruit trees and bushes, as well as another $3000+ for an outdoor learning center and improved community meal space in conjunction with their outdoor cob oven.
  • The Union Project: Invested 50+ volunteer hours cleaning and improving the basement space. Investing another $5000+ on renovations to the floor and electrical systems.
  • Voluto Coffee: Investing in a semi-permanent projection setup for use by the shop for public events.

Pedagogy

A third focus of our course prototype work is to reconcile theory and practice in our academic program while encouraging self-directed learning.

All our courses attempt (and sometimes fail) to offer a balance of production and inquiry so that our students are learning both to make and to question. For some instructors, this balance comes naturally to them; in some skill-areas it is easier than others. For the most part the “humanities” component to our courses have consisted of close-readings and discussions. Our Web Development course read through The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Ag. students read Wendell Berry’s Bringing it to the Table, and our carpenters dug into Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own. We have yet to go much further than reading and discussion.

In the future we hope to offer a brief retreat for our instructors. We need to give them training and mental space to step back and reflect on how to well-execute this synthesis of theory and practice.

Moving forward, we are discussing ways to move past the traditional top-down educational framework and foster a well-resourced learning community in which experienced members are able to work more closely and genuinely alongside students. The early concepts for this are laid out in this sketch on our upcoming Dev.Year program. In a similar vein, we have been struggling with the problems of language in how we name the members of our School moving forward. Now that we have proven the nuts and bolts of the prototype, we want to refocus on these tricky, but essential aspects of our learning philosophy.

On the technological front, we ran an experiment to hybridize a MOOC (massive open online course) with an in-person course. We got feedback from our students, who felt the MOOC was a waste of time and our focus on it seriously detracted from the quality of the overall course. Unfortunately, MOOC platforms are not setup to easily allow this sort of integration with an embodied learning experience. We learned a lot about how MOOCs are still burdened by the traditional course format and wrote up an ambitious idea for a new open-ed platform that would better allow self-directed and hybridized learning experiences.

What’s Next?

After a year of classes, we’ve worked with about 130 students and learned a lot of lessons. One of our biggest difficulties early on was the scaling of our administrative systems to ensure we had the capacity to handle lots of registrations, payments, and logistics effectively. While we’re still working on this, we’ve progressed enough that we can continue to grow effectively.

Now that we’ve spent a year wrestling with the logistics of being a “School”, I think our next big challenge will be to embody some of the philosophical/pedagogical goals we framed in the early stages of the project. It’s one thing to hold a course, it’s another thing to serve learners well. Over the next year I see us moving away from what has been a rather traditional course structure. Instead, we’ll begin to focus more on creating well-resourced learning communities.

The hope is that we can move from teachers to mentors; from lectures to discussions over dinner; from homework to hacking on projects together; from twelve weeks of content, to twelve weeks of community. More than anything we want to build a learning community that has the resources to learn and live earnestly during their time with us and beyond; we want the “School” to be something that offers a lasting connection to resources and relationships. Rather than being cut off after 12 weeks, we want our courses to act as the beginning of a longer relationship.