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'Freedom Within Structure': Mulberry School Marks 50 Years Of Alternative Education

 The Mulberry School in Normal is marking a half century of educating children in a differently structured environment than public schools.
Mulberry School
The Mulberry School in Normal is marking a half century of educating children in a differently structured environment than public schools.

A half-century ago, a group of parents got together and founded something called the New School in Bloomington-Normal. They were largely academics; many from a math and science background, some from the arts. It was and is a small not-for-profit educational setting for kids and parents looking for an alternative to the public schools.

The New School began in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Bloomington, moved to a foursquare house on Mulberry Street and changed its name to The Mulberry School. Mulberry outgrew its namesake house and is now on Douglas Street at the old Soldiers and Sailors Children's Home in Normal.

Brenda Nardi taught at and directed the school for 25 years before stepping away in 2007. As Mulberry marks its 50th anniversary, Nardi said the founding vision was to create a learning environment based on the British infant system — one that presented concepts and let them filter in at the various levels the children were ready to comprehend.

Nardi said when she first saw the school, she was an education major college student assigned there as an observer. She said she first thought it was outlandish the way Mulberry grouped students of various ages together, and the way teachers ordered the day.

“It was what I have come to realize as freedom within structure. At the time it looked to me like it was unstructured in comparison to the way things were taught in the public system. That really stood out in my mind,” said Nardi.

In this anniversary year of the institution, current director Shawna Stanley said that part has not changed.

“It allows them to be more themselves and figure out who they are,” said Stanley.

Academic Coordinator Collette Steckel said living out that philosophy is a complex task, particularly with strict and small teacher-to-student ratios.

“We teach each individual child as their own person. We have a curriculum, we do, but it often varies because you have so many different variables of where they are in the learning stage. It’s nice to meet their needs at all levels," said Steckel.

Another factor that distinguishes Mulberry from other forms of school is it is a parent co-op. Parents are required to contribute their talents, whether that is air conditioning repair, teaching, or bookkeeping — or, if they really have no time, extra financial support, said Stanley.

Brenda Nardi said that parent presence is important at all levels, not just for parents to have ownership of the institution.

“That spoke volumes to the children about how important their education was because they saw how involved their parents were in what they were doing on a daily basis at school and how it was supported,” she said. “At Mulberry School, we were there to teach children how to learn as opposed to what they should learn.”

Nardi, Steckel, and Stanley said Mulberry has been able to individualize the curriculum in a way that is meaningful to children and their learning style.

“One of my students, when being introduced to a guest in the classroom, was asked what was special about Mulberry School. He said at Mulberry School everybody gets a chance to be successful," said Nardi. "And I think that is the product of our being able to concentrate on children’s strengths while we were building up their weaker areas."

It helps kids feel good about what they can do, said Nardi and have other students recognize it and use it in collaborative situations to achieve common goals.

“It was like an ecosystem of learning that was just magical,” said Nardi.

Teachers past and present said they run across accomplished graduates of Mulberry School all the time. Frequently, they are doing something a little bit off the beaten path, said Nardi.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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