Friday Feature: Gather Forest School

  • April 21, 2023
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Colleen Hroncich

On average, kids today reportedly spend fewer than 10 minutes a day playing outside—and more than seven hours a day on screens. That’s one of the reasons I love learning about forest schools, like The Garden School, Barefoot University, and today’s feature, Gather in Decatur, Georgia.

Gather founders Ashley and Shelby.

A former teacher, Ashley Causey‐​Golden was caring for her newborn son and trying to figure out her next move. She didn’t want to put him in daycare when he was so young, so she decided to try creating her own school. Ashley had interacted with Shelby Stone‐​Steel on Instagram through Ashley’s Afrocentric Montessori page. She knew they shared a lot of the same ideas about education, so she reached out to her about partnering. At that point, they’d never met in person.

“I gave birth to Anthony in March and was not even a month post‐​partum,” Ashley recalls. “We did a lot of talking on the phone because we were just trying to get to know each other. In July, we started touring spaces. Trying to find a space was the hardest hurdle because we were trying to prove a concept. But one place took a chance on us and really loved what we were doing for black kids — having children outdoors and learning through nature. We do academics in this space, but there’s also something to be said just being present and existing in nature for longer than a few minutes.”

As a forest school, they spend nearly all of their time outdoors. Ashley says Gather has “a Montessori and Waldorf flow.” She adds, “We do math, literacy, writing, science, geography, social studies, history, and cultural studies. We use some worksheets, but we also use things like acorns and leaves because with those things you can do pattern work with our younger students.”

In the first year, there was a mixture of families. Some wanted the nature approach just for preschool and then were going to a more traditional program. But the homeschooling families really embraced the whole program. “We found out that we really like partnering with homeschoolers,” says Ashley. “They see this journey as long term because it is sometimes hard for them to find consistent community. So we said this is our lane—partnering with black homeschooling families.

Art time at Gather Forest School.

Gather operates Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.­–12:30 p.m. Parents can choose full‐ or part‐​time participation with tuition prorated based on how many days their children attend. “Since we work with homeschooling families, each family has their different flow,” Ashley says. She asks families to sign up for particular days to ensure they have sufficient student‐​teacher ratios. In addition to Ashley and Shelby, they recently hired another teacher – which will be particularly helpful since Ashley’s second child is due any day.

Ashley says she would encourage other teachers who are interested in creating something new to give it a shot. “If you have a dream of doing something else, try it,” she says. “It is a lot of hard work—because now you’re an administrator and a teacher. That was the biggest learning curve for Shelby and me because before, we were teachers. But the administrators were handling all the other moving pieces like dealing with parents, complaints, marketing, and fees. When you’re running your own program, you have to do all of that and still teach. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it in.”

Her message for parents is to truly know your child and try to find a place that’s a good fit. She advises, “Be really honest about who your child is—the good and the beautiful parts of your child, but also the parts that are growth areas. Because you want a program that’s able to speak to both—that keeps pushing the good but also helps challenge where they need it.”

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