MANCHESTER - A new option for education will soon be available in Manchester.

Alexa Manning and Jason and Natalie Pergament have formed a working group which has established The Downtown School, a progressive school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school, located behind Ye Olde Tavern at 106 Palmer Place, plans to open in Fall 2014, starting with kindergarten through second grade, and will then age up the grades as the school and the children grow, Manning said.

Manning, who has a five year-old daughter, was educated at a progressive school herself and said this is where her love of learning was based. "I had a phenomenal time there, it was just a seminal part of who I am today," she said.

A new private, progressive school plans a Fall 2014 opening on the site of the former Northshire Museum, near Ye Olde Tavern on Route 7A.
A new private, progressive school plans a Fall 2014 opening on the site of the former Northshire Museum, near Ye Olde Tavern on Route 7A. (Courtesy Photo)
"Even when I applied to college, coming out of 12th grade, I wrote my college essays about my experience in my progressive education elementary school."

When she and her husband had their daughter Adeline, they started to think about where she would be educated. Manning said she feels that her family lives in a community that has strong schools, but she realized that the choice that was right for their family was going to be a "classic, progressive education school." This school did not yet exist in Manchester, she said, and the idea of opening The Downtown School was born. "[I] Very quickly decided, well that's crazy," she said. "And then as my daughter got closer [to school age], I really started thinking about it and doing research and talking to friends of mine who either started schools or organizations that are education based. . . and got newly inspired, we could do this if that's what we really want to do."

The Downtown School, Manning said, will be a classical, progressive education school. One of the most important core pieces of progressive education is the idea of teaching children how to learn, as opposed to what to learn, she said. Core skills are taught in a deep and flexible way, she said, thereby giving children the ability to solve age appropriate, complicated problems and to be flexible in their thinking.

Jason Pergament, the Director of Student Success at Burr and Burton Academy, and who has 12 years of experience working in educational settings, said there are certain goals for specific skills for each grade level.

"What the student learns, whether we decide to study salsa or pizza, it doesn't matter as long as they understand they need vegetables to grow in the ground to make the tomatoes," he said. "What they do with the tomatoes is up to the kid. But understanding food comes from the ground, and that we have to nurture the soil and nurture the environment and understand the nutritional value. . . the skill that we're focusing on is where your food comes from, but whether we focus on salsa or pizza, it doesn't matter."

Pergament is assisting the project purely as an educational advisor and prospective parent, Manning said.

Progressive education is known for planning by design, or essentially planning the school year backwards - working from the end goals of what students will learn that year or the given outcome of the year, he said.

While this is a challenge, Pergament said this just means you have to have the best teachers possible. He and his wife first learned about this type of curricular planning while teaching at Kipp Charter schools in New York City.

"There, the given outcome might be a reinvestment in your own education," he said. "Here, having students come to us in kindergarten and first grade, it's actually a lot easier because now what we want is for them to develop inquiry. . . connections to their community, and it that's the stated outcome, then we just have to think about what are all the different ways we can accomplish that goal."

Manning said this model of education is less focused on memorization, test prep and competition and instead focused on the whole child - making the academic, social and physical development of each student equally important.

These goals will be set in conjunction with the common core standards, she said, but will go beyond those goals, from what do the students need to learn about, instead focusing on what they need to learn to do, she said.

"The teachers are certainly very much in charge of the classroom in terms of knowing where the kids need to be," she said. "But we do also have somewhat of a sense of democracy in our classroom, in terms of the children get to have input into how we get there."

While progressive education does not believe in reliance on assessment by standardized tests, Manning said, the students will still be given some instruction and introduction to these tests before they take them.

"I know there is a lot of brouhaha about the Common Core, and I think the biggest brouhaha with the Common Core is it just comes back to standardized tests," Pergament said. "You can't teach skills when a test is the desired outcome, instead you're teaching skills because it's going to help you learn, it's going to help you solve a problem, help you acquire knowledge. From my experience, I've seen, if a student has the prerequisite skills, they'll do just fine on a standardized test."

For both Manning and Pergament, the decision to open The Downtown School was not because the schools in the area were lacking or not academically rigorous enough; instead it was based on the idea of educational choice.

Manning said The Downtown School plans to work closely with families and really have them central to the educational choice they are making for their children.

"School choice is really important to me. I feel that the more choices we can offer people then we'll be able to create a learning environment that suits every student," Pergament said. "I think MEMS [Manchester Elementary Middle School] is doing a great job, it's a strong public school. But I don't think any one school can meet the needs of all students . . . There are kids who have individual needs, and different learning styles, and there are families that have different priorities and different goals for education, and so I think The Downtown School does a great job of providing another option, another choice."

A holiday open house will be held Dec. 14 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at The Downtown School, located at 106 Palmer Place. More information is availible at thedowntownschool.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/thedowntownschool.