WILLIAMSTOWN — Across the U.S., the coronavirus is driving a wedge between teens and the richness of their former lives at school.
Many districts are facing continued closure because of the lingering pandemic, with students far removed from their friends and teachers, their passions and community.
On its diminutive South Street campus, Buxton School is closing the divide.
The tight-knit community recently announced that it is returning to in-person learning in the fall and is scouting for its next batch of students who want to make a difference in the world, says school Director Franny Shuker-Haines.
The entire school community has been anticipating its reopening, says Shuker-Haines. With Berkshire Country coronavirus cases remaining low, September is the time to reintroduce in-person learning, she says.
The planning evolved as the school adjusted operations to the outbreak. By the time midsummer came, "We knew we could do it safely, and we could do it well," says Shuker-Haines.
Parents, students looking for options
Normally, about 80 students attend Buxton from across the Northeastern U.S., as well as other parts of the country and world; this year, between COVID-19 and other federal travel restrictions, there are several openings.
Because some public schools are not opening for in-person learning, Shuker-Haines says there are many parents and students who don't want to miss the experience, but either have reservations about safety or are concerned about their options.
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It is families like these that should reach out to the Buxton School, says Shuker-Haines.
But what if you or your family don't fit the mold of what you presume a private high school education to be? Don't worry about it, the school director says.
"We're here, we're accessible, we give financial aid, we're not an elitist place at all," says Shuker-Haines. "We serve a very diverse student body in every way."
Interested teens and parents should not hesitate to apply, no matter their social, cultural, educational or economic status, the school director says.
Who is a Buxton student?
So, what kind of student is going to thrive at Buxton? How about intellectually and artistically inquisitive teens who not only yearn to be heard but also spend their four high school years preparing to make the world a better place upon graduation?
Shuker-Haines explains: "The most important thing about the school is that we take teenagers seriously. We put their life, their experience, their perspective and their potential in the forefront of everything we do."
"We really honor them as whole human beings. I know that sounds kind of obvious, but I don't think teenagers are always treated that way in our society."
Buxton offers its students three pillars of daily life while they attend the boarding and day school: academics, art and creativity, and community.
"The school is structured around all of these things being equally important," says Shuker-Haines, also a teacher of English and theater. Buxton is "a place where kids are known well, by faculty and each other, and grow to their greatest potential. At a place like Buxton, that really happens."
Above and beyond being valued, a wide range of talents and learning approaches are catered to at the school, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
"Some kids might be brilliant artists but need support with writing papers; some kids are great at academics, but want to be in a place where they can explore their creative side," says Shuker-Haines.
She says Buxton always has served different kinds of learners well. "Our faculty are not wedded to a rigid idea of what learning or success looks like," she notes.
There is an English-as-a-second-language program, and tutoring and other supports for students who need or seek it.
All of this fits directly into the progressive movement, which doesn't always take center stage in school systems.
"I'm a big believer in public education, and those schools can serve some kids really well. But there are some kids who need an environment where they can be a little different and thrive, or question authority and be welcomed, and really have a hand in how the school functions," says Shuker-Haines. "They want to be in a group with kids who are using their education to change the world."
Involved in their school community
Students are involved in every aspect of the school program, from maintenance to cooking, and helping in their dorms, and are in frequent dialogue with faculty about what's working and not, and what they'd like to see changed, the school director says.
"There's a lot of community-tending built into students' lives. It's one of the most impactful things about the school," says Shuker-Haines. She says parents always remark to her about how much their students have grown up when they return for breaks.
"When they're home, they're clearing the dishes after dinner, but in a bigger way, they're engaging in their world," says the school director.
At Buxton, that kind of behavior is one of the byproducts of the education, because, in part, of the way staff members listen to kids and acknowledge the things they care about.
"We start them early. They're all opinions, all the time. It's great," says Shuker-Haines. "It's part of our job, to help inform those opinions and to help them make the compelling arguments to back it up."
By the way ...
Not everyone who goes to Buxton needs to graduate and become a social activist, notes Shuker-Haines. At Buxton, there's room for everyone.
A significant portion of the student population are kids of color; a number are the first in their families to be on a college track; and the school also well serves kids who have different sexual orientations and gender identities.
Despite the typical assumptions about private school and wealth, in reality it turns out that a good deal more than half of Buxton families are on some form of financial aid.
"We do not have a huge endowment, but financial aid is built into our budget. Some schools sink a lot of money into fancy equipment or buildings. Our focus is to make the school accessible," says Shuker-Haines.
Diversity and social justice
Buxton School has a deep history of caring about social justice and racial equality, but even it finds itself looking deeper inward as it responds to a reinvigorated civil rights movement, ignited anew by the murder of George Floyd by white police.
"Since then, we've been doing a bunch of soul searching," says Shuker-Haines.
Historically, instructors have highlighted authors of different backgrounds, and used diverse original sources - teachers tend not to use textbooks - and the school has always had classes on race, class and gender.
"It's on our minds all the time. In a way, we feel like we do a really good job in that area. But there's always more to do, and the people who keep us accountable for that are the students and the alumni," says Shuker-Haines.
Everyone agrees there is more work to do to help the school be even more resolute as it pursues equity for everyone on campus, whether staff or student.
In addition to feedback from students and alums, the school is responding to the call for greater social justice with diversity training for faculty and staff, as well as by scrutinizing its curriculum to be more mindful of subjects and classes that are too white-centric.
Also remote offerings
Buxton has been experimenting and learning from its remote education experiences, with small and large group meetings, ever since the lockdown began in March.
For existing or prospective students and families this fall who either live nearby or who opt to do some or all of their learning remotely, this is not a problem, says Shuker-Haines.
The pandemic experience showed Shuker-Haines that Buxton can not only function during the crisis, but also remain a tight-knit community.
For example, the school held an open house recently, and Shuker-Haines was buoyed when she heard a student express how well the young people are taking care of each other emotionally during the pandemic. A formerly home-schooled student started at Buxton a month before the pandemic, and still found a welcoming community and friends. "She feels like she's part of something now," Shuker-Haines says.
Likewise, teachers have maintained vital connections with their students; one sent art supplies to students in need, and another gave plants to students so they could have something to cultivate during trying times. A letter-writing club popped up, keeping the school community connected beyond screens, phones and pads.
As the pandemic rolled on, the school found ways to continue its operations at a distance, even continuing its daily announcements, regular classes and launching a new, robust curriculum online.
Waiting eagerly to return to 'The Bubble'
Buxton's coronavirus prevention plan includes quarantines and agreements to limit movements from students and their families for two weeks prior to returning to school; this goes for day students, too.
"We're asking everyone to self-quarantine for two weeks before they come to campus. Everyone has to be tested before they arrive, with staggered returns, and then they'll be tested again here."
Students also will be spread out from their normal triple and quad dorm rooms, into doubles.
Kids will be wearing masks, and the school has prepared tents to teach outside. Classrooms have been adjusted; meals, normally eaten family style with a group, instead will be grab and go.
The school's 30-plus teachers and staff also will be masked anytime they're around students.
At Buxton, the kids joke, dubbing the school as "The Buxton Bubble," because it's such a tight, small community of learners, says Shuker-Haines.
Now, with a COVID-19 plan in place, Shuker-Haines calls it "The Iron Bubble," a playful mix of safety melded into the nickname.
If everything goes well after reopening, and things are looking safe in Williamstown, then the school can begin to look at loosening some of the restrictions, its director says.
The school is accepting applications now for slots in grades nine through 12; there's even a post-graduate year in which Buxton students can grow educationally, improve their grades, or explore the arts.
"There's this amazing resource in the Berkshires, a school that changes lives. We're here and open for business for the fall, and we'd love to see more families," says Shuker-Haines.