Opal School began as a seed of an idea inspired because a group of educators from Portland attended a study tour of the municipal preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. The astonishing expression of ideas through the languages of the arts and wise and poetic words from these young Italian children provoked these educators, Caroline Wolfe and Judy Graves (Opal’s founder) among them, to wonder why we don’t see such sophisticated expression from American children. They wondered, “What are the implications of what we are seeing here for American public elementary schools?” While they were asking that question, the Oregon legislature passed SB 100, Oregon’s Charter School Act – and, at the same time, Portland Children’s Museum was moving to a new home. A kind of wondrous happenstance brought it all together and Opal School was born as a Portland Public School District charter school and program of the Museum.
In September of 2001, about 40 children in preschool through first grade showed up for school. Though there was no state funding for the preschool program, federal start-up funding allowed the preschoolers to enter through the lottery system and attend school for free. A few days later it was 9.11.01 – and the whole world changed.
Before we launched our first group of 5th-grade graduates in 2006, federal funding for Opal School had been eliminated and we were left without public funding for our preschool students. For several years, we worked with parents on various funding models that allowed at least some of our preschool slots to remain tuition-free, even if only for the younger siblings of the children who were already with us. Ultimately, we had to make the difficult decision to charge full tuition to all except staff of the museum for whom partial tuition reimbursement is a benefit. We have made a commitment to keeping our tuition in the median range for private preschool programs across the city. With this change, we also lost our ability to keep our students from the age of 3 years through fifth grade because they need to go through the lottery in kindergarten. The odds of getting one of those spots are not in their favor. In spite of this, we have transitioned to a strong relationship between what we consider to be our three communities: beginning, primary, and intermediate. We play together, and think together, and support one another throughout the school.
In 2007, major funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and others allowed us to build the infrastructure for professional development that we now know as the Center for Learning. This infrastructure has given teachers an enormous lift from the years of operating our annual Symposium and other workshops without additional staff to help, and it has also allowed a steady expansion of offerings over the last ten years. As of last year, our work with 125 children is the foundation for working directly with 1000 educators worldwide. These educators come to visit the school, and we go to visit them in their schools and cities.
We expect the substantial grant we’ve received this year from The Lemelson Foundation to research invention education in kindergarten through grade five will be an investment that will help us grow into our next phase, just as the Allen funding did a decade ago. We look forward to working closely with Ben Mardell and Mara Krechevsky from Harvard’s Project Zero over the next two years to develop and produce this project and are eager to see where it will take us!
All this said, we are really still a startup. Our staff members are all entrepreneurs, working to invent new systems of education that preserve and extend children’s natural learning strategies, their creativity, their curiosity, and the wonder of learning itself. We see it happening – our graduates (some of whom are pictured as their younger selves on this page), the oldest of whom are now old enough to be entering that first year past college, are doing amazing things. They are grounded, confident changemakers who believe that they make the world we live in together. They are all over the country and the world right now – from Maine to California to Canada to Ecuador to Switzerland to New York. They are exploring architecture, preparing for medical school, developing sustainable businesses, singing and acting, interning in Washington, DC, coaching high school football… They are attending the Honors Colleges at Oregon State and University of Oregon, Bennington, Muhlenberg, Smith, the University of Pennsylvania… And we are still a startup! We struggle with different things than we did when they went to Opal School, but we still struggle with sustainability issues.
Our budget realities, in part, are these: We receive 80% of state funds from Portland Public Schools with none of the additional local monies – aside from support from the city’s Arts Tax. That means our per-pupil funding is a bit under $6000, while the traditional public schools spend closer to $11,000 on each student each year. Our licensed teaching staff’s salaries are approximately 65% of the earnings of their district neighborhood school counterparts, with lesser medical benefits. We are constantly balancing the resources we have against the workload of this startup. Our 125 children work closely with 25 dedicated changemaker-teacher-researchers, in a fully integrated system that places the experience of the children as the highest budget priority.