NBS was founded in 1983 by a group of parents desiring an alternative educational option. The first student body was comprised of 10 preschoolers and 12 school-age children with one half-time and two full-time teachers. In 1988, teachers, students and parents were given the opportunity to design and build a new school facility on donated land. In September of 1990, North Branch School opened its doors on the same land on which the school sits today. Currently, NBS is made up of 110 students, 20 teachers and staff, and three buildings on 11 acres of land. But the mission and intention of the school have never changed. We offer children a place where they can be curious, think critically, and take risks to solve problems, all within a community that has removed the obstacles created by traditional report cards, formalized grading systems, and standardized testing.
The essence of North Branch School cannot be captured by a label or an easy, one-word descriptor. It is our intention that every aspect of the school be anchored in the values laid out in our mission statement, and that these values drive all of our practices.
Respect is expressed by our attitudes and actions towards each other, including how we address each other, our tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and the words we choose. Adults and students are expected to express themselves respectfully. We model respectful disagreement and tolerance for widely differing opinions and world views. Students at NBS call their teachers by their first names—just one of the many ways we reinforce the idea that we are partners in learning. We believe this practice indicates a respect born of common purpose, rather than imposed by a title. Students are given a voice to solve problems in class meetings, and student input is solicited and listened to in planning plays and other class projects.
Non-violence is a condition of our behavior with each other at North Branch, but it is also examined as a courageous approach to making the world a better place. We think students benefit from learning about non-violent role models and from practicing inclusive decision-making in the classroom. From Preschool through Middle School, students are encouraged to let their classmate know when an action bothers them, and teachers support students in talking through disagreements in a way that allows everyone to be heard. Throughout the year, students and staff model and engage in making the world a better place through nonviolent practices and ways of communicating.
Environmental responsibility begins in Preschool, as three- and four-year-olds learn to care for plants and animals at school and to recycle whenever possible. Compost containers are found in every classroom and are emptied daily into compost bins next to the gardens, where we grow vegetables for sale or donation to the Nelson County Food Pantry. By the time students graduate from our Middle School class, they have been exposed to a wide variety of environmental issues. They have partnered with teachers, parents, and professionals to consider the impact of actions on our school grounds, our local community, our Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the globe. North Branch School’s commitment to environmental stewardship is highlighted by the fact that it is one of only three schools in Virginia to have won the Virginia Naturally School Recognition Award for all 19 years the award has been in existence.
Involvement in community begins with our parents, who─always welcome at school─are invited to present their areas of expertise to classes, and who participate in workdays to care for the school buildings and grounds, providing students with a powerful message about the values of the adults in the community. We also invite members of the wider community to present on areas of expertise or to read with students. NBS actively seeks opportunities to make community connections, including offering summer camps and after-school programs that are open to all. Students quickly learn their own importance to the NBS community by sharing their work in weekly Assembly and through their afternoon jobs, which contribute to the community by caring for the campus.
Valuing the uniqueness of each child. The staff encourages students to think for themselves and be themselves. Whether in the classroom or on the playground, adults at NBS are encouraged not to impose a singular expectation on or compel one specific reaction from students―not even a “North Branch-y” one. Each teacher looks for ways to support each child, as well as the group, creating a welcoming culture throughout the school. We look for each child’s strengths and nurture them, and we help them identify and address areas in need of growth. Each student’s social development is as important to NBS as his or her academic development. We know each child, not just as a student, but as a person.
Promoting the desire to learn is our primary goal. We are a community devoted to inspiring students. Rather than grading assignments or administering machine-scored tests, the job of a teacher at NBS is to provide multiple and varied opportunities for children to enjoy being engaged in educational activities. While we do teach test-taking as a skill, we do not see people as the sum of their scores and grades. Visitors often remark on how happy our students seem; a quick listen in the classrooms, or a look at the work on the walls, shows that we’re not sacrificing rigor in order to achieve that happiness. Teachers in other schools often ask, “Without grades, how do you get kids to do their homework?” NBS teachers pride themselves on making learning relevant, interesting, and engaging so that students often take an idea beyond the assigned work, thinking and working on it outside of the classroom and coming in with new questions and ideas.
Developing abilities to the fullest means helping children ask more of themselves in every arena, but without extrinsic rewards such as grades. Opportunities to experience the intrinsic value of academic skills often come within a meaningful context―for example, younger children are powerfully motivated by witnessing the capabilities of older students, demonstrated in presentations or a variety of other activities, and the corresponding privileges those students enjoy. Students grow in response to reasonable expectations and the (differing) support they need to meet them. Students stretch themselves in response to people who are passionate about sharing their passions.
Commitment to a diverse environment is demonstrated in our admission process, our classrooms, and our board meetings. Books and posters, field trips, and speakers are all chosen to expose the students to diversity in many forms. Photographs and illustrations show different faces; picture books, novels, and historical accounts present different voices and perspectives. Since the very first day, tuition has been held to as low a level as possible in order for the school to be accessible to an economically diverse population. Families that qualify can work for a portion of tuition, providing cleaning and maintenance services. In addition, those who qualify may apply for further assistance from the school’s needs-based scholarship program. The board and head of school manage together to balance the school’s commitment to maintaining accessibility and diversity with the financial realities of paying the bills and, most importantly, compensating our dedicated staff.
Curiosity, creativity, and a desire for cooperation are innate in every child. We look to provide opportunities to develop all these elements throughout the school day. We are committed to maintaining a wonderful playground, daily school-wide recess, support for conflict resolution, student agency in choosing the topics they’ll study and how they will go about doing so, a choice-based art program, vocal and instrumental music instruction, and the inclusion of all students in class and school plays. During recess, students organize soccer games in the field or basketball games on the blacktop; they climb trees, dig in the sandbox, or create entire “cities” and marketplaces among the forts they have built from natural materials gathered in the woods. In these ways and many others, every school day at North Branch is a journey through varied experiential landscapes, bringing growth and expanding minds.