Buddhist elementary school plans to open in West Saugerties

The light-filled classrooms in what’s to become the new Middle Way School in West Saugerties were packed with kids and parents Saturday, February 24, as educational consultant Kristen Lhatso, from Boulder, Colorado, outlined emerging plans for the private day school for elementary age students planned to open in September.

“Consider this a test run for Buddhist education in the West,” she said as kids headed off to a raucous playroom and everyone else nestled in within a space warmed by the calming scents of cooked rice and chai. “We don’t have the cultural roots we have in the East, where the dharma is established. We have to be innovative…What we create has to be able to move and flex, just like the dharma.”

Overlooking her talk, and organizing the Middle Way School effort, is Noa Jones. She explained, separate from the Saturday event, how the school concept grew over years of discussion, the writing of a white paper, and her decision to push ahead in recent years. Originally, the idea had been to found a Middle Way School on donated lands in Bali…a Buddhist school on a Hindu island in a Muslim nation. But then the present alternative came into view, and the Woodstock area seemed a better fit.

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Noa Jones has roots in Woodstock, where her father was the architect for School of the New Moon, where she was the first student. She grew up between here and Boulder, Colorado, where her mother was based. But as she’s quick to note, she’s also spent the past 20 years living out of a suitcase, traveling the world working with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, of Bhutan, and eventually the Khyentse Foundation. She eventually helped introduce progressive education into Bhutan’s monastic settings, and is currently executive director of Middle Way Education, the larger entity that the local school will serve as a pilot for.

Jones said that Saturday’s crowd was drawn largely by word-of-mouth. Besides an ad in Woodstock Times, posters and cards were put out at some key places around the area, and thee Zen Mountain Monastery let its community know about the event. Applications for the 28 or so student slots opening up in September are being taken informally for now, pending final approval of a charter by the state Department of Education, which is expected this spring. The idea is to start simply, with a student-teacher ratio of 7 to 1. Although the cost per student has been figured out at $18,000, half of such cost is being subsidized by the Kyentse Foundation. And beyond that, Jones added, “we’ll make it work for whoever is interested.”

Why a Middle Way school? Jones referenced pages from the entity’s website.

“All major religions of the world have systems of educating children in their traditions, beliefs, rituals, and values. There are maktab and madrasas for Muslims, Catholic schools, Jewish day schools, Sunday schools, Catechism classes, all kinds of afterschool programs, camps, and specialized schools meant to teach children to become the stewards of their respective religious traditions,” reads a piece she wrote, addressing the need for new forms of formalized Buddhist-style education systems. “Buddhist education for children has, for the most part, been offered to monastic communities with grassroots initiatives few and far between. Because Buddhism is not culture bound, there are few broadly accepted holidays, festivals and customs to introduce to children. Often, the transference of the Buddhist view happens in the home. Some Buddhist parents have independently created programs for children, but there is no generally accepted content or method for teaching the dharma to children.”

In the new Middle Way method of teaching, the new school is piloting, and its website is hoping to launch elsewhere. No single Buddhist tradition or path takes precedence. Neither does religious training usurp the usual mixture of play and early education concepts elementary kids seem to thrive upon.

“It is said that the Buddha taught in 84,000 ways,” reads another section on how the new school will be operating. “The dharma travelled, and still travels, across cultures; there are three major yanas  or schools of Buddhism that coexist harmoniously, and within those multiple paths an individual can pursue. This is the wealth of the dharma.”

More practical elements of what the school will be offering emerged Saturday as Lhatso and Jones answered parents’ questions, stressing their campus’ five acres (the place used to be a special needs school, now operating on an adjacent property), planned garden activities, and a keen emphasis on flexibility based on actual students wishes and needs.

“Play is where it’s at,” Lhatso noted, referencing recent studies in early education, which now counts everything leading up through third grade. “We’re calling it ‘unfettered time.’ It’s how you get to rigorous academics.”

Some asked about assessments, about homework, about the length of a school day. Others inquired about how meditation will be taught, as well as how the school will address students’ screen time. One father asked whether a family’s traveling instincts could be accommodated, something they’d found difficult in past schooling situations.

Lhatso talked about there being “a time and a place” for all experiences, but also the need to assess kids the better to educate them. The idea of the dharma would be allowed to rise from each student’s experience in the school. Travel experiences would be welcomed. Underlying everything would be one simple push: “to read, read, read,” as the educational consultant put it.

Jones acknowledged those who’d come for the presentation from as far away as Delaware County and Massachusetts, as well as the many in attendance from Woodstock, Saugerties, plus Greene and Dutchess counties.

She pointed out that more information would be online by the time this story came out. She said a parents’ night of further discussion was being planned for March 22, plus a possible second introductory session on March 23.

“Day one for Middle Way School is going to be September 6,” Noa Jones said.

She added that, as with the February 23 date of the recent Open House, and upcoming parents’ night,  all were worked out with the aid of a Buddhist astrologer in Bhutan.

For more information visit middlewayschool.org.

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