When Middle Way School held its first Open House in a former daycare center on an exurban cul de sac in West Saugerties nearly two years ago, kids took to its light-filled beckoning rooms immediately as their parents mulled the Buddhist ideals that had drawn them to the place from throughout the greater region. All ages engaged in the fun playthings, the food made available in potluck fashion, a variety of performances of music and dance. Two year olds danced with teenagers, seven year olds smiled holding hands with their smiling parents. It was raucous, but energetically directed in the best of ways.
Middle Way is now amidst its second year, having shifted up from 17 students in the 2018-19 school year to 29 students.
“We had one hundred percent reenrollment from our first into our second year. But then two families had to move out of the area, although they were seriously thinking of not moving,” said the school’s Creative Director, board chair and founder Noa Jones this week. “We’ve been right on target, and just starting re-enrollment for next year. Our students are coming from as far as Hudson in one direction and Olivebridge in the other. I can’t tell you how engaged and supportive all of our families have been.”
It’s easy to note a sense of family to Middle Way School. It’s in the way ages play together, learn without stress, share. Jones also notes that there are also quite a few siblings on hand, especially now that families have started enrolling younger siblings.
“The community is building so much, and that’s a surprise,” Jones said. “We have a community yoga class on Fridays, a book club, self-organized potlucks. One of our families has a center in Kingston, and another is talking about possibly setting up a co-housing community closer to the school.”
There have even been food trains for those facing need. Everyone appears to be there for each other.
Middle Way School staff, which includes a base of teachers plus a number of specialists who come in for various topics and skills.
Jones is particularly pleased to announce a new Head of School at MWS: Grace Ann Louis, founder of Woodland Playhouse and a Phoenicia-native with deep roots in the area.
“I started very early working with contemplative Buddhism in Boulder, Colorado. I was a consultant there and founded Woodland Playhouse when we moved back here when my eldest son was one,” Louis said, noting how her husband teaches English at the Woodstock Day School. “I ran the school in our home for its first ten years. I also started working with Noa when she was getting Middle Way School started.”
Last summer, after Woodland Playhouse finished its summer camp and started in on new collaborative programs with the public school system in Saugerties, Louis decided it was a good time to move on to new horizons.
“I started doing some classes at MWS, as well as some administrative work,” she said.
She helped a consultant who was involved in the school search for a permanent head.
“I was thinking I was going to be holding a place for a real head of school but then they asked me to do it,” Louis continued. “Through many hours working in elementary schools, Head Start programs, and with early intervention coordinators, the contemplative educational model truly informed my teaching philosophy and helped me recognize the need for young children to unfold at their own developmental pace…I am very excited for the opportunity to lead Middle Way School, which is built on the Buddhist view of wisdom and compassion, qualities I have embraced as an educator throughout my career. I have been blown away by the incredible devotion and involvement of the entire MWS community and could not be more thrilled to take this position.”
Jones stressed Louis’ credentials that include a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, work at the International Preschool in New York, a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education with an emphasis on Special Education from the University of Colorado at Denver, and that teaching gig at Snow Lion School in Boulder…but also Louis’ local roots and can-do attitude.
“Grace joined us in the fall as the director of early education but we quickly realized that she had potential to take on a leadership position,” Jones said. “We are delighted to have someone with Grace’s experience and joyful approach to teaching.”
For the coming year Louis is seeing her role as support as Middle Way School continues to build itself one grade at a time.
“I’ll be working with a curriculum developer, working to create after school and summer programming, and adding a nursery school for two to three year olds” she said. “I think the school is in a very good place with fantastic teachers and Noa’s great vision guiding everything.”
Jones, meanwhile, had us speak to some new parents at Middle Way School: Anna and Patrick Landewe, whose five year old Cricket was previously in the Saugerties school district.
“He’s loving it all,” Cricket’s mother said. “He enjoys outdoor play time, the way the staff is not only so kind and caring, but encouraging all the students to reach beyond expectations. He soaks it all up.”
Landewe added that she and her partner are equally pleased with the fact that, “as parents, we feel just as nurtured as we know our son is…the community at Middle Way extends beyond the classroom.”
“MWS is the epicenter of a global initiative to build a comprehensive model of education supported by classical Buddhist wisdom traditions and advancements in the fields of neuroscience, human development, and education,” Jones reiterated of her vision for Middle Way School two years into existence. “The welcoming mindset in this area, along with supportive communities like Zen Mountain Monastery, KTD, and other centers of practice and study make this area a fertile ground for this new model of education to come into being.”
She stressed that most students now have scholarships, provided through MWS’s funding by Khyentse Foundation, an international nonprofit organization that supports all traditions of Buddhist study and practice. “Diversity is really important to us; we don’t want economics to get in the way of education, so we’ll do our best to make sure that tuition doesn’t create any hardship.”