2.17 / Review

Brightworks: An Educational Refuge

By Dominic Willsdon May 16, 2011

Brightworks is a new, unaccredited K–12 private school co-created by Gever Tulley and Bryan Welch somewhat in the tradition of anarchist-leaning Free Schools. The opening ceremony, held at the end of April at their large, ex-industrial space at Bryant and Mariposa streets in San Francisco, was part gallery opening (paintings, wine, and adult hors d’oeuvres) and part school open house (prospective parents, hands-on activities, and a school band). Brightworks styles itself as “an extraordinary school” and seems set up to provide a unique educational experience, one that is bound to appeal to many artists, curators, and others interested in alternative educational models. While not an art project, it is informed by a certain idea of art practice: unscripted inquiry, guidance by example, learning by making, individual paths, intensity of experience, and self-expression. It could be called an education conducted as if it was art. Undoubtedly an adventurous initiative designed with great care, thoughtfulness, and evident passion, there is nevertheless something troubling—and politically dubious—about what it proposes, at least as it is currently articulated.

For Tulley and Welch, the best way to express the essence of Brightworks is to get out some butcher paper and Sharpies and draw a diagram of “The Arc,” the school’s signature three-phase curriculum structure. The Arc consists of “Exploration” of a theme (the “curated” phase), followed by “Expression” (collaborative creation), and finally, “Exposition” (public presentation, discussion). A child’s schooling will consist of four to six arcs per year, forty to seventy overall. There are no standards and no tests. The arcs could cover a great range of things. The example activities tend toward making, but not exclusively so. The suggested themes (such as “The Wind”) tend toward the poetic-scientific, but not necessarily. A child may not work with the same collaborators across successive arcs, so that each child will experience a unique course of study.

The child’s relationship with others will also be expressed in the design of the space, which is raw and empty now. The basic build-out will be done by the firm 450 Architects (who did the San Francisco Waldorf High School), but much of the space will be taken up by an “emergent architecture,” a “favela” (in Tulley’s queasy analogy) of four-by-six-foot “refuges,” each one scratch-built by a child. It is a rule that a child will never be bothered, neither by adults nor other children, when in his or her refuge. For Tulley and Welch, the refuge adds something essential that is crucially lacking in the Free School model.

The school is already fully enrolled for the upcoming fall. Brightworks took thirty students from 250 applicants and plans to grow to a maximum of eighty students in the coming years. Annual fees are $19,800, although as at other private schools, there’s a sliding scale. Half the students are admitted at reduced fees. While Tulley and Welch express an intention to diversify their student body over time so as to better reflect their local community, so far recruitment has been self-selecting, drawing families largely from the organizers’ existing networks. It will be a challenge to return to the public a project created in withdrawal from the public.

Brightworks expands upon two out-of-school summer camps that the organizers developed independently. Welch’s camp, A Curious Summer, uses the city and wider world as an expanded field of ready-made resources and expert tutors who can be visited in their domains. It is the basis for the Exploration phase of The Arc. Tulley’s Tinkering School (the basis for the Expression phase) is more about making. It centers on a belief that children can build things you couldn’t imagine if you give them the means and free them from artificial rules and constraints. He stresses, for example, the value of putting serious tools (power tools, saws, knives, etc.) in the hands of children. His Institute for Applied Tinkering, the nonprofit under which Tinkering School operates, is Brightworks’ fiscal sponsor.

Brightworks' opening ceremony, April 2011, San Francisco. Photo: Bryan Welch.

Are the experiences offered by A Curious Summer and the Tinkering School of better quality than out-of-school programs offered either by the city or by other nonprofits—826 Valencia (described by Welch as Brightworks’ “pedagogicial mother”), Streetside Stories, Youth Speaks, Bay Area Video Coalition, and so many others? It is hard to say. But education is not only, or even primarily, about quality of experience. Those other nonprofits couple creative practice with a commitment to social equity. And whether through out-of-school-time programs, or by interventions in the school day, they supplement the public education system. A Curious Summer and Tinkering School take no view about recruitment or whom they serve. They are boutique summer camps, and that’s fine. But Brightworks, as a full-time school, goes further. It presents itself not as a supplement, but as a substitute, and much of what is troubling about the project concerns this move.

Tulley and Welch are motivated by despair at what they see as the degraded character of public education. I expect Brightworks’ parents and collaborators feel this, too. While some private schools may aim for their students to achieve social and economic status in later life, Brightworks’ core mission is to provide a pedagogical alternative. (Tulley and Welch are negotiating with elite universities to recognize their future graduates, but that’s not their primary goal.) But whether you’re buying your child social advancement or the chance to be always self-actualizing, the impact on public education is the same.

Despite funding cuts, the disadvantaged conditions of the families they serve, and the perception created by Waiting for Superman, the reality of public schools is not one of systemic failure. One of public education’s biggest problems, however, is private education. Private schools absorb, not only the money, but also the care, solidarity, and political capital of middle-class parents—and that’s what the public schools need. The core of childhood education is not aesthetic engagement, but social equity. The worst thing you can say about an educational system is not that it is boring, but that it is unjust.

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