“Carbondale New School” is a bit of a misnomer for the little school on Pleasant Hill Road just east of Wall Street.

It’s not really new; the school was founded in 1974 by a group of parents committed to creating a learning environment that is both “diverse and dynamic,” recognizing and respecting the differences in children’s personalities and learning styles, and encouraging parent involvement.

It’s a place where kids aren’t scolded for digging in the dirt; rather, they are encouraged to dig in the shady, unpaved schoolyard, and to build forts while they’re out there, using the lumber, logs and other stuff at the site.

The school has a new director this year and is actively working to become a certified outdoor classroom by May 2013. The certification would make it the first such school in the area, Amanda Sheridan, director, said. Since its beginnings, the school has encouraged students to build and create.

The main New School building actually is old — the former Pleasant Hill School is one of several abandoned when they were consolidated into Unity Point District. The building now sports yellow siding, a gazebo resting atop a mammoth tree stump and a garden used to teach students about the land by planting herbs, vegetables and flowers.

As enrollment grew, the school added a second building, a modular structure.

Students find the school a bit like “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name. With just 57 students and an average class size of 10, children, parents and teachers interact like a family, Sheridan said.

“With small class sizes, you can do so much more,” Sheridan said. In her last year of teaching in Missouri there were 29 students in her fifth-grade class.

“Our PreK has eight students,” she said, “and the class combining sixth, seventh and eighth grades has a total of 15.”

There are openings for more students. “We want to increase enrollment while ensuring the best learning environment,” Sheridan said.

A number of parents work at the school to get a reduction in tuition. Some parents do maintenance or landscape chores; others teach art or supervise the playground, paint the woodwork or repair picnic tables.

“While many public schools are dropping arts, we have four art teachers here, including locally known working artists,” Sheridan said. “One grandmother comes in to teach yoga.” The school also has Spanish classes for students.

The school is committed to “at least an hour of free play every day,” Sheridan said. “The kids all have a spare change of clothes.”

“We offer a flexible schedule and reasonable rates compared with other preschools,” she said.

A tour of classrooms offers a hint at the unique nature of the school.

Monique Wallace’s preschoolers do cooking and other hands-on projects to help grasp math and science principles. Wallace is in her third year teaching after serving two years as the Carbondale New School office assistant. She loves finding new projects for the youngsters to do.

Teacher Laurie Geiger’s classroom, for second and third grades, is home to a variety of critters, including a hamster, cockatiel and rat. Her students take field trips to Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. To encourage community service, Geiger and her students hold an annual yard sale to benefit Free Again and an annual food drive for Good Samaritan Food Pantry. The class also collects food and supplies for St. Francis CARE animal shelter.

Hershey and Oreo, two huge black-and-white spotted cats, generally have the run of the school, but have their own homeroom at night. Some students are working to build a “catwalk” for the two felines.

“We run on tuition, donations and fundraisers,” Sheridan said. Parents get a break on tuition for the second child enrolled. Fees vary with the grade level.

The school also allows a trial period of a week or two so families can see how the different learning environment goes for a child. “It’s a nice option,” Sheridan said, “reassuring both parents and students that it will be a good fit.”

Sheridan is a native of Cobden who returned to Southern Illinois after teaching 11 years in Missouri. She is the daughter of Blayne Smith and Leta Smith, longtime Cobden teachers. Blayne Smith coached the baseball team from 1976 until retiring this academic year; he still teaches part-time. Leta Smith works in the school library.

Sheridan’s husband, Brad, is from Cave In Rock. His mother was technology director of Hardin County schools.

After earning degrees from SIU Carbondale, the Sheridans moved to Missouri so Brad could earn a master’s degree from University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has taught at various schools and colleges. Amanda earned a master’s in elementary administration from William Woods College.

They decided to move back to Southern Illinois so their 3-year-old son could be closer to his grandparents. They are looking forward to enrolling him in preschool classes at Carbondale New School, too.

Sheridan said she has “a great, supportive board and excellent teachers” to work with. “We wouldn’t have come here for just any job, any school,” she added.

She’s looking forward to the school’s annual Thanksgiving feast, held the day before Thanksgiving. “They tell me it gets a lot of alumni who drop in to visit.” She noted that one student’s father is a former Carbondale New School student. “That does say a lot about the school,” she added.

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