Hidden behind a chain-link fence and a garden of trees and flowers at East 35th Street and Drumm Avenue in Independence, the Schoolhouse has bloomed for 30 years. The large farmhouse, built around the time of World War II, was converted into a small, private school in 1971, when it opened to its first 30 or so students. Although the annual enrollment has never risen much since that first year, more than 400 children in grades kindergarten through sixth grade have passed through the homey school.
Last weekend many of them returned to share in the school's anniversary celebration -- a potluck dinner spiced with stories about when they were students at the Schoolhouse. After the invitations went out, e-mails poured in from former students around the world. Most included recollections of traditional Thanksgiving dinners, bird-watching, children's literature and many field trips to learn Missouri's history. All included a special thank-you to teachers Mary Childers and Larry Gregg, who founded the school. Childers and Gregg had been teachers in the Independence School District before collaborating to offer students a more intimate and more experiential education at the Schoolhouse.
It had always annoyed Childers that so many traditional schools were built without windows. At the Schoolhouse, beams of sunlight crisscross through the classrooms.
"I always thought kids should be able to see out at the world around them," Childers said. "They should see the first snowflakes of winter fall and the first trees that bud in spring. At a lot of schools when it snows, the children are closed up inside. Not here. We go out and look for tracks in the snow. We celebrate the seasons."
The Schoolhouse may have been ahead of the times in making what happens outside the classroom part of the daily lesson. These days many schools have embraced that concept and have built outdoor classrooms where children can observe nature.
Reading also was a priority for Childers. "I also wanted to open the world of literature to these kids," she said. "In the public school we were bound by the textbooks. I wanted the kids to read true literature. So when we started the school we had over a thousand books." Through donations and purchases, Childers has increased the school's library.
"For most of the kids this is like home," said Childers, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and cuddling one of the school's housecats. Two white doves cooed at each other from separate cages. Childers and Wendy Carlton, who is the computer teacher, leaned over a kitchen table strewn with papers. They chatted about former students as if they had been family members.
"A lot of the parents say this is as close to home school as you can get without home schooling. Actually, it is home school -- only mom is not the teacher," Carlton said.
Operating her own school had always been Childers' dream. One day, after being turned down for a field trip by administrators at Glendale Elementary School, where she taught, Childers was talking with Gregg. "I don't know who said it first, but one of us said we should just start our own school." Childers asked her uncle, Paul Henning, creator of the TV comedy series "The Beverly Hillbillies," for the money. "One fall night in 1970 I got certified mail, and in it was the money to buy the school. I knew just where to go," she said. "I had driven past that farmhouse many times and thought, `Wouldn't this be a great place for a school?' " It took 18 months to get it ready.
Since then much has changed, and little has changed, Childers said. The school motto, "Use your head and your heart," has remained, as has the now faded, psychedelic 1970s artwork on the basement floor -- a peace sign, a big yellow smiling face and the word groovy. Children and teachers are still on a first-name basis.
What's different? Gregg no longer is with the school. Computers are a significant part of the curriculum. The shade trees are fuller and broader. And Childers is older and wiser, she said.
After 30 years of running the Schoolhouse, Childers now and then will think about how much longer she will be able to keep it going. "It takes a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun," she said. "I can't imagine retiring from this. I'm not going to think about that right now. This is my dream come true. Right now I'm excited about seeing what many things my students have found to do to make their dreams come true."