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Students dictate curriculum at Murray school
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Murray • From the outside, Sego Lily School looks like a regular house. But once you pass through the door, every nook and cranny is set aside for education.

With a theme of "learning through living," Sego Lily is an alternative school in Murray where children, ages 4 to 18, decide what they want to learn.

Jen Schwartz, who founded the school with her husband, said Sego Lily is based on two principles:

"First, we're a democratic school where every student and every staff has a vote in everything we do," Schwartz said. "Second, we have a self-directed learning philosophy."

That means students choose their own learning path — whether it's through a structured class, a one-on-one mentoring session or an activity-based curriculum.

Meetings are held weekly to decide on key topics such as spending money, proposing a new rule or even electing a new staff member. (And yes, job candidates must be interviewed and elected by the students before becoming a Sego Lily staffer.)

Rebecca Cobb is one of four staff members at Sego Lily, where she has worked for three years. She is also a mom, who chose the school for her three children after touring many public and private schools. Cobb said her children have been able to delve in many nontraditional topics.

"They have the freedom and the time to be able to explore in depth their fields of interests," she said. "They could spend an entire day learning anatomy if they wanted to."

Dungeons & Dragons is a favorite activity for the older kids. They gather in a basement room on Monday and Wednesday, sit around a large table and play for 5 to 6 hours. It is a new experience for 18-year-old Joshua Read, who is spending his first year at Sego Lily.

"I've been home-schooled my entire life," Read said. "The school has been a lot of fun."

Seven-year-old Zoe Norby proposed a crochet class. So she, and a half-dozen other girls, gathered around Cobb for a lesson. Older students have pushed for more academic subjects such as learning a different language.

"The students wanted to learn French," Schwartz said. "None of our staff members speak French, but one of the parents does and was willing to volunteer. Sometimes we hire instructors to come teach the kids."

Activities that draw a larger crowd tend to involve food, according to Schwartz, such as fundraisers or cooking classes. There are also field trips to the skating rink,to the swimming pool or even to the ski slope, as well as a tie-dye activity that happens once a year.

"There's a medieval art club," Schwartz said. "The kids do historical research and make mock historical weapons using PVC pipes wrapped in duct tape."

Fun and freedom don't come without rules and regulation. Anyone can file a complaint if someone is breaking a rule. Even a staffer can be found guilty.

Schwartz said there's evidence to suggest that Sego Lily's teaching style is effective.

"The students want to be doing it," she said. "They absorb it in a way that's out of this world."

Sego Lily is modeled after a school in Massachusetts called Sudbury Valley School. Mimsy Sadofsky, who works in public relations at the school, concurred with Schwartz.

"The best thing for kids in today's world is to be able to grow up exploring the world at their own speed, at their own impulse," Sadofsky said. "They learn a lot more that way."

Since Sego Lily's creation in 2003, Sego Lily has produced two graduates, Schwartz said. One is attending the University of Utah. The other is enrolled in Salt Lake Community College.

With a current student count of 33, the school now is looking to expand. The reason is evident in the art room, which has a white board with algebra on it.

"It's a small building," Schwartz said. "A room has to serve three to four purposes."

That's why a new building is in the making — a project that has been in the works for the past two and a half years. The new school will be built at 447 W. 4800 South, roughly three miles west of the current building.

"We've gone through the whole planning and developing process," Schwartz said. "We own the land and have done some of the demolition."

The school held a groundbreaking at the new location last November. But Sego Lily is struggling to get one thing: Funding. Officials can't get a loan because they don't have enough students, but they can't enroll more students without a bigger school.

"It's a total catch-22," Schwartz said.

Once complete, the school is expected to be a net-zero facility, relying on a 24-kilowatt solar array as its primary power source.

Schwartz said she believes any child can thrive in the Sego Lily environment.

"The hardest thing about it," she said, "is being able and willing to trust your child."

closeup@sltrib.com

Educaton • Sego Lily School takes nontraditional tack to teaching.
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